The Civil Rights Movement and the Media: President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rodney King, and More

Herbie J Pilato

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[Author’s Note: This article is based on accredited media reports, entertainment postings, publications, websites, and reference guides. Information within this article is attributed to the following outlets: NPR.gov, Biography.com, IMDB.com, and Wikipedia.com, and the books, Bewitched Forever, and Twitch Upon a Star.]

As documented by the National Park Service at NPR.gov, "African American mass demonstrations, televised racial violence, and the federally enforced desegregation of higher education institutions, as well as the black passive resistance movement of the early 1960s led to [the] adoption of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Considered the most comprehensive civil rights legislation in U.S. history, the act granted the federal government strong enforcement powers in the area of civil rights. It prohibited tactics to limit voting; guaranteed racial and religious minorities equal access to public accommodations; outlawed job discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; continued the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights; and established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission."

According to the book, Bewitched Forever, on November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy, a staunch advocate of the Civil Rights Movement, was assassinated. As fate would have it, on that same day, the classic TV show, Bewitched, began rehearsals for its pilot episode. The series, which became a significant hit for ABC-TV, featured Elizabeth Montgomery, daughter of film icon Robert Montgomery, as Samantha Stephens, the witch with a twitch. Due to Samantha's sense of isolation, the core message of Bewitched is prejudice. Consequently, Bewitched became and remains a banner TV show for many minority groups.

As noted in the book, Twitch Upon a Star, Montgomery had appeared in the 1963 episode of TV's 77 Sunset Strip, titled, "White Lie." She played the biracial daughter of Celia Jackson, a character portrayed by Juanita Moore who, in 1959, received an Academy Award nomination for her performance in the feature film, Imitation of Life, an adaptation of the once-controversial Fannie Hurst novel about racism. On April 4, 1968, Civil Rights activist, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Just a few months later, on June 6, 1968, Senator Robert Kennedy, younger brother to President Kennedy, was also assassinated.

Three decades later, and as recorded on Biography.com, "Rodney King was caught by the Los Angeles police after a high-speed chase on March 3, 1991. The officers pulled him out of the car and beat him brutally, while amateur cameraman George Holliday caught it all on videotape. The four L.A.P.D. officers involved were indicted on charges of assault with a deadly weapon and excessive use of force by a police officer. However, after a three-month trial, a predominantly white jury acquitted the officers, inflaming citizens and sparking the violent 1992 Los Angeles riots. Two decades after the riots, King told CNN that he had forgiven the officers. King was found dead in his swimming pool on June 17, 2012, in Rialto, California, at the age of 47."

Alan Jenkins is the executive director and co-founder of The Opportunity Agenda, an organization that works to expand opportunity in America through research, communications, and advocacy. As Jenkins recently observed on PBS.org, regarding the present state of civil and human rights today, "We've made a huge amount of progress but we still have a long way to go. There's very little of the kind of formal bigotry and segregation that we saw in Eyes on the Prize [a PBS documentary that originally aired from 1990 to 1993) but there's still a lot of discrimination in our society, unfortunately."

However, as Jenkins concluded, "The African American civil rights movement has inspired a lot of other groups that have suffered injustices. One example that we saw recently was the immigrant rights demonstrations around the country. Immigrants' assertion that "we too are America" was inspiring, and very much in the spirit of the civil rights movement. In addition, there's been, since the late Sixties, a powerful Latino civil rights movement, that included the farm workers' movement, and includes organizations like the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, patterned on the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund. The women's rights movement was inspired in part by the African American civil rights movement. Certainly the immigrant rights movement, and the gay rights movement as well. Those are just a few examples. Dynamic people in those communities have led the movements, but the African American civil rights movement provides a powerful template for activism."

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Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including THE 12 BEST SECRETS OF CHRISTMAS: A TREASURE HOUSE OF DECEMBER MEMORIES REVEALED, MARY: THE MARY TYLER MOORE STORY, TWITCH UPON A STAR, GLAMOUR, GIDGETS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR, and NBC & ME: MY LIFE AS A PAGE IN A BOOK, among others. He's also a TV writer/producer, and has worked for Reelz, Bravo, E!, TLC, and hosted THEN AGAIN WITH HERBIE J PILATO, the hit classic TV talk show (which premiered on Amazon Prime in 2019).

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