Broadcasting Freedom

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Barbara Dianne Savage. Broadcasting Freedom: Radio, War, and the Politics of Race, 1938-1948. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999. Pp. XI+391. ISBN 0-8078-4804-2 (pbk.).


Summary

Broadcasting Freedom is about how African Americans were presented on radio during World War II. Barbara Dianne Savage asserts that the book examines how blacks and their sympathizers attempted to “use the mass medium of national radio to advocate a brand of American freedom that called for an end to racial segregation and discrimination” (P. XI). This description of the book is correct, but in their struggle for equal treatment, African Americans opened radio as a medium to discuss the meaning of citizenship for all Americans.

Until World War II, government officials and most other Americans deferred to Southerners to define the parameters of citizenship for African Americans. But this “Southern issue” was becoming a national issue with the migration of blacks from the South to northern urban areas. The congregation of blacks in northern cities created a new voting block in the North with increased political clout. As the war approached, the nation was looking for unity behind the war effort; however, blacks were not solidly pro-war. African-Americans in the South were subject to Jim Crow laws, and although they were not subject to as much government oppression in the North, job discrimination against blacks was widespread.

Most federal officials were not inclined to deal with matters of local bias, but the Roosevelt administration was concerned about the mood of the country’s blacks. Therefore, the Office of War Information and the War Department were charged with finding ways to improve the morale of African Americans. Their charge was to integrate “a more visible Negro into the public sphere of patriotic rhetoric,” without endorsing “the racial reforms blacks sought for fear of offending whites, especially southern congressmen” (P. 107). With the use of radio, these government agencies accomplished their mission by using black music as entertainment interspersed with soft-pedaled messages about African American efforts to help win the war. As race riots erupted in 1943 in Detroit, Harlem and Los Angeles, NBC and CBS, the dominant radio networks, found that discussions of black issues were better received by its audiences. This led to private productions of shows about the black experience in America. These shows were able to be more aggressive in describing the issues confronting African Americans as long as the presenters made it clear that when blacks wanted equality, they did not want to destroy social customs that separated black and white families. The networks would not tolerate any discussion of the acceptability of inter-racial families for fear of offending white America.

With the help of local programming in large northern cities and President Truman’s order to integrate the armed forces, a new era of open discussion of issues facing African Americans came to radio after World War II. This era was short-lived as television was soon to become a more important mass media tool. As the nation watched the pictures of harsh treatment of blacks in the South, the ability of southern congressmen to control the debate had ended.


Commentary

Curtis Vaughn, Fall 2007

Entering World War II, the United States was a nation that was prone to racist ideas. Racism by whites was not limited to just black Americans. In his book, War Without Mercy: Race & Power in the Pacific War (Pantheon Books, 1986), John W. Dower shows how the U. S. described the Japanese by such terms as “monkeys,” “children,” or “treacherous.” In this environment in which war was waged on racist terms, Barbara Dianne Savage describes the U. S. government as quite concerned about the morale of black Americans who were subject to racism in all parts of the country. Savage describes the dilemma faced by government officials almost exclusively in context of the power of southern congressmen to define role of African Americans in the civic life of the country. Dower asserts that the issue of racial stereotypes went well beyond southern images of blacks and moved into government sanctioned derogatory images of the “yellow peril.” Savage describes a war department agonizing over black morale, while Dower looks at Secretary of War Stimson and his beliefs that “Japanese and Communist agitators were behind Negro demands for equality” (P. 173). Dower’s portrayal of Stimson’s attitudes helps explain why War Department efforts at raising black morale had little success.

Savage has concentrated her research on available public and private radio scripts that address issues of race relations during the period from 1938-1948. By her own admission, Savage encountered a problem with this approach in that these scripts could not describe those things that were deliberately not said over the radio. Therefore, she dedicates Chapter 3 of her book to an Office of War Information pamphlet that used “visual images of African Americans to speak for themselves, delivering political messages that could not be given voice on the radio, a medium that depended on the use of words and language” (P. 108). She also describes a War Department film that shows heroic black soldiers without describing racial discrimination at home or in the military. The augmentation of the language with pictures during World War II portends the power of visual mass media that soon was to overtake radio’s preeminent place in mass media.

This book describes the continuation of the relentless pressure by African Americans for equality that was highlighted in World War I and given additional life during the New Deal. Service by African Americans to their country during World War II gave blacks the will to demand the end to discrimination and full citizenship rights in exchange for fighting the country’s wars.

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