The Alliance of The Civil Rights Movement with Black Radio News
Before Glen Ford relayed his own experience in radio to the conference members, he emphasized that black radio news would not exist, if not for the black mass movement of the 1960’s. When Ford was young, there was not yet a calling for black radio news, and so black radio disc jockeys would incorporate news wire copy into their set. But as activism in the 60’s grew, demand for black programming in radio grew along with it. Black radio news had the power to amplify and nurture whatever the movement was producing. According to Ford, the peak period of black radio news was in 1973, when 3 black radio stations in Washington D.C had 21 journalists on the payroll, and white radio stations would follow their lead on breaking news stories. However, the institution of black news radio has become nearly lost because the fate of black radio news was so intertwined with the impermanent movement that created it.
Glen Ford, veteran journalist, organizer, and Executive Editor of the web site Black Agenda Report, began his radio career in the backwater town of Augusta, Georgia. WRDW was a popular radio station owned by Augusta native James Brown, although in 1970, it was rare for a radio station to be owned by a black man. When Ford arrived for his first day on the job, The Civil Rights Movement carried force from the last decade. Demand for black media programming was strong.
Glen’s Challenge to Power
Ford was born the son of Hall of Fame media personality, Rudy, “The Deuce,” Rutherford who hosted the first non-gospel television show in the Deep South. Ford, himself, was accustomed to reading news-wire copy on the air since he was 11. Glen was ready to introduce the change into a town that was out of the loop in terms of activism. Having grown up with alternative ideas from Herbert Apthecker and Lerone Bennett, Ford had practice with re-interpreting white news agency copy into reporting that he deemed more truthful. However, when Glen learned who the authorities were in the community who were counted on for comment, he discovered a new challenge to truth-telling. He was instructed to use a list of experts who were available for on-air interviews. When Ford looked at the list, he discovered that the authorities listed were all reverends at local Baptist churches.
As the keynote speaker at the Grassroots Radio Conference held in early October in Rochester, NY, Glen explained how not all preachers in the 60’s invited Dr. Martin Luther King to come to their town, for they preferred to handle relations with the dominating white system on their own. According to Ford, The Civil Rights Movement hadn’t reached towns like Augusta except through the media.
Believing that Black clergy of Augusta were “collaborating with the white power structure,” instead of building a community of empowerment for black people, Ford threw the list of names in the trash and proceeded to search for people who would represent what he described as, “the real Augusta.” For him, the real Augusta was made of people who were not being served by the system. So, Ford looked for leaders of the community who he thought would join him in disrupting that system. Such as “a rather loud black woman whom all the other tenants respected” to address on housing and poverty; or “that brother who jumps up every time the police beat down another brother” to address criminal justice.
With these new allies, Ford made his own list of “experts,” and watched them grow swiftly in their roles as public commentators. He called them his committee of 10. Because they were already natural leaders in their community, they collectively set out to awaken everyday people to their own power.
Under Ford’s leadership, that committee of 10 called for a boycott of the downtown businesses of Augusta to protest their refusal to employ black workers. The campaign was called “Don’t Shop Where You Can’t Work.” This was Augusta Georgia’s first mass movement.
The project was promoted on the radio to community enthusiasm and support. On the eve of the boycott, the minister with the largest congregation held an over-flow event at his church. Cheers erupted from the crowd when it was announced that James Brown himself was coming to town to donate $600 of bail money if anyone was arrested during the boycott.
…when Ford showed up for his broadcast featuring the boycott, he found a note taped to the microphone, saying “There will be no coverage of the downtown merchant’s boycott on this radio station.”
But James Brown’s radio station relied on advertising from downtown merchants, and when Ford showed up for his broadcast featuring the boycott, he found a note taped to the microphone, saying “There will be no coverage of the downtown merchant’s boycott on this radio station.” Ford was terminated from his job after the verbal altercation that followed with James Brown that almost came to blows.
Without the radio behind the boycott, the boycott in Augusta collapsed. However, Ford’s organizing through radio resulted in on-going local organizing in Augusta and launched Ford’s distinguished journalism and organizing career.
As Ford neared the end of his speech, he reflected on how radio has helped mass movements “serve the needs of a previously voiceless people.” He told the conference’s audience of radio workers: “I think people underestimate what you can do with these signals. I want you to surprise them.” He went on to say that community radio is often underestimated, and for those who heed the call of community radio, their strength is in their freedom of speech.
Glen Ford is co-creator and Executive Editor of the Black Agenda Report web site offering news, commentary and analysis from the Black Left. Together with Nellie Bailey, he produces and hosts Black Agenda Radio, a podcast and nationally syndicated radio show. Black Agenda Radio is available in Pacifica Network’s Audioport.org.
For Glen Ford’s full speech click here.