A look back: WSB-TV and the civil rights movement

ATLANTA — This week, as we celebrate 70 years of WSB-TV, we're looking back at the stories that changed our city, state and nation.

On July 2, 1964 the Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination based on race. Just two days later, a young WSB-TV reporter found out the battle over race was far from over.

On July 4, 1964, the WSB-TV newsroom assigned reporter Dave Riggs to cover a pro-segregation rally in Lakewood Park in southeast Atlanta.

Riggs took former WSB-TV anchor John Pruitt with him.

[RELATED: John Pruitt's last show]

At the time, Pruitt was a former news intern who was just days into his first actual job.

“As it turned out, that story developed in two places, because there were the speakers – the governor of Mississippi was there, J.B. Stoner was there, I think Gov. Maddox was there, he wasn’t governor then, but Mr. Maddox was there -- and they were speaking to this crowd, a very pro-segregation group. A group of blacks broke in over the fence on the other side of stadium and were trying to get to the place where the speakers were. But some of the people in the crowd went over and there was a confrontation,” Riggs said.

Riggs had to man the camera on a tripod, so he put Pruitt to work.

“He gave me a silent camera, which I had never operated, didn't know how to operate, showed me the button to push and said, ‘Go see what you can get.’ So I more or less waded into the crowd and got some pictures of the violence up close and personal,” Pruitt said.

[PHOTOS: Behind-the-scenes at WSB-TV]

At the time, WSB was an NBC affiliate. The network used Pruitt's film that night to show the violence.

“Almost every day, we were going out to cover stories of racial strife, protests, demonstrations, Klan rallies, eruptions of civil protests in some Georgia cities outside the city of Atlanta,” Pruitt said. “It was a time of peril for reporters, dangerous times, but we all felt we were covering important history that was being made. We were chronicling a movement, a social revolution, in a very real way. That was probably the most vibrant time of my career.”

In 1967, WSB-TV made history when it hired radio journalist Lo Jelks. Jelks was Atlanta’s first black television reporter.

[RELATED: WSB-TV marks 70 years of coverage]

Jelks says he covered everything from City Hall to preparations for a Klan rally.

“One of the first things I was told about that assignment was, ‘Listen, if you don't want to do this, you don't have to do this.’ But I wanted that experience,” Jelks said.

It was a challenging time in Atlanta and across the country – and TV played an important part.

“These scenes were coming into their homes every evening on the news via television. So I think the fact that we could use a visual medium to bring the emotion and the pictures of the movement into people’s homes really helped to accelerate it and bring about change much quicker,” Pruitt said.

The civil rights movement is only one of the big stories we've covered in the last 70 years. Take a look back with us Sunday at 7 p.m. during our primetime special “70 years at WSB-TV.” 

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