by Alton H. Maddox, Jr.
President Obama must intervene to ensure that Blacks gain meaningful access to the television airwaves. The author points out that “no public programming, on any day, exists in six commercial television stations broadcasting in three states for persons of African ancestry in the largest television market in the United States,” the New York City metro. As things stand, “the Telecommunications Act of 1996…has virtually stopped minority ownership of radio and television stations.”
To Obama: Require Television To Cover Black Political Issues
by Alton H. Maddox, Jr.
The following is a letter from activist lawyer Alton Maddox, Jr., chairman of the New York-based United African Movement, to President Obama.
“Blacks must disproportionately rely on public affairs programming as a substitute for money.”
President Barack H. Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20500
Re: Public Affairs Programming
Dear Mr. President:
As a constitutional scholar with academic credentials from Harvard Law School and professorial credentials from University of Chicago Law School, the author of this letter is preaching to the choir not only regarding federal case law but also the United Church of Christ.
The starting point for the legal struggle over citizenship of descendants of enslaved Africans is Scott v. Sandford. In dictum, Chief Justice Roger Taney of the U.S. Supreme Court said, "No Negro has any rights that whites are bound to respect". This dictum has trumped the Fourteenth Amendment for at least a century.
Since 1857, all rights that Blacks have acquired in the United States have resulted from blood, sweat and tears. Frederick Douglass said it best: "You may not get everything you pay for but you will pay for everything you get". Mr. Douglass was a sage and a prophet. His teachings were checkpoints for the decisions of President Abraham Lincoln.
Against this backdrop, Medgar Evers was the architect for initiating public affairs programming for descendants of enslaved Africans over public airwaves. Although, in 1954, Blacks were still disenfranchised in Mississippi, Evers observed a necessary relationship between the "Fourth Estate" and politics.
“Medgar Evers was the architect for initiating public affairs programming for descendants of enslaved Africans over public airwaves.”
In 1954, he applied unsuccessfully for admission to the University of Mississippi Law School to become a "social engineer" as envisioned by Dean Charles Hamilton Houston of Howard University Law School. Afterwards, he became field secretary for the NAACP. He would follow in the footsteps of the late Harry Moore who, with his wife, were murdered in Florida from the racist-inspired bombing of their home on Christmas Day 1951. Mississippi was in dire need of social engineers.
On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education. This decision delivered a body blow to white supremacy. The face of white supremacy was significantly altered but with untold casualties including but not limited to Rev. Geroge Lee, Lamar Smith and Emmett Till.
Brown v. Board of Education not only ignited white terrorism in the South but it also brought about the modern "Civil Rights Movement". The televising of these events was one-sided and the scripts for public consumption over the public airwaves were written by white supremacist organizations like the White Citizen's Council and the Ku Klux Klan.
Television in Mississippi preceded Brown v. Board of Education by one year. A year later, Emmett Till was lynched in Money, MS. Brown v. Board of Education gave birth to the White Citizen's Council and it revived the Ku Klux Klan. A target was anyone advocating voting rights for Blacks.
Broadcast licenses from the Federal Communications Commission also gave birth to the two earliest television stations in Jackson, MS. They became cheerleaders for the derogation of the Reconstruction amendments. In fact, the Citizen's Council owned a bookstore on the premises of WLBT-TV.
Although the Communications Act of 1934 defines the public airwaves as a public trust, Plessy v. Ferguson meant that Blacks were not entitled to engage in public criticism of whites. Gayle v. Browder would not be decided until 1956 and the enactments of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were necessary to, arguably, put Jim Crow to rest.
Until 1963, Medgar Evers made repeated requests to respond to white supremacist positions by employing arguments advancing the U.S. Constitution. The "fairness doctrine" was being honored in the breach. Censorship was the order of the day and the exercise of First Amendment rights by Blacks was too risky.
“Plessy v. Ferguson meant that Blacks were not entitled to engage in public criticism of whites.”
