On August 14th, 2014, Darren Wilson, a white police officer, fatally shot Michael Brown, a Black 18-year-old, in Ferguson, Missouri. Organized protests, memorials, and instances of civil unrest in the community soon followed. In November, a Grand Jury declined to prosecute Wilson, finding insufficient evidence to disprove the idea he acted in self-defense, which catalyzed another wave of protests that extended beyond Ferguson and gripped the nation as they were broadcast across television news and circulated across social media platforms.
As Dr. Sarah J. Jackson, Professor in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania notes in her article “Making #BlackLivesMatter in the Shadow of Selma: Collective Memory and Racial Justice Activism in the U.S. News,” these catalytic events unfolded against the background of media coverage commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. “The moment was ripe with contradiction,” she writes, as “journalists commemorated the triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement in one breath while reporting on the ongoing failure of U.S. equality in the next.”
Dr. Jackson’s article closely analyzes television news media coverage of Black Lives Matter protests in 2014 and 2015, during this moment where historical memories of protest collided with new demands for social change. She argues the television news media promoted nostalgic and idealized memories of the Civil Rights Movement in order to interpret, and in many instances rhetorically delegitimize, protests for Black life. At the same time, some news media effectively publicized “counter-memories” that marked the commonalities and continuities between the racism of the Civil Rights era and the violence and structural inequities opposed by today’s movements for Black life. These counter-narratives also stressed the similarities between the movements rather than exaggerating their differences.
In contrasting these news discourses, Jackson depicts the media as a space of struggle in the production of collective memory — our culturally shared understandings of history — that is critical to public reception of contemporary social movements. We had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Jackson about her work on social activism, race, and collective memory. Our conversation focused on “Making #BlackLivesMatter in the Shadow of Selma,” and the evolution of media discourse surrounding movements for Black life in the years following its publication.
This article is part of a series that explores communication scholarship that can deepen our understanding of contemporary events and important public issues. Jackson’s research is illuminating for activists, scholars, and the public alike. It encourages those who wish to understand contemporary political struggles to read media discourses on social movements critically, with attention to the ways they represent the past and the interests those representations serve. It also directs those who wish to engage in social activism to attend to the battle over how we remember our history, as it presents a crucial avenue to changing the future.
Meet the Scholar
Dr. Sarah J. Jackson is Presidential Associate Professor and Co-director of the Media, Inequality, & Change Center in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Jackson’s research explores how Black and feminist activist movements engage with different forms of media in pursuit of social change and how media representations impact and constrain these movements. Her acclaimed scholarship includes the books Black Celebrity, Racial Politics, and the Press: Framing Dissent and HashtagActivism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice, which was co-authored with Moya Bailey and Brooke Foucault Welles and awarded the 2021 Diamond Anniversary Book Award from the National Communication Association.
Dr. Jackson’s publications have appeared in renowned journals like Communication and Critical / Cultural Studies; Information, Communication & Society, and Feminist Media Studies. “Making #BlackLivesMatter in the Shadow of Selma: Collective Memory and Racial Justice Activism in the U.S. News,” the subject of this article, was published in Communication, Culture & Critique. She is also a sought-after public facing scholar who has written pieces for The Atlantic, and The New York Times.
Dr. Jackson serves as an editor for a number of publications, including as the Conversation & Commentator editor for Women’s Studies in Communication, and is on the advisory board for organizations like the Center for Critical Race and Digital Studies, which is affiliated with New York University, and the Center for Critical Internet Inquiry at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Before teaching for the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Jackson was an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Northeastern University. She received her Ph.D. in Mass Communication from the University of Minnesota, an M.A. in Communication from the University of Michigan, and a B.A. from the University of Utah.
Collective Memory and the Media
Michael Brown’s shooting and the protests that followed helped popularize the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, which first gained visibility in the 2012 police killing of Trayvon Martin and would gain momentum over the next decade as police violence against Black Americans continued to proliferate. Social movements like Black Lives Matter often come into being as urgent public reactions to the injustices of the present moment. They work to construct a future that ameliorates that injustice by changing the social and political conditions that perpetuate it. However, while social movements are driven by the present and oriented toward the future, they are also intimately linked to the past.
Dr. Johnson’s scholarship is instrumental in drawing attention to the fact that the news is not only about the new. The media, she argues, is critical to the construction of collective memory, and in particular, in determining whose collective memory obtains influence in mediating public reception of contemporary political events.
