Religious Newspaper Coverage of the Civil Rights Struggle: 1954--1964


Mike Trice

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Mass Communication and Journalism

First Advisor

Arthur Kaul

Advisor Department

Mass Communication and Journalism


The Black Freedom Struggle of the 1950s and 1960s presented a challenge to white American religion and the numerous publications affiliated with predominantly white religious institutions. Failure to back civil rights activists--among them many ministers--challenged the relevance of an institution that, at least in Christian churches, preached that in Christ all men were brothers. However, such a response threatened unity among the various fellowships and involved religion in a bitter, often violent, political struggle. This dissertation examined the manner and the extent to which religious periodicals from a variety of faiths and confessions--categorized as Catholic, mainline Protestant and conservative/fundamentalist--responded to the issue of race relations and the racial strife present during the years of the struggle for equality. The study focused on events that highlighted the struggle, such as the Brown decision, the integration of Little Rock schools and the summer of unrest in Mississippi in 1964. The study found that mainline Protestant publications, particularly the Christian Century , gave the most attention to the race issue and support for the movement. Catholic publications were supportive of the ideals of racial integration but were cautious in coverage of the events surrounding the movement. Generally, the more conservative the publication the more likely it was to either ignore the social revolution happening around it or to give support to maintaining the status quo. Nearly all publications became more vocal with relation to race and the civil rights movement as the movement progressed, with mainline Protestant publications moving from minimal coverage in 1954 and 1957 to open support for direct involvement in the movement by 1964. Opposition to the movement and to government involvement in the issue increased and became more pronounced between 1954 and 1964 in those publications that backed the status quo. In particular, 1963--with Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and the bombing of the Sixteenth Avenue Baptist Church--marked a turning point in coverage in religious publications.