In 1973, a reporter from Ebony magazine in Chicago came to Durham to write a story on WAFR-FM. When she arrived at 336 ½ E. Pettigrew St., she found a radio station like no other in America.
In one room of the station, two teachers and a group of 5-year-olds chanted in unison, “I am a black and proud warrior dedicated to the liberation of all black people. I recognize Africa as the motherland and her people as my people.” In another room, local theater director Karen Rux guided teenagers as they produced their own radio show called “Black Seeds .” Jazz and African music drifted from the control booth, peppered with announcements from deejays with names like Obataiye Akinwole and Shanga Sadiki.
In a vivid, six-page feature, Ebony told of a groundbreaking radio station, “a black voice in Durham.” In fact, WAFR had become the very first black non-commercial community radio station in the U.S. when it went on the air in September 1971.
It was also the first, if not the only, radio station in America devoted to advancing the goals of the Black Power movement.
“We can hold a mass meeting across the airwaves every day from 8 a.m. to midnight,” Robert Spruill, the station’s president told Ebony. “It’s part of the struggle to define, to clear up and to complement those things which affect black lives.” In broadcasting a heady mix of music, politics, and information to an audience of up to 75,000 listeners, WAFR’s staffers were both activists and journalists, educators and entertainers
In the 1960s and ’70s, the Research Triangle was a hotbed of activist media. In Durham, anti-apartheid activists Reed Kramer and Tami Hultman launched the Africa News Service, the first news agency devoted to distributing reports from Africa in the U.S. At Raleigh’s Shaw University, Elizabeth Czech helped launch WSHA, only the second radio station in the nation at a historically black college. Underground newspapers such as Chapel Hill’s Protean Radish and Durham’s The North Carolina Anvil covered local civil rights and anti-war campaigns, as did Duke University’s WDBS radio station. The Institute of Southern Studies’ Southern Exposure magazine produced left-leaning stories on the South’s politics, culture, and history. And in Warrenton, just a little over 50 miles outside the Triangle, activists Jim and Valeria Lee operated the powerhouse community radio station, WVSP-FM.
These activist media outlets are at the heart of “Media and the Movement: Journalism, Civil Rights, and Black Power in the American South,” a project based at UNC’s Southern Oral History Program and funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Our team of researchers includes myself, Professors Charmaine McKissick-Melton and Jerry Gershenhorn from N.C. Central University, and Professors Jacquelyn Hall and Seth Kotch from UNC-Chapel Hill.
Media and the Movement hopes to shine a new light on our state’s and the Triangle’s activist campaigns of the 1960s and ’70s, most of which rarely figure into national accounts of the civil rights movement. In addition, portrayals of media and civil rights activists all too often depict the two communities as separate groups that never overlapped. With our project, we hope to correct this misperception and document North Carolina’s many civil rights activists who thrived as journalists and broadcasters in independent and non-commercial media. We are also digitizing rare and endangered recordings from stations like WAFR and WVSP and making them available to the public online.
To learn more about Media and the Movement, please visit our project website at mediaandthemovement.unc.edu.
Joshua Clark Davis is a Thompson Postdoctoral Fellow at Duke University.