Collective memory, sometimes referred to as public memory, describes our shared, constructed understandings of the past. Collective memories are produced by and persist through our cultural representations of history, like those found in political speeches, in monuments and museums, and, as Jackson’s work illustrates, in the discourses of journalism and mass media. The study of memory differs from the traditional study of history, insofar as the latter attempts to locate via research a relatively objective understanding of the past, whereas memory scholarship is engaged with understanding how different cultures or publics come to understand the past in very different ways — ways that often have critical political and social implications.
Journalism and the news media, while often claiming the same objectivity we commonly associate with history, actively participate in the construction of collective memory through how they memorialize the past and represent its relevance to current events. Dr. Jackson applies public memory scholarship as a framework for understanding, not simply the commemorative practices of the news, but also the ways in which references to historical memory operate in media discourses to represent contemporary social movements as either legitimate or illegitimate.
Specifically, Dr. Jackson documents what she terms nostalgia and palliative neglect in the news discourse surrounding movements for Black life. Nostalgic discourses represent an idealized version of the Civil Rights Movement used to delegitimize contemporary protests, while palliative neglect makes a cursory acknowledgement of the history of racism in the United States while failing to address its enduring significance and connections to the present. Collectively, these forms of media representation work to undermine and critique the Black Lives Matter movement.
This process is resisted, Jackson argues, through media representations of “counter-memories” of the kind found in the Black public sphere: memories that stress the contact points between contemporary and historical racism and movements for racial equality. The following discussion delves further into these conflicting representations and their importance to framing the Black Lives Matter Movement.
Media Nostalgia for the Civil Rights Movement
Critically exploring journalistic discourses that undermine the demands of contemporary social movements is fundamental to understanding the media’s impact on struggles for change. Nostalgia evokes idealized and sanitized visions of past social struggles, which are mobilized to critique and delegitimize contemporary movement efforts. Jackson identifies this tendency most persistently and explicitly in right wing media. She diagnoses the way in which the Civil Rights Movement is assigned a mythic quality in contemporary media discourse. A flattened understanding of the Civil Rights Movement as organized, uniformly nonviolent, and successful is used to assess, and ultimately dismiss, the present movement for Black life.
In her article, Dr. Jackson provides the example of an episode of the Fox News show “The Kelly File,” in which Joe Hicks, an African American, conservative, political pundit, decried comparisons between the Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter, saying, “this has got to have people like Dr. King spinning in their grave…We knew what the protestors were trying to get in the old days…It was about justice. It was about becoming part of American society.”
This form of problematic nostalgia, Jackson argues, is not limited to conservative media. It plays out across mainstream media platforms like ABC and CNN, though these networks also tend to include more critical voices. It is, moreover, a tendency that persists today despite the successes of the movement since the time of her writing. In our discussion, Dr. Jackson reflected on the idea that, “Even as the BLM movement and other movements have become more mainstream in popular politics and pushed back against it, there continues appropriation of a very conservative impulse to quote MLK out of context.”
For example, as Dr. Jackson explained, there remains a frequent propensity to evoke Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous assertion that we should be seen for the content of our character not the color of our skin “in ways that frame anything that even talks about or addresses race as, itself, racist.” Clarifying that “what they’re calling ‘Critical Race Theory’; is really just education about racial history in the United States,” Jackson notes that, “in public debates about critical race theory, we’ve seen parents and politicians who are against critical race theory say that MLK would be against this because he said we should be seen by the content of our character, and this curriculum draws attention to the importance of race and risks making white students feel uncomfortable. I think you continue to see this bastardized form of collective memory being used in some ways that delegitimize racial justice efforts.”
In “Making Black Lives Matter in the Shadow of Selma,” Dr. Jackson contends that this form of cultural nostalgia anchors what other scholars have referred to as the “protest paradigm” — the tendency of news coverage to “dismiss and disparage protest claims and protest tactics” by elevating elite voices over those of the movement and framing protests as isolated moments of social conflict. These framings, Jackson furthers, often perpetuate “stereotypes of Black incivility and tropes denigrating the legitimacy of Black outrage even as other forms of protest are treated with more legitimacy
In our discussion, Dr. Jackson elaborated on this propensity to differently assess the legitimacy of protests on the basis of race. “Based on what I know about how discourse works and particularly discourse around race and activism in US society,” Jackson said, “there is simply a double-standard that is connected to white supremacy. There’s a double standard where we’re a nation that is literally based on people picking up arms and having a revolution and we celebrate it every year as a holiday. That included a lot of property destruction. The Boston Tea Party that the conservative movement takes its name from involved the literal destruction of property.”
