President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law on this day in 1964. The signing of the act into law was, of course, big news, and it's not hard to imagine how different newspapers covered it.
However, what is hard to imagine is how so many newspapers seemed to be concerned with how African-Americans were "testing" the law rather than the landmark piece of legislation.
The cynical thought is that editors knew their audiences—since white Southerners made their newspapers for other white Southerners, they needed to gloss over the legislation and show how the status quo was already being affected in negative ways. The reliance on wire service reports is also curious: the language in the reports is drier than usual, as if the Reuters and AP reporters were going out of their way to show how impartial they were.
The New York Times was its usual self, and was one of few exceptions.
Spokane, WA's The Spokesman-Review only gets away with this headline because it was from a wire service. It's also interesting that the Reuters story about China's reaction to the new law was featured so prominently.
The Tuscaloosa News' cover is –– well, it's not great. It's a very clear example of what we found regarding what the layout editors of the time wanted to focus on.
Between the alarmist-sounding headline (from a wire service) about where African-Americans have been seen eating to the helpful explainer at the bottom that lets you know the bare minimum of tolerance you are legally obligated to possess, this one is pretty bad.
The Rome News-Tribune (from Floyd county in Georgia) didn't fare much better.
The Chicago Tribune managed to have its cake and eat it as well, trumpeting that "Rights Bill Becomes Law" and that Negroes are "gird"ing for "testing" in "public places."
You can read that day's full issue if you're so inclined here.
A couple of days later, the Detroit News published a column by Louis Lomax, then one of the country's most prominent black journalists, that basically urged everyone to be extremely careful in the wake of the bill becoming law. An Editor's Note begins with a scary thought: "Will President Johnson's signature on the civil rights bill trigger race war…? It's up to the Negroes."
It's sort of depressing to see that so much of the coverage has a vicious subtext, but this was pretty much the beginning of racism becoming less mainstream. This is but a sample of the coverage from that day, but we're going to leave on a more positive note courtesy of that day's LA Times.
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David Matthews operates the Wayback Machine on Fusion.net—hop on. Got a tip? Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org