Media History Exchange, 2018 Joint Journalism and Communication History Conference

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“A One-Man Movement”: Gus Heningburg, the Kerner Commission, and Positively Black
Ron Bishop

Last modified: 2017-11-25


Following large-scale civil unrest in the mid-1960s, President Lyndon Johnson formed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to determine its causes. Chaired by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, the Commission that came to bear his name warned when its work concluded that the country was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”

In Chapter 15 of its report, the Commission directed some of its sharpest criticism at the news media, which it claimed had “too long basked in a white world, looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and a white perspective.” Spurred by the Commission’s criticism, media organizations ramped up their hiring of African-American journalists and expanded coverage of issues of concern to the African-American community. Public affairs programs focusing on those issues also were created by television stations across the country.

Particular attention is paid here to the work of Gustav Heningburg, activist, labor leader, and eventually a journalist and the host of the long-running NBC public affairs television program Positively Black. The program and many like it were direct results of the Commission’s report. A second theme in the project is the navigation by Gus and other activists of the professional boundary between activism and journalism. This theme is built on the work of renowned sociologist Thomas Gieryn. Gieryn’s book, Cultural Boundaries of Science: Credibility on the Line is a key theoretical strand in the project.

Gus’ son, Gus II, has enthusiastically endorsed the project. I have enlisted the aid of Lorna Ebner, a top history major at Rutgers-Newark to conduct the initial rounds of research into the Gustav Heningburg Papers at the Newark Public Library. As of this writing, Lorna has conducted two rounds of research and compiled a compelling array of documents for further review.




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