Noting that she does not specialize in the study of right-wing politics, and recommending the work of Reece Peck and Khadijah Costley White, Dr. Jackson offered that, from lay observation, “there’s a different way in which I think the right recalls those kinds of history. They draw on collective memories around the founding of the country and the founders, which is a very violent history, to justify or frame their own forms of protest. That is, of course, hypocritical, because they can’t frame racial justice protests within the same idea that the founding tradition of the United States is to rise up against an oppressive government. At the same time, they certainly see themselves as part of this tradition of protest.”
Palliative Neglect and Counter-Memory
Palliative Neglect is distinct from explicit nostalgia insofar as it is defined more by what is unsaid than what is said. As Jackson explores in “Making Black Lives Matter in the Shadow of Selma,” “Palliative neglect is often enacted in all too familiar euphemisms and generalities like brief nods to ‘other racial issues’ or ‘difficult histories’ or ‘ongoing tensions’ without saying any more about the phenomena or contexts being referred to.” It amounts to a failure or refusal to critically explore the connections between contemporary protests and the injustices they respond to and their historical antecedents.
As such, Jackson argues that, “In essence palliative neglect is a form of information deprivation, a shrug at history, that leaves the public without the kind of memory required to understand the cultural and political linkages between past and present,” which, in turn, “absolves newsmakers” from grappling with the limits of their nostalgic representations of the Civil Rights Movement and, in particular, the myth that the movement’s successes achieved real racial equality in the United States.
Dr. Jackson’s research finds instances of palliative neglect across mainstream media coverage of police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement from networks like CNN, CBS, and NBC. She analyzes, for example, a segment of Sixty Minutes in which Scott Pelley, reporting on the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History & Culture, narrated, “Four hundred years have passed since America’s original sin, and still riots are ignited in the friction between race and justice.” Dr. Jackson observes that Pelley’s “description of the contents of the museum ends in the 1970’s,” which is “a notable absence given that the museum covers events well into the 21st century.”
Dr. Jackson argues that Pelley’s language, however compelling, “presumes viewers know what events Pelley refers to without them being named or explained.” His introduction to the museum reflects how “palliative neglect is what is not being said in favor of an apparent aversion to challenging a triumphant narrative of progress.” Palliative neglect thus “works as annihilation not only of informed memories of past Black radicalism but of its potential in the present.” This occurs through the construction of what Jackson refers to as a “past exonerative, “in which America’s racist past and its continued impact on the present is alluded to but not assigned fault or solutions. In this way palliative neglect naturalizes racism as immutable and disables interpretations that might be a call to action.”
For Jackson, the necessary political foil to nostalgia and palliative neglect is the construction of critical counter-memory that articulates the connections between racism and activism, past and present. In the case of media coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement, Jackson observes that television news coverage worked to circulate counter-memories in airing broadcasts focused “on the continuity of the issues facing the nation during the past and present and in the celebration of Black activism.” This coverage worked to publicize alternative memories of the Civil Rights Movement and the legacy of racism in the United States maintained by what Jackson, drawing on prior scholarship, describes as, “Black public spheres.”
Jackson demonstrates that providing a platform to “Black celebrities and creatives” who, because of their “unique access to the mainstream media and dominant publics, often serve as representatives of the politics of the Black public sphere,” and airing “conversations between African American journalists and African American activists and community leaders,” allowed counter-narratives to emerge against the dominant frames of nostalgia and palliative neglect. Resisting the discursive forces that undermine the present movement for Black life therefore requires change at the level of media production: the creation of spaces within broadcast media that are characterized by authentic racial, cultural, and ideological diversity.
The counter-memories offered through Black public spheres represent the past and present of racial justice struggles in the United States as “inseparably intertwined.” Jackson’s examples include media appearances made by the director and cast of the film Selma, an interview with the St. Louis minister Reverend Starsky Wilson, and a discussion between CNN Newsroom anchor Fredricka Whitfield and commentator Van Jones. Each of these examples, she argues, stress the continuity between the past and present in a manner that works to legitimize, rather than delegitimize, contemporary struggles for Black life.
