Hidden Gem: Peter Jennings at Emphasis ’69 (audio)

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“It is nice to be invited back to Alabama, instead of sent here.” –Peter Jennings, referring to his previous trips to the South during the civil rights movement

In April of 1969, the Emphasis program at UA, a yearly symposium dedicated to discussion of important current events topics, focused on the urbanization of America and the cultural divide between young and old, black and white. Speakers included sociology professor Louis Yablonsky, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Robert Weaver, and minister and politician Adam Clayton Powell.

But the most famous name among the speakers is future ABC News anchor Peter Jennings. He was only 31, but he had already done important reporting on the civil rights movement and Vietnam. (For more on Jennings, see his obituary at

In his half-hour speech at Emphasis ’69, he discussed the problem of America’s largest cities, especially the one he lived in, New York City, “the largest chicken coop in America.”

New York City, 1968

NYC, 1968 (photo by John VanderHaagen)

Listen to The American City: Paradox of Progress in Acumen.

Jennings gives various examples of ways in which city infrastructure cannot or will not properly handle problems (like the 1966 Transit Strike, the 1968 Garbage Strike and Police Slowdown).

Garbage Strike, NYC, 1968

NYC Garbage Strike, 1968 (photo by Dennis Harper)

He attributes most of these problems to overcrowding, but he also implicates the citizens themselves, saying New Yorkers, especially those in the middle and upper classes “don’t apparently give very much of a damn.” In a city of rural migrants and international immigrants in local enclaves, “with very few people who are born and bred with any sense of being part of a [larger] community,” citizens are unwilling to work toward improving the overall condition of the city. However, if they took an interest, they could help solve some of the city’s problems before it is too late.

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