The March on Washington, Moral Mondays and the Media

Protestors and supporters gather around the balcony overlooking the House and Senate floors during a demonstration at the sta
Protestors and supporters gather around the balcony overlooking the House and Senate floors during a demonstration at the state legislature in Raleigh, N.C., Monday, June 17, 2013. Supporters of what the group calls "Moral Mondays" are outraged over GOP policies that they say restrict voting access, undermine public education and hurt the poor and jobless. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

On August 28, national media will commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the historic March on Washington in 1963. As news sources will remind us, the MoW culminated in Dr. Martin Luther King's monumental "I Have a Dream" speech. King's stirring oratory, in turn, helped to awaken the nation to the necessity of a federal Civil Rights Act, which Congress passed the next year.

National media will also remind us of their own pivotal role on August 28, 1963. King was already famous for his leadership in the nonviolent, direct action civil rights movement. But the March on Washington was King's, and the movement's, ultimate public relations victory. Never before had national media -- particularly television -- given the movement so much sustained coverage. As much of this week's commentary will suggest, the March on Washington might have even failed without television cameras there to broadcast it.

But this narrative leaves out a key ingredient of the March's success. More than any other journalists, reporters from black newspapers helped to make the March happen in the first place. Television cameras captured the March, but they missed most of the weeks, months, and years of organizing that prompted hundreds of thousands of people to go to Washington on August 28.

Some people learned about the March by word-of mouth through their churches, unions, colleges, and fraternal organizations. But local and regional African-American media played a huge role in publicizing the March. To name just one example, black newspapers like P.B. and Thomas Young's Journal and Guide in Norfolk, Virginia spread the word of the March to thousands of readers well before King proclaimed he had a dream.

The Journal and Guide mentioned the March nearly fifty times in the month leading up to August 28. The paper carried major advertisements bought by the March's organizers. It published how-to guides for the March, with advice on footwear, transportation, and even what kind of food to bring to D.C. (apparently deli meats were a bad idea in the August heat).

The Journal and Guide was part of a larger network of black activist news outlets. The writers and editors at local and regional black newspapers saw their mission as working for social, political, and economic equality for African-Americans. Activist journalists played a decisive, if largely forgotten, role in the South's civil rights and Black Power movements, a topic that a group of historians and I cover in greater depth for the Media and the Movement project.

In reflecting on the coverage of the MoW, I can't help but think of this summer's Moral Monday demonstrations in North Carolina. These weekly protests against the swift, radically conservative, and in many instances undemocratic takeover of North Carolina's state government started April 29. Moral Mondays began to enjoy sustained national and international coverage as the protests grew substantially in June. Since then, the New York Times published no fewer than six articles and editorials that mention Moral Mondays. NPR, MSNBC, Fox News, London's Guardian newspaper, and numerous other major news outlets featured stories and opinion pieces on Moral Mondays, too.

Yet local and regional activist journalists also made Moral Mondays the top American social protest story of the summer. Most important among these journalists are the staff of Facing South, the online magazine and newsletter of the Institute of Southern Studies. The ISS is a nonprofit based in Durham, North Carolina that promotes progressive change and social justice work in the South through research and independent journalism. The ISS's board members at its founding in Atlanta in 1970 included civil rights and March on Washington veterans John Lewis and Julian Bond. In many ways, the ISS shared African-American newspapers' tradition of activist journalism.

Before this spring, Facing South had mentioned or quoted Reverend William Barber, the de facto leader of Moral Mondays and the president of the state's NAACP chapter, in nearly twenty stories since 2007. Facing South has also developed a particular interest in the corrosive effect money can have on democracy. The magazine began reporting on Art Pope around the same time it started covering Barber. Pope bankrolls conservative causes and candidates in North Carolina and has drawn criticism as a political moneyman who almost singlehandedly tilts local and state elections in whichever direction he pleases. Just three organizations funded by Pope accounted for roughly 75 percent of all outside money spent on North Carolina's legislative races in 2010. Pope happens to be a close ally of the Koch brothers, and he currently serves as North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory's budget director.

In October 2011, Jane Mayer published a widely read feature on Pope for the New Yorker. In fact, Mayer researched her subject by traveling to Durham, where she conferred with the Facing South staff and consulted the ISS's files on Pope. In 2012, the ISS launched the investigative website Art Pope Exposed. At the Moral Monday rallies that began this spring, speakers frequently mentioned Art Pope, while some protesters decorated homemade signs with his name and face.

On June 3, a "Mega Moral Monday" attracted over 1,000 protesters to Raleigh. Over one hundred people were arrested, including ISS Executive Director and Facing South editor Chris Kromm.

State Republicans had initially dismissed Moral Mondays. The success of Mega Moral Monday, however, inspired a strong counter-reaction from conservatives. One Republican state legislator even penned an editorial mocking what he called "Moron Monday."

But the most bizarre reaction was the Civitas Institute's Moral Monday Protester database, which catalogs the names, hometowns, professions, and, in many cases, the faces of arrested protesters. (For the sake of full disclosure, I was arrested at the June 17 Moral Monday for peaceful civil disobedience.) Coincidence or not, Civitas is a conservative nonprofit organization funded largely by none other than Art Pope.

The first news outlet to report on the Civitas database was -- you guessed it -- Facing South. From there, stories about the protester registry spread to social media, blogs, local television and newspapers, and Huffington Post. Altogether, Facing South has written on Moral Mondays fourteen different times.

Facing South doesn't strive for a popular readership, although roughly twenty thousand readers do subscribe to the newsletter by email. More than anything, the magazine aims to reach journalists, activists, nonprofit leaders, and elected officials throughout the South.

But why focus just on the South, and not the entire nation? As Facing South Editorial Directory Sue Sturgis explained to me, "If you want to change the country and make it move in a more progressive direction, the road to that future runs through the South. There is no way we could have a progressive future for the United States without including the South." The depth and quality of Facing South's independent reporting reflects its strong connections to southern social justice networks and its years of expertise and experience working in the region. And without the pressures of turning a profit, the magazine can produce multiple, incisive stories on single issues over the course of months and even years.

The need for independent activist media is greater now than ever before, as national and international corporations continue to purchase local news organizations across the country. Of course, news outlets with the declared goal of political neutrality still have an important role to play. But we continue to need activist media outlets like Facing South to inform us of ongoing local and regional campaigns for social justice and democracy.

National television cameras and reporters might show up to cover marches and rallies the day they happen. But if you're looking for the stories behind these movements, you're more likely to get them from independent activist journalists.