Through their discussion, Whitfield and Jones contest the dominant, nostalgic narrative surrounding the Civil Rights Movement, “which locates the Civil Rights Movement in a long time past with its issues resolved.” By explaining how “some of the specific issues contemporary activists are protesting parallel the past, remind[ing] their audience that a police killing instigated the Selma and Montgomery marches, and legitimiz[ing] the voices of young people in the political process,” Whitfield and Jones achieve “a remarkable amount of counter-memorial labor,” Dr. Jackson concludes, “and [construct] memory of contemporary activism as righteous — ‘Selma reenacted’ in the process.”
While these examples of counter-memory are compelling, Jackson notes that they are sporadic on mainstream media, pointing to the canceled “Melissa Harris-Perry Show” on MSNBC as a rare example of a show that “made counter-memory its business.” Dr. Jackson observes that the show’s critical abilities stemmed from the fact it included a “remarkably more diverse set of guests, experts and sources” than other news programs and amplified the voices of activists and academics. Harris-Perry herself, Dr. Jackson points out, is a scholar of African American politics. Incorporating counter-memory into mainstream media is, then, a matter of increasing the influence of those who have “very specific knowledge of the phenomena being covered from the perspective of Black and activist communities.”
Memory, Black Lives Matter, and Contemporary Social Movements
Much has changed about the Black Lives Matter movement and the political culture in which it operates since 2014. During our discussion, Dr. Jackson highlighted two ways in which she observed significant developments in the relationship between journalism and the Black Lives Matter movement over the past years. First, she notes “a shift from 2015 when I’m looking at the case and 2021, when the article came out, in terms of how the media and public discourse were covering Black Lives Matter. Primarily, the movement became mainstream because of the events of 2020, following what happened in Minneapolis and Louisville and elsewhere,” she explained. Mainstream, not in the sense that it is “fully integrated into mainstream politics,” Dr. Jackson qualified, “but it certainly became known in the United States and globally as the contemporary version of the Black freedom movement.”
Dr. Jackson associates the success of the movement with its ability to incorporate Black counter-memory into mainstream discourses. “In that time, I think there was a positive shift in the news coverage in that I do think that most outlets–not all, but most –began to cover the movement, as well as the claims and issues that the movement was concerned with, with more care and more nuance. This included bringing in more Black activists to speak to their demands, and giving a platform to more African American historians, more people who study the criminal justice system, and others who can provide a more critical perspective on historical memory
The Black Lives Matter movement and its associated political struggles, then, worked with some success to transform perceptions of history that led to the de-legitimization of the Black Lives Matter Movement and racial justice advocacy in general. This first shift, however, has been beset by a second shift, which Dr. Jackson describes as “an intense backlash we’ve experienced in the last two years following the 2020 moment.” She observes that, “Certainly what we have seen is that the media, and in particular I would say conservative media and the conservative movement as a whole, has figured out how to make compelling anti-arguments to racial justice efforts,” that have “been coded through the debates around critical race theory and narratives about upticks in crime, which very inaccurately, in my understanding, say that rising crime has happened since the movement.”
These anti-arguments differ in important respects from the discourses Dr. Jackson observed in her essay. She notes that, “in this current moment of backlash against the movement I’m seeing fewer recollections of the Civil Rights Movement from opponents of the movement and the right, and I think a big part of that is that the Black Lives Matter Movements and its allies did a good job in the 2020 moment of framing the movement as in fact the legacy of civil rights. They did a lot in public discourse to push back on the idea that what they were doing was so radical and so different. They put to work what I discuss in the article — this radical Black remembering about how many contemporary issues were also issues in the Civil Rights Movement, that police brutality was, in fact, one of the things that triggered the Selma to Montgomery March that is often celebrated in mainstream public discourse.”
This illustrates the important ways that movements work to popularize counter-memory in response to delegitimizing dominant narratives. Though the frames of nostalgia and palliative neglect worked to obscure the legitimating linkages between past and present struggles, movements can, through their own discourse and efforts at public education, contest these dominant mythologies. Nevertheless, Dr. Jackson observes a persistence in the way in which collective memory remains a strategy of de-legitimization. She explained that, “I do think we’re still seeing the conservative rhetoric about Black Lives Matter not being legitimate because it’s not ‘nonviolent’ like the Civil Rights Movement, which I talk about in the article as a myth that is used to delegitimize. I think that’s a common conservative talking point on Black Lives Matter.”
