Once upon a time, white people were racist. And they did some very bad things to people who weren’t white, including black people. For a long time, the white people forced black people to be slaves. And then later, when the black people were free, the racist white people wouldn’t allow them to stay at the same hotels, go to the same schools, live in the same neighborhoods, or eat at the same restaurants. Some of the white people were really, really racist. They actually hurt, and sometimes even killed, black people. But then a man named Martin Luther King had a dream. And he took a walk to Washington, D.C., and told the whole country about his dream. And white people’s hearts were softened. They realized that it was wrong to be racist, so they stopped. So now there are no more racist white people.

If many Americans were to tell a bedtime story about racism in our country, that’s what it would sound like. Racism existed for a long time among a lot of people and then suddenly it did not exist anymore. The Civil Rights Movement was profoundly successful in teaching average white Americans that racism is evil. That lesson, however, had less to do with the rhetorical genius of leaders like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and more to do with mass media’s coverage of the movement.

The disturbing images coming out of the South in the late 1950s and early 1960s forever disrupted the notion that racism was a benign and socially justifiable institution. The term “racist” instead conjured up images of Alabama governor George Wallace physically blocking two African American students from registering at the University of Alabama; the faces of James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, the three young Freedom Summer workers who were executed in Philadelphia, Mississippi; and photos of peaceful protesters being attacked by police dogs and water hoses. And perhaps the most gut-wrenching photo of all, the image of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s unrecognizable face. To be considered racist became associated with being capable of committing such atrocities.

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