FROM THE VAULT: FCC yanks WLBT’s license

Group succeeds in years-long effort to challenge station’s discriminatory practices
Published: Aug. 1, 2023 at 1:41 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Channel 3 had been on the air for just 18 years when the FCC did something it had never done to any other station - it revoked the owner’s license to operate.

The reason was a long pattern of racial discrimination in the station’s programming and hiring.

WLBT was not unlike other stations in the South back then, catering to white viewers and virtually ignoring anyone of color. Its first general manager was an open supporter of keeping the races separate, even selling anti-integration literature in the Jefferson Street lobby.

In 1964, the United Church of Christ filed a legal challenge to the station’s license renewal, hoping to get Channel 3 and other stations to change.

Eventually, after multiple rulings and appeals, it worked.

In 1971, a temporary license was given to a bi-racial non-profit group called Communications Improvement, Inc., which would run the station for the rest of the 1970s while new ownership groups competed to win the permanent license.

The Reverend Kenneth Dean served as CII’s first president.

“We expect to continue and expand WLBT’s service to this community,” he told reporters in 1971.

Rev. Kenneth Dean
Rev. Kenneth Dean(Miss. Dept. of Archives & History)

CII hired William Dilday of Boston to serve as the station’s general manager. He was the first African-American to hold that job at a network affiliate.

The rest of the station’s staff, on the air and behind the scenes, was beginning to look more like the audience it served.

William Dilday
William Dilday(Miss. Dept. of Archives & History)

In 1980, the permanent license was awarded to a new group with majority-Black representation, including state NAACP president and future state representative Aaron Henry, who served as chairman of the board. Years before, Henry had been denied airtime on Jackson television when he was running for office.

In 1984, Civic Communications, headed by future Jackson mayor Frank Melton, bought the station.

Through it all, the station maintained its dominance in the ratings, demonstrating it could be successful and reflect the makeup of the community at the same time.

Today, a Mississippi Freedom Trail marker stands outside the station to commemorate the events that helped shape the station viewers know today.

Want more WLBT news in your inbox? Click here to subscribe to our newsletter.

See a spelling or grammar error in our story? Please click here to report it and include the headline of the story in your email.