Edward L. Bernays
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Civil Rights Action Through the Media

When Arthur B. Spingarn, New York lawyer and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) founder, asked Edward Bernays to handle publicity for the 1920 regional convention in Atlanta, the respectful term for black people was "Negro", though not too many people were using it. Affecting a major attitudinal change was to be a terrific challenge.

Affecting a major attitudinal change was to be a terrific challenge.

The goals of the campaign were to use the Atlanta Convention as "a springboard for publicity, to make the South and North realize that we are in earnest in battling for the civil rights of the Negro." These "rights" were considered revolutionary: abolish lynching, segregation, and Jim Crow railroad cars; and obtain equal education, industrial opportunities, and voting rights.

Holding the NAACP conference in Atlanta was "startling to say the least," according to The New York Times. While Bernays began contacting Northern newspapers and press services offering to cover the convention for them, his associate and future wife, Doris Fleischman, went to Atlanta to recruit Georgia's elected officials to attend the conference and show their support.

In Atlanta, Fleischman was threatened by the people opposed to "Negro rights," and the politicians were unnerved. The Governor told her that he couldn't attend the conference because he had to go duck hunting. She suggested that it might be a good idea to have the militia stand by in case of violence. He agreed.

By the time Bernays arrived from New York, the community was filled with tension and there were repeated threats of mass violence. Unintimidated, Bernays and Fleischman outlined three themes to the media:

First, "the Negro's importance to the economic development of the south." Bernays said, "This approach was based on an appeal to their (white people's) fear of losing profits if migration of workers persisted."

Second, "the less intolerant attitudes of some Southern leaders toward Negroes which would hopefully strengthen the nucleus of supporters and develop a bandwagon movement."

Third, "the support of the NAACP by important leaders in the north to induce Southern group leaders to follow their lead. Bernays had gathered statements from north leaders which he promoted in the press."

The conference was held without incident and delegates to the conference voted to send their objectives to President Wilson and to Congress. Media coverage was impressive. Atlanta's newspapers, The New York Globe, The Evening Post, The Chicago Daily, and others carried stories about the meeting and a feature outlining "progress made by Negroes from the plantation labor to business and the professions."

"For the first time in the history of the country," Bernays said, "under the dateline of the South's industrial metropolis, news was published throughout the country alerting the people of the United States that whites and negroes alike were seeking new status for the Negro."