Waves of Empowerment: Black Radio and the Civil Rights Movement

Tianyi Wang, University of Copenhagen

In the early 1960s, as the civil rights movement was gaining momentum, Black-oriented radio stations were broadcasting across large swaths of the South. This paper uses newly digitized data to provide the first empirical evidence on the effects of Black radio on the civil rights movement. Exploiting plausibly exogenous variation in signal reception resulting from topographic factors, I find strong evidence that Black radio increased Black political participation and activism in the South during the early 1960s, as measured by Black voter registration and the presence of a local chapter of the NAACP. For mechanisms, I find evidence consistent with Black radio increasing the reach of civil rights groups and providing positive role models to African Americans. Moreover, results suggest that exposure to Black radio translated into substantive economic and political gains for the Black community in the form of greater state aid and legislative support for civil rights bills. Much of the effects of Black radio took place before the enactment of landmark civil rights legislation, highlighting the significance of Black radio to the Black community.

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 Presented in Session 251. New Perspectives on the Long Civil Rights Movement