My current project analyses how the existence of news “beats”, had very different effects on the civil rights and homophile movements of the long 1960s. In particular, my work examines how the nature of the Southern “race beat” encouraged a concentration on large scale nonviolent demonstrations, obscuring the subtleties of the Southern movement whilst ignoring the growing militancy in the urban ghettoes of the North. In contrast, my work demonstrates how the lack of a similar “sex beat”, combined with greater taboos around homosexuality, has encouraged the popular notion that the gay liberation movement started at the Stonewall Inn in 1969.
As well as the nature of news construction, my thesis also examines how notions of respectability are utilised, negotiated, and rejected by social movements. For example, whilst popular narratives have presented early civil rights demonstrations as spontaneous uprisings against inequality and repression, they were often well crafted events that were purposefully designed to win over mainstream audiences through the media of television and newsprint. Indeed, civil rights organisers were careful to present their protests in a way that was both aesthetically and philosophically appealing to white audiences and the predominantly white mainstream media.
In the process, however, civil rights organisations also helped to challenge conceptions of public “respectability” that had for centuries excluded African Americans. In doing so, civil rights organisers were engaged in an active fight for control of public discourse that not only included white segregationists and other movement opponents, but also the journalists who covered the Southern movement. Whilst often overlooked, I believe that this relationship between activists and the mainstream media is crucial to all minority social movements.
Indeed, for homophile activists demonstrating in the latter half of the 1960s, the civil rights movement was often invoked as the archetype of successful media relations. Consequently, my work is interested in how the public demonstrations of civil rights and homophile activists both challenged and reinforced mainstream notions of respectability. In the process, I hope to contribute to movement historiography by exposing how popular movement tropes were often the result of careful cultivation by social activists rather than accurate representations of movement activity.