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National Agenda 2015: Bill Plante

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Plante recalls turmoil of Selma's Bloody Sunday during National Agenda talk

Veteran CBS journalist Bill Plante said the struggle for civil rights continues.

2:41 p.m., Sept. 10, 2015--Veteran broadcast journalist Bill Plante believes that despite changing approaches to campaign coverage and declining access to those at the highest levels of government, the responsibility for change in the political and public policy arenas continues to depend on careful decisions by an informed and concerned electorate.

Plante, whose career began amidst the turbulence of the early days of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, shared his experiences as a CBS News correspondent during a University of Delaware National Agenda presentation held Wednesday, Sept. 9, in Mitchell Hall. 

As the first speaker in the National Agenda’s “Race in America: Conversations about Identity and Equality” series, Plante told a large audience that nothing compares to his work covering the voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama, which culminated in “Bloody Sunday” on March 7, 1965.

“There was no story that I covered in my 51-year career at CBS like that one,” Plante said. “I had to struggle to keep free of my own feelings as I covered the movement.” 

Plante noted that when he arrived in Selma there was a deep division that was woven into the social contract between blacks and whites, where segregation was the reality, even though it was no longer legal. 

“I covered the people who went to the courthouse to register to vote,” Plante said. “I saw them refused by a hostile sheriff on narrow legal grounds. As a white kid from Chicago, I was a total cultural stranger to both the black and white communities in the South.”

Describing himself as a believer in social justice, and the idea that all Americans have a right to vote, Plante noted that he still was shocked at seeing the raw hatred that was expressed toward African Americans in the South on a daily basis.

“The authorities saw outsiders as either communists or on the side of the movement,” Plante said. “What we saw every day in Selma didn’t change anyone’s mind on either side.” 

People would line up every day trying to sign up to vote, and the authorities were not pleased with the media presence, Plante said. On one memorable night, police attacked both the journalists and the demonstrators.

“They sprayed paint on the camera lenses, they beat people, and one young man (Jimmy Lee Jackson) was shot, and he died later,” Plante said. “It was in response to that shooting that the march to the capital in Montgomery was conceived.”

Jackson’s death spurred a march by 600 demonstrators led by John Lewis. Finding their path blocked after crossing the Edmund Pettis Bridge over the Alabama River, participants refused to turn around as ordered by state and local police officers.

The officers responded with brute force, firing tear gas and beating nonviolent protestors with billy cubs, sending over 50 demonstrators to the hospital. 

Plante also recalled that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership, and that of the movement, never wavered during this important time.

“Dr. King was an amazing voice in those days, with his sense of gravity and purpose,” Plante said. “After the march on Montgomery, when they sang ‘We Shall Overcome,’ the nation was changed.” 

Congress passed the Voting Rights Bill five months later, but 50 years of hindsight makes it very clear that segregation hasn’t died yet, Plante said. 

“Racism still exists in this country in economic inequality, in criminal justice, and when the right to vote is challenged on legal grounds,” Plante said. “The struggle continues.” 

First Amendment rights

Plante said these experiences have left him with a passionate belief in and appreciation for the First Amendment. 

"This freedom allowed us to tell the nation what was really going on,” Plante said. “For that, I am very thankful.”

 Plante noted that in the current era of tweets and texts and smart phones, it’s hard to picture the difficulty that existed in providing nationwide coverage during the civil rights struggles of 50 years ago. 

“For us go coast-to-coast live in 1965, we had to have a special telephone connection,” Plante said. “We also didn’t stay in Selma at night, because members of the KKK would chase reporters in their cars, which were rented at the local airport. You didn’t want to be chased by them at night on a lonely country road.” 

Following his opening remarks, Plante joined moderator Lindsay Hoffman, associate director of UD’s Center for Political Communication and director of the 2015 National Agenda series, to field questions on a wide range of topics, including the comparison of the civil rights and black lives matter movements. 

“The overall goal of the civil rights movement was getting the right to vote,” Plante said. “The black lives matter movement has gained a lot of traction in recent times. It’s important to have a call for action, because if you don’t, people will think you don’t have a goal.” 

Plante, who returned to Selma earlier this year to cover a commemoration of King’s historic march, said that the struggle for justice continues to this day. 

“There is a tendency in America to think that we took care of all these things 50 years ago,” Plante said. “Of course, we did not.” 

About the series  

The 2015 National Agenda series includes six speakers and four films designed to stimulate conversations about equality and identity, all scheduled at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesdays in Mitchell Hall on the UD campus in Newark. Presentations are free and open to the public.

The film series will begin Sept. 16 with Dear White People, released in 2014 as Justin Simien’s first full-length feature. The satire explores racial identity in “post-racial” America while weaving a universal story of forging one’s unique path in the world. Simien won the best first screenplay award from the 2015 Spirit Awards and the U.S. dramatic special jury award for breakthrough talent from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

The director of the series is Lindsay Hoffman, associate director of UD's Center for Political Communication.

National Agenda is supported by the College of Arts and Sciences, the Office of the Provost, the Center for the Study of Diversity and the William P. Frank Foundation of Delaware.

Article by Jerry Rhodes

Photos by Duane Perry

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