These repeated requests for airtime over television stations were repeatedly denied until May 1963. On May 20, 1963, Evers appeared on WLBT-TV to respond to white supremacist arguments of Jackson (MS) Mayor Allen Thompson. Evers warned white Mississippians that Jim Crow was over. WLBT-TV reluctantly had to televise Evers comments under the "fairness doctrine."
Needless to say that a Black man appearing on a televised program in 1963 to warn whites that white supremacy would soon be dishonored in Mississippi infuriated them. A rabbit had a better chance of surviving in Mississippi under this circumstance. On June 12, 1963, in the driveway of his home, an assassin's bullet ended Evers' life.
Dr. Aaron Henry and Fannie Lou Hamer, among others, would continue this struggle for the exercise of First Amendment rights. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was founded in 1964. President Lyndon Johnson learned many lessons from the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. In the end, Congress enacted the Voting Rights of 1965 after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Public affairs programming on television is the bridesmaid of politics. In light of Citizens United v. FEC, it has greater meaning for Blacks who lack the financial and legal resources to fuel politics. If information is power, Blacks must disproportionately rely on public affairs programming as a substitute for money.
In 1827, Blacks in New York were fully emancipated by statute. While all white men would finally enjoy the benefits of a democracy in 1827, Black men, on the other hand, would suffer all of the restrictions of a timocracy. As late as 1965, Congress would still find reasons to subject New York to the enforcement mechanisms of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and for good reason.
Whites have benefitted from these discriminatory practices. For over three hundred years, all of the mayors of New York City have been white males except David N. Dinkins in 1989. White voters are now in the minority. More than any other group, Blacks are in dire need of public affairs programming. Remedial action by the FCC is warranted.
”WLBT-TV reluctantly had to televise Evers comments under the "fairness doctrine."
As you experienced in the 2008 presidential primary for the Democratic Party in New York, the issue was not only the right of Blacks to vote but also the right of Blacks to have their votes counted. For example, in many election districts in Harlem and in Brooklyn, your 2008 presidential campaign received zero votes. History was repeating itself. See the Hayes-Tilden Compromise of 1877 and Bush v. Gore. The right of Blacks to have their votes counted is still unresolved in New York.
To address issues affecting whites, white-owned programs with white hosts such as "Meet the Press", "Nation", "Fox News Sunday" and "This Week" are routinely scheduled for Sunday mornings. On the other hand, no public programming, on any day, exists in six commercial television stations broadcasting in three states for persons of African ancestry in the largest television market in the United States. This is New York City's megapolitan area.
Five of those television stations are physically located in New York City and the sixth television station is located at its mouth. Blacks, in this market, easily exceed three million media consumers. This is Jim Crow and an eyesore for public affairs programming which is only accorded to whites.
The FCC, in 1963, took some class-based, rhetorical action against eight radio and television stations in Mississippi arising out of biased comments. Those incidents arose out of the admission of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi. More drastic, remedial action must occur in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
In a landmark decision in 1966, styled Office of Communication of United Church of Christ v. F.C.C., and decided by the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, standing was given to ordinary citizens to challenge the renewal application of a radio or television station and to allow for public affairs programming. This decision gave rise to, among others, "Like It Is" and "Positively Black."
Judge Warren Earl Burger, an appointee of President Dwight Eisenhower, would pen the landmark decision. President Richard Nixon would appoint him, in 1969, as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. President Nixon would select Benjamin Hooks as the first Black person to serve as a member of the Federal Communications Commission.
President Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. It has virtually stopped minority ownership of radio and television stations. At one point, the infamous WLBT-TV in Jackson, MS was owned by majority-Black corporations. The ownership picture changed after 1996. Even the Inner-City Broadcasting Corporation in New York City is reportedly on a life-support system.
It is necessary that some remedial, executive and universal action be taken forthwith in the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut television market. Public affairs programming is about the discussion of serious and unpopular political issues and not about entertainment and sports. For Blacks, the televising of voter education programming and political commentaries must start now.
Very truly yours,
Alton H. Maddox, Jr.
Alton H. Maddox, Jr. is chairman of the United African Movement. He can be contacted by telephone at (718) 834.9034 or at [email protected]