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Bill Plante, whose journalism career began in the turbulent early days of the civil rights movement, describes America's continuing struggle for justice.
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 Agendas 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 didnt
change anyones 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.
Jacksons death spurred a march by 600 demonstrators led by John
Lewis. Finding their path blocked after crossing the Edmund Pettus
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 hasnt 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.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Bill Plante offers an opinion during the National Agenda's question-and-answer session moderated by Lindsay Hoffman.
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, its 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 didnt stay in Selma at
night, because members of the KKK would chase reporters in their cars,
which were rented at the local airport. You didnt 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 UDs 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. Its important to have a call for action,
because if you dont, people will think you dont have a goal.
Plante, who returned to Selma earlier this year to cover a
commemoration of Kings 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 next session of the series will feature talks on Sept. 30 by Johnetta Elzie and DeRay Mckesson. Elzie, a field organizer for Amnesty International, has become an international storyteller for the Black Lives Matter movement. She and Mckesson, a civil rights activist, created We the Protesters and Campaign Zero to reduce police violence and provide tools for protesters. Both were awarded this year's Howard Zinn Freedom to Write Award for their activism.
The director of the National Agenda 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.