Urban Sights: Urban History and Visual Culture

Irene McCabe and Pontiac's National Action Group

Unlike Claude Kirk, Irene McCabe did not have the benefit of a governor’s travel budget, high-priced political consultants or ready access to media. Yet while thousands of parents across the nation raised their voices against busing, none received the same level of national television attention as McCabe. While McCabe did not have any formal media training, she proved skilful at making her National Action Group’s (NAG) protests into television-friendly events. 'She got up on those platforms and you’d think she was born on the stump', NAG’s lawyer L. Brooks Patterson noted after McCabe’s death in 2004Born and raised in Pontiac, McCabe claimed never to have travelled south of Detroit before she started protesting busing at the age of 36Like many other women who became grassroots activists, McCabe, a married mother of three, emphasized her lived experiences as a mother and housewife as the reasons she became involved in politics. McCabe regularly described her and her fellow marchers as 'ordinary housewives and mothers', and explained to a Washington Post reporter, 'I’m an amateur. When I address people at rallies, if they can relate to me it’s just because they know I’m the same type of person they are, that I am a housewife…just mainstream, grass-roots America.' Most housewives, of course, were not interviewed in major newspapers and did not regularly appear on the nightly television news. McCabe’s televisual appeal drew on her ability visibly to lead and capably speak for anti-busing parents, while also being able persuasively to present herself as a representative member of this group. More than simply an example of white backlash to civil rights, McCabe learned from other protest movements, creating television-ready scenes that garnered attention and framed her cause in a favourable light.  Most notably, McCabe led a 620-mile 'mothers' march' from Pontiac to Washington DC in support of an anti-busing amendment that was covered on ABC, CBS and NBC. As historian Nathan Irvin Huggins noted in 1978, television cameras 'broadcast the sentiments of the white, Pontiac, Michigan, housewife protesting "forced busing" as earnestly as they had the achievement of Mrs. Rosa Parks in the Montgomery bus boycott'. As Huggins suggests, McCabe successfully leveraged television news coverage to bring Pontiac’s school desegregation battle to millions of television viewers and further promoted busing as a national issue.

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