Urban Sights: Urban History and Visual Culture

Pontiac in the national television spotlight

Pontiac was propelled into the news at the end of August 1971 when members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) dynamited 10 empty school buses that were parked in the bus depotThe bus bombings prompted federal district court Judge Damon Keith, who issued the busing order, to warn, 'this case will not be settled in the streets of Pontiac'. With tensions high in Pontiac, Irene McCabe led several hundred residents on a two mile protest march against the busing order from downtown Pontiac to Madison Junior High School in the north-east section of the city. CBS and ABC covered the march, which presented television news camera people and viewers with easily identifiable images that differed sharply from the KKK’s vigilantly violence: orderly marchers with women and children foregrounded, dozens of US flags, and clearly worded placards expressing support for the busing boycott (e.g., 'Bury the bus, keep freedom alive', and 'Our kids like neighbourhood schools'). After wide shots of the crowd walking towards the camera (CBS estimated 6,000 marchers, ABC 4,000), both stations cut to footage of McCabe addressing the large crowd from an elevated platform at the junior high school. CBS offered viewers of a medium close-up of McCabe encouraging defiance of the busing order.  'How many are going to keep their children home?' McCabe asked to cheers from the crowd. 
Home, home, not a bus, nowhere but home [crowd cheers]. Don’t weaken, don’t get discouraged, don’t let their threats frighten you, because they wouldn’t hold up in court. And so what if they do, we’ll go together [crowd cheers and man, off-camera, yells ‘They can’t put us all in jail’]. If we don’t stand up now to this threat, we have no country left for our children. It’s not busing, it’s not integration, it’s Communism and we will not have it [crowd cheers].

McCabe’s final phrase, 'we will not have it', is nearly inaudible over her supporters’ cheering. These audible displays of support, coupled with crowd reaction shots, gave viewers their first glimpse of McCabe’s authority in local anti-busing politics.  ABC’s coverage of the Labor Day march is also notable because it showed the media attention that McCabe and the march generated. Whereas CBS’s camera offered a view of McCabe’s face as seen from the crowd, ABC’s cameraperson was positioned on the dais to McCabe’s right. The resulting medium shot placed McCabe in the centre of the frame with members of the crowd and a large US flag in front of her and a clutch of other media personnel around her on the platform. This vantage point reveals at least three microphones, a still photographer and a video cameraman.

Nightly news broadcasts featured segments on Pontiac for four days following the Labor Day march, reporting on the school boycott led by McCabe and the National Action Group. These reports further established Pontiac as the major national site of tension over busing and McCabe, featured prominently in each segment, as the most important leader of the anti-busing campaign. An ABC segment on 7 September, the first day of the NAG-organized school boycott, showed McCabe leading boycott supporters to the Pontiac Board of Education building where she rolled a toy school bus carrying two brown and white guinea pigs, labelled the 'Damon Keith Integration Special', into the office of School Superintendent Dana WhitmerOutside of the building, McCabe taunted mayor Robert Jackson, yelling 'come on Mayor Jackson, you’re driving the bus. Come on, chicken'. Two days later, when McCabe asked protestors to stop gathering at the school bus depot and move elsewhere, each of the three news networks were on hand. Both CBS and NBC broadcast a heated exchange between McCabe and an unidentified marcher who was unhappy with McCabe’s change of tactics. 'You're the one who told us to come out here and walk', the woman yelled at McCabe. 'We’ve walked til our legs are falling off, and you’re telling us to give it up?' 'Change your tactics now, stay one step ahead of them', McCabe advisedThe woman also questioned McCabe’s willingness to stand with the protestors, shouting, 'Martin Luther King marched with his people. He marched with his people, he went to jail with them.'

Citing Martin Luther King might seem like an odd way to criticize an anti-busing leader, but McCabe drew freely from the language and protest tactics of the civil rights, black power and anti-war movements. McCabe told the Washington Post that she learned to make demands from 'the black militants'. 'They’ve won many things, they’ve won their demands…We’ve been losers because we haven’t played the game by the rules that they’ve already set down…I’m playing the game by their rules.' While McCabe did not elaborate on these rules, NAG’s protests under her leadership dovetailed neatly with the conventions of television news coverage. NAG’s protests generally occurred on weekdays during daytime hours, they were well-organized public events, they were focused on a specific issue and McCabe served as the group’s clear leader and spokeswoman. To keep the anti-busing protests in the media spotlight for as long as possible, moreover, McCabe organized different types of protests to give reporters new events to cover that built on the existing NAG storyline. 'Publicity, attention – every day', she told the National Observer, 'that’s what we’ve got to have.' When an NAG picket line shut down the General Motors (GM) Fisher auto body factory, for example, it did not prompt GM to lobby for anti-busing legislation (NAG’s stated goal), but it did draw coverage from all three networks. NAG’s GM protest started at 5 am and featured women and children carrying signs reading 'Dads – Help us stop busing', while they chanted a slogan popularized by the Black Panthers: 'Power to the people, power to the people, right on.' CBS reported that NAG 'tried something new today', while NBC reported that the group had adopted a 'new tactic'. CBS even noted the end of the school boycott, with anchor Walter Cronkite reading a quote from McCabe.

This recurring news coverage was important for McCabe because it allowed NAG’s anti-busing message to reach a large national audience at a time when the group could only claim a few thousand members in and around Pontiac and nearby Detroit. Shortly after Judge Keith handed down the integration order in February 1970, parents on the predominately white north side of Pontiac formed a group called 'Concerned Parents'. In spring 1971, McCabe led a faction that broke off from Concerned Parents to form Northside Action GroupThe group soon changed its name to National Action Group, but in many ways the group’s political influence remained limited to the neighbourhood level. NBC’s report on NAG’s push for a new school boycott across Michigan on 25 October 1971 is particularly telling in this regard. As reporter Steve Delaney’s introduction to the segment details, NAG’s call for a statewide boycott was unsuccessful: 'This was supposed to be school boycott day all over Michigan, but the drive by white parents to keep students home was effective only in Pontiac.' Still, the three-minute segment featured footage of McCabe and NAG supporters marching at the Board of Education building and relayed their call for more police in schools to prevent interracial violence. NBC broadcast NAG’s claim that busing prompted more violence in schools without noting that school officials contested NAG’s data. While McCabe and NAG lacked the statewide influence to move other Michigan parents to boycott, they found television news stations to be eager audiences for their protests.

This television coverage prompted a critical editorial in the Christian Science Monitor, which argued that '[g]iving national prime time and front-page headlines to a group of bellicose ladies has put the emphasis in the wrong place'. Describing the history of school segregation in Pontiac, the editorial argued that the busing order should have been 'no sudden surprise' and argued that 'for the press and public to try to peg a history of bigotry and tension…on bussing is an injustice to the majority who are trying to do their best at the moment to accommodate needed social change'. Coverage of McCabe and NAG is emblematic of how television news presented busing disputes in different cities. While news stories occasionally included school board members, civil rights advocates or parents who supported busing, these voices made up only a fraction of the coverage. With their talking points broadcast repeatedly, anti-busing activists controlled the terms of the debate.

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