- “We Ain’t Doin’ Civil Rights”The Life and Times of a Genre, as Told in The Help
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Midway through the 2011 film adaptation of The Help, Charlotte Phelan storms into the “relaxing room” of her plantation home and turns off the television set that her daughter Skeeter and two members of the domestic staff have been watching. “Don’t encourage them like that!” she yells at her daughter, as “the help” rush from the room.
The futility of the outburst is matched only by its historical improbability. By the late spring or early summer of 1963 (when the scene takes place), turning off a news clip of Mississippi naacp leader Medgar Evers urging black residents in Jackson to remain steadfast in their boycott of racist merchants would have done little, if anything, to discourage most black viewers, whose support of the protest had been operating below their employers’ racial radar for months. Moreover, the offending clip probably never aired in Jackson (at least while Evers was alive).
Evers had not been invisible on local TV screens in the spring of 1963, however. On May 20, he had delivered a 17-minute televised speech to Jackson and much of Mississippi that described the indignities and injustices experienced every day by black Mississippians, and had assured his audience that “the years of change are upon us.” Granting local airtime to a black leader in Mississippi was unprecedented; that the time had been allocated by local nbc affiliate wlbt—a station that since its first broadcast in 1953 had censored, selectively edited, and often simply refused to broadcast programs that it deemed “integrationist”—defied white and black belief. The station, however, had little choice in the matter. For six years, Evers had petitioned the fcc and wlbt to provide airtime for opposing arguments to segregationist programming and news coverage. Under investigation by the fcc in 1963 for its role in instigating violence during James Meredith’s desegregation of Ole Miss a year earlier, wlbt finally acceded to local and federal pressure and allowed Evers to respond on-camera to Mayor Allen Thompson’s previously televised defense of Jackson’s race relations.
“It seems probable,” Adam Nossiter has written, “that until his final month, Evers was an obscure figure to a majority of white Mississippians.” Nossiter, who covered the retrial of Evers’s killer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution during the 1990s, believes that at the moment Evers stepped in front of the wlbt camera on May 20, 1963, he “entered a new, ultimately fatal zone of notoriety.” Nine days later, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at his home; less than two weeks after that, he was murdered in his carport, shot in the back by Greenwood, Mississippi Klan member Byron De La Beckwith. The broadcast may or may not have prompted Beckwith to track down and silence Evers, but in the long-running debate about the effects of the speech one fact remains undisputed: for the first time in Mississippi, a black man had formally and directly addressed a white audience on local television. Some members of the intended audience—the “silent, responsible citizens of the white community,” as Evers called them—no doubt found themselves [End Page 52] compelled to follow the logic of the speech and, possibly, to question the moral and legal premises of segregation; others found the image of Evers standing behind a podium so provocative they demanded that the station stop the broadcast as soon as it began and even threatened, as one viewer did, “to come up there and take [Evers] off.” Evers knew well that a public appeal to the sympathy and reason of white Mississippians could inflame die-hard segregationists—that it could, in fact, “encourage” all manner of white action. It was this encouragement—of white, not black, listeners—that appeared on Jackson television screens in May 1963.1
Recordings of Evers’s...