NEW YORK – A CBS News event Thursday marking the 50th anniversary of civil rights legislation is both a look back at history and a glimpse into future business opportunities for a broadcast news division.
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The live program, "CBS News: 50 Years Later, Civil Rights," moderated by Bob Schieffer features civil rights activist Harry Belafonte, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, actress Whoopi Goldberg and others. It will be shown at 8 p.m. EDT on the Smithsonian Channel and CBSNews.com, with Microsoft adding an interactive element allowing viewers to express opinions.
"I don't think I've ever felt as honored to be part of something as I am with this," said chief Washington correspondent Schieffer, who's bringing his twin 13-year-old granddaughters to New York's Ed Sullivan Theater to watch.
Schieffer will host a discussion with relatives of Freedom Riders killed in the South, hear Lewis' accounting of demonstrations and look at civil rights battles of today with a panel that includes Jason Collins, the first openly gay NBA player.
Online, viewers can see testimonials from public figures about what the civil rights battle meant to them and watch footage of CBS News coverage from the time, including a Walter Cronkite-anchored special about the disappearance of three civil rights activists in Mississippi.
Schieffer, along with Bill Plante, is one of the few remaining CBS News figures with experience covering the issue. He remembers as "the most terrifying night of my life" reporting on the enrollment of the first black student at the University of Mississippi, being in a crowd as snipers were shooting nearby.
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Schieffer grew up in the segregated South, in Fort Worth, Texas, and said he didn't shake hands with a black person until he was a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force.
"It wasn't because I didn't want to," he said. "They lived on one side of town and we lived on the other and the two sides just didn't come together."
He said he wanted his grandchildren, and as many Americans as possible who had no experience with that time in history, to learn about it.
"What it says about America is part of our strength," he said. "Even when we make a mistake, we corrected a wrong that had been 200 years in the making."
The event is being produced by a new unit, CBS Live Experiences. The idea is to create live events that use some of the expertise and archives of the news division. CBS has become more active in making some of its archival material available, replaying online several days of coverage surrounding John F. Kennedy's assassination at the time of that event's 50th anniversary.
Future anniversaries of news, cultural or big sports events could provide opportunities for programs on both national and local levels, said David Goodman, president of CBS Live Experiences. Networks are seeking revenue-producing ideas that go beyond advertiser-supported television shows. The division produced programming this past winter surrounding the anniversary of the Beatles' debut on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Goodman was previously in charge of producing music performances in association with David Letterman's show.
"The idea is 'let's do something more with the assets we already have,'" he said.
CBS is part of CBS Corp.