The Race Beat
The Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation
by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff
Alfred A. Knopf
518 pp., $30

It is impossible to read a history of press coverage of the civil rights movement without reflecting darkly on today’s era of secret surveillance, clandestine prisons, and prosecutorial threats against newspapers that expose government misdeeds. As the struggle in the South illustrated, only when reporters throw spotlights on the ugliest behavior does the conscience of the country begin to stir. Only when the press is relentless at portraying awful truths, even in the face of danger, will that conscience mobilize for change. That’s how it works in an open political system that owes its allegiance to an informed people. The authors of the First Amendment sure had it right.

Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff draw no parallel between then and now, but every gracefully written page of The Race Beat prompts big thoughts about the nature of America. With each gripping story of racial confrontation, every meticulous reconstruction of the perverse misuse of law, every account of vile acts committed by the segregationist press and courageous efforts by a few white southern editors, this probing book reverberates with large lessons in democracy and justice.

Roberts and Klibanoff begin with Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish economist and parliamentarian, who recognized in the early 1940s, as he completed researching An American Dilemma, that “a great many Northerners, perhaps the majority, get shocked and shaken in their conscience when they learn the facts.” He put his conclusion in italics for emphasis: “To get publicity is of the highest strategic importance to the Negro people.”

But major American news organizations did not examine racial issues until racially charged violence erupted in the South. “The press, other than black newspapers and a handful of liberal southern editors, simply didn’t recognize racism in America as a story,” the authors write. Like the society, coverage was segregated. “The mainstream American press wrote about whites but seldom about Negro Americans or discrimination against them; that was left to the Negro press.” As late as 1956, two years after the Supreme Court ordered school desegregation in Brown v. Board of Education, The New York Times misreported on the South in an eight-page, 50,000-word pullout section that found moderate progress toward integration and “failed to note that the region was about to explode,” the book declares. As for southern newspapers, “For the most part, they treated Negro communities as a creepy corner of the world not worthy of their readers’ time.”

Therefore, black-owned papers had the story practically all to themselves at first, and their reporters — notably Vincent Tubbs, hired in 1941 as the “lynch reporter” for the Baltimore Afro-American — traveled remote and dangerous roads. “White journalists could drive themselves into town and not draw suspicion,” the authors write. “Not Negro reporters. Tubbs would have to get off the bus one town earlier than his destination, stash his city duds, throw on some local garb, muss himself up to blend with the local scenery, and hitchhike, Old Black Joe-like, to where the lynching had taken place. He’d hope to get in a couple of days of reporting, then slip out of town.” Sadly, white editors weren’t reading black newspapers.

By the height of the civil rights movement twenty years later, the black press had been marginalized by white officials who excluded black reporters from courtrooms, campuses, and other key sites. And the white-owned national press had become so central in the run of events that its absence could bring a terrifying chill, as John Lewis, now a Georgia congressman, realized in 1961 when he led a group of ten Freedom Riders integrating a bus from Nashville.
He watched a threatening mob of whites surround the bus after it pulled into Birmingham. Yet “Lewis felt relatively safe,” the authors write, “as long as he could look out the window and see reporters and photographers at the bus station and as long as they could see him. That sense of security quickly evaporated when police officers began taping cardboard and newspapers over all the bus’s windows.” A few days earlier, Birmingham’s infamous police chief, Bull Connor, had given Klansmen an uninterrupted fifteen minutes to beat another group of Freedom Riders with pipes, bicycle chains, blackjacks, and steel knuckles. “‘He doesn’t want the press to see inside the bus,’ Lewis thought. ‘He wants to hide what is happening.’”

David K. Shipler is the author of A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America and a former New York Times correspondent.