Remember When Black TV Programs Were Angry and Unapologetic?

Remembering Black Journal host William Greaves and the black power movement that spawned a generation of public-affairs programs.

William Greaves, co-host of Black Journal YouTube screenshot

When I was growing up in a northern-New Jersey ghetto in the early Afro-picked 1970s, my mom used to take me places in her car. Our radio dial was locked to 1430 WNJR, a soul AM station, and in the afternoons I would hear something at the top of the hour called “National Black Network News.” National black newscasters were talking about the condition of black people.

We don’t hear enough of that anymore.

I was reminded of that when I heard that William Greaves had passed away on Aug. 25 at the age of 87. Nearly 50 years ago, Greaves was fighting a war in the media world and we were all the beneficiaries. The skirmishes were over black public-affairs television programs—shows that presented undiluted African-American political, social and cultural views on white television during the height of the civil rights movement and black power eras. Greaves was a pioneer of one: Black Journal.

In 1968, more than 100 cities had caught aflame after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The Kerner Commission Report had just been released, and its media chapter explained that the virtually all-white news media were complicit in making black people invisible. Across the nation, virtually all of major-market television responded–local and national, commercial and public—with black public-affairs television shows—programs that would reflect the black experience.

Black Journal was produced by and for the National Educational Television network (now PBS). Greaves was the co-host, but he and the black staff had to walk off the show to make sure it was run by a black executive producer.

Film Quarterly wrote about the incident: “After the third program had been aired, certain contradictions within the production of Black Journal had crystallized. Although the series was being sold as ‘by, for and of the black community,’ the white [Alvin H.] Perlmutter was firmly in charge, and the programming was often dominated by white-produced segments. In mid-August, there was a palace revolt. Eleven of the 12 black staff members resigned in protest.” A compromise was made: Greaves would produce, Perlmutter was renamed a “consultant” and the show got more black staffers.

The first Black Journal programs show how clear, and how confused, black America was in 1968. With King’s blood still wet on the Memphis, Tenn., motel balcony, in which direction would black people (note: not black Americans) go? Were they about to build a new, black nation; change the existing one; or both? That was the power of Black Journal and all the shows like it, across the nation.

Devorah Heitner, author of Black Power TV, a major study of black public-affairs television programming in New York and Boston, said in an email interview: “What I remember most is Greaves’ colleagues telling me that he understood how much Black Journal was a product of its moment, and supporting/advising them to be as critical and as brilliant and brave [as they were]—he understood that the space to tell these stories could disappear at any time! This loss is profound, but Greaves’ legacy of creative work and mentorship will be felt for a long time.”

Greaves was right about the shifting sands.