Collective Memory and the Future of Social Movements
Dr. Jackson’s work has important takeaways for how scholars, activists, and the public should understand contemporary social movements. The strategic use of memory to frame contemporary issues, and the role that the media plays in that process of constructing and prioritizing different understandings of history, calls attention to an important role that media plays as a site of struggle in determining how we understand the past, the present, and the future.
“Making Black Lives Matter in the Shadow of Selma” is an informative starting point for critically engaging with the significance of these media representations; it provides a foundation for assessing the role they play in constructing memory, and the impact this mediated memory has on the public’s perception of contemporary political issues and their reception of the narratives surrounding these issues. We may think, for example, of the ways in which progressive movements within the Democratic party, such as those to secure universal healthcare, have been accosted by memory discourses of socialism and communism.
We might consider, too, how the politics of memory may work similarly or differently in response to conservative movements — for instance, the way that media commentary on the left has mobilized historical memories of fascism or authoritarianism in their criticisms of the contemporary right. These political movements and their responses are, of course, critically different, and neither is a social movement in the way that Black Lives Matter is. The presence of memory discourses in the media’s reception of each, though, testifies to the potentially wide-ranging applications of Dr. Jackson’s work for critically engaging contemporary politics.
Further, in drawing attention to the importance of counter-memory in contesting the delegitimizing rhetoric of nostalgia and palliative neglect, Dr. Jackson clarifies an important mode of resistance to media memory discourses that work to constrain movements for social change. Counter-memory can contest harmful representations of history only when it has the opportunity to do so, so the struggle for and access to media visibility are paramount. Incorporating the more radical, alternative memories of the Civil Rights era found in the Black public sphere into mainstream media broadcasts disrupted the dominant narrative of nostalgia and palliative neglect in ways that created space for further social and racial justice advocacy and discussions.
While Dr. Jackson’s article focuses on broadcast media as a site where counter-memory might be publicized, in our conversation she also highlighted the important role that digital media has played in cultivating counter-memory during our contemporary moment, signaling its importance for those interested in pursuing social change. Against a backdrop of a growing antagonism toward movements for racial justice and social change, Jackson observed that social media platforms, in particular, have played a central role in making what have often been framed as radical initiatives more mainstream.
“We have increasingly seen popular or public education through Instagram, and TikTok and Twitter, and all these other spaces,” Dr. Jackson reflected. “More young people would call themselves abolitionists in 2022 than in 2020 and certainly in 2014. I think that even the language of abolitionism is a call on collective memory, and that something the current police abolition and prison abolition movements have done really effectively, using a framework of abolition, which is a hallmark of a historical racial justice fight, in the contemporary memory movement.”
For Dr. Jackson, political struggles over the abolition of policing also reflect another important lesson for social movements, one which she says the Black Lives Matter movement has struggled to fully internalize. “I also think that the Black Lives Matter movement itself has struggled to mainstream the radical collective memory that I talk about in [my] article, [which] I really think acts as a type of popular education,” she explained, “It educates the public about how Black activism works and how social change happens. When people say that abolition is too big of an ask or that it’s impractical, a big part of that is a historical gap in people’s understanding, which [overlooks that] social movements always ask for the big end goal.”
“That’s how activists work,” Dr. Jackson continued. “They always ask for the thing that is the ideal, and what ends up happening is a compromise that doesn’t look like that. As much as I am somebody who aligns myself with the politics and demands of abolition, I think a lot of the mainstream hand wringing of ‘we shouldn’t have said this’ and ‘this doesn’t work’ and ‘this doesn’t actually align with what people want’ misses the point. The point is that change is made by demanding and lobbying for the ideal. I think if people had more historical knowledge about how that works, we wouldn’t so often fall into that conversation about these being impractical or unrealistic ideas.”
Dr. Jackson’s research therefore clarifies something essential about the nature of contemporary social movements. In struggling to create a more just future, movements are necessarily involved in educating the public about the past. This entails fostering an understanding of both the deeply rooted history of racial and social injustices that drive calls for social change and the history of protest itself — what it has accomplished and how.