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.’”
This time, Connor put the riders under “protective custody,” locked them in the Birmingham jail, and just before midnight drove them in three unmarked station wagons and dumped them at the Tennessee state line. It could have been worse, and it became so. Making their way back to Alabama, they eventually continued their ride to Mississippi, where they were again arrested and after two weeks sent “to the notorious Parchman State Penitentiary, the 22,000-acre prison farm in the Delta, where terror, degradation, and mystery filled the night,” the authors report. “ ‘Ain’t no newspapermen out here,’ one guard chuckled smugly to the inmates. ‘Something could happen to me,’ Lewis found himself thinking, ‘and nobody is going to know.’ He was experiencing his greatest fear.”
Segregation flourished in that shadow of fear. Surprisingly, though, when the press turned vicious practices into the sunlight, very few segregationists were deterred. Within full view of the cameras, white gangs and brutish cops usually played their villainous roles perfectly in a pageant of state-sanctioned violence against nonviolent demonstrators. So, civil rights leaders began picking demonstration sites where white police officials and mobs were likely to retaliate dramatically with clubs, chains, dogs, and fire hoses, Roberts and Klibanoff note, producing pictures to illustrate the hatred and galvanize the nation. The clashes propelled the reports onto front pages and television broadcasts, but it’s not clear from the book’s analysis how often the coverage searched beyond the bloodshed into the quiet, corrosive effects of Jim Crow, or into the movement’s strategies and goals.
Only a few ardent segregationists were canny enough to understand that a lack of violence could make a story fizzle. Laurie Pritchett, the cigar-chomping police chief of Albany, Georgia, “ordered his police to be as nonviolent as the protesters and to squash any efforts at violence by white bystanders,” the authors write, and he made mass arrests peaceably. He also tapped phones and “took tips from a rental car agent at the airport when journalists or federal agents arrived in town.” He even had informants among the press.
Elsewhere, however, segregationists infuriated by the coverage were more direct, attacking newsmen both in the streets and in the courts. White thugs bludgeoned reporters and photographers so frequently that few prominent journalists were left unscathed; Paul Guihard of Agence France Press was shot to death during riots as Ole Miss was integrated. By 1964, officials in three states had filed at least seventeen libel suits against news organizations, prompting New York Times lawyers to keep the paper’s reporters out of Alabama during most of two and a half years, lest they be detained. This damaged the paper’s coverage, although in the end, of course, the major case — New York Times Company v. Sullivan — became a landmark for press freedom.
Gene Roberts, whom I knew slightly years ago, covered the civil rights movement for southern papers and the Times, where he became both national and managing editor. He made his biggest mark as executive editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, whose staff won seventeen Pulitzers during his tenure. Klibanoff is managing editor of news at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and together they emerge as fluent story-tellers, weaving biographical background into the rapid run of their narrative, drawing sharp vignettes of complicated men struggling through moments high with drama. As a northerner, I’ve always had a bias in favor of liberal white southerners telling this momentous story, and this book proves the point.
Roberts is one of the country’s most respected journalists, and he has said elsewhere that his professional values were affected by the southern white editors who took great risks to fill a leadership vacuum and preach moderation, tolerance, and obedience to federal law. They included Harry Ashmore of the Charlotte News and the Arkansas Gