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