Urban Sights: Urban History and Visual Culture

Claude Kirk's televised stand in the schoolhouse door

While the Supreme Court declined to answer Kirk’s appeals for delay, federal judge Ben Krentzman extended the deadline for all but one of the Florida school districts under court order to 1 September 1970. The remaining school district, Manatee County, was given until 1 April 1970 to desegregate. Kirk issued an executive order announcing that the Manatee school board and superintendent would face suspension if they complied with the order, and he made good on this promise when he took over the school district in early April and directed students to ignore the integration plan. 

The school takeover propelled Kirk back onto the nightly news broadcasts and the front pages of national newspapers. 'Probably not since George Wallace made his stand in the school house doorway in Alabama in 1963', ABC anchor Frank Reynolds noted, 'has a state governor placed himself in such direct conflict with the federal government'. The following report showed Kirk speaking to reporters from the superintendent’s office, which he and his staff had occupied. 'Were involved here in forced busing', Kirk said. 'Now that’s the clearest cut most violent circumstance in the nation’s and world’s history.' CBS broadcast a different part of the news conference, with Kirk arguing that '[Judge Krenzman] is in defiance of my constitutional rights as an individual and governor.' Television news reports framed Kirk’s school takeover as a conflict between Kirk and federal authority or between Kirk and 'busing', rather than about opposition to school integration as such. Referring to Kirk’s outsized role in the case, Judge Krenzman commented, 'I have to keep reminding myself that Manatee schools are a party to this case'. Unlike the earlier southern school protests to which Kirk was frequently compared, there were no specific black students, like Elizabeth Eckford and the Little Rock Nine, Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood at the University of Alabama, or James Meredith at the University of Mississippi, whose rights seemed to be at stake in these reports. Manatee, therefore, received extended media coverage as a new Southern integration crisis without Kirk being framed as a racist demagogue. 
Kirk’s successful management of television news coverage was most clearly on display as the school showdown stretched into its fourth day, when federal marshals tried unsuccessfully to remove Kirk’s men from the school building, while Kirk answered reporters’ questions from the maternity ward of a Tallahassee hospital where his wife had recently given birth. ABC broadcast a tense exchange between Kirk and reporter Gregory Jackson. 'Confrontation has been turned 180 degrees', Kirk contended. 'The Federal government is the violator and I am the man who asks for law. I am the man who asks for his day in court. I am the man who pleads for hearing of my grievance.' In response to Jackson’s question, 'then why don’t you follow the federal law which ordered desegregation?' Kirk raised his voice and pointed his finger at Jackson: 'Oh, you’re a fool. This is the number one compliance state in the nation…You can tell your broadcasters in New York that as soon as they comply as much as Florida has, as the number one state in the nation in compliance, that’s the whole difference.' Kirk’s contrast of Florida and New York reiterated his call for a uniform national policy on desegregation and the widespread feeling among Southern politicians that New York and the North got a free pass on de facto segregation from federal officials. Less obviously, Kirk’s pointed reference to 'your broadcasters in New York' echoed Spiro Agnew’s attack on television news’ geographical bias: 'Of the men who produce and direct the network news, the nation knows practically nothing…We do know that to a man these commentators and producers live and work in the geographical and intellectual confines of Washington, D.C., or New York City, the latter of which James Reston terms the most unrepresentative community in the entire United States.' Here again, Kirk positioned himself as defending Florida from a barrage of unjust external powers. 
If Kirk successfully turned this verbal exchange to his advantage, he also benefited from the less than optimal filming conditions offered by the maternity ward. The footage broadcast on both ABC and CBS is cramped and a bit chaotic. The ABC cameraperson struggles to keep track of Kirk, producing a mid-shot that floats to Kirk’s right and left and focuses for several seconds on his right arm and hand at his side. CBS’s footage, shot behind Kirk’s left shoulder, is even less clear, with Kirk in profile and the side of his face barely visible. What is clear in both clips is that media personnel surrounded Kirk in an untraditional and unfamiliar filming environment. While this footage lacked the 'good' images television news producers usually preferred (e.g., clearly framed subjects, steady cameras and appropriate lighting), Kirk had by this point established a national profile that made the scene newsworthy. The chaotic filming conditions and close proximity (off-camera) of his wife and newborn daughter also helped Kirk, who was six feet two inches tall and weighed over 200 pounds, seem less like a physically imposing bully than like someone whose personal and familial space was being violated by the news personnel. That busing opponents frequently invoked a parent’s right defend their children could not have been lost on Kirk or television viewers. With this televised maternity ward confrontation, Kirk made visible what millions of Americans felt was at stake in the battle over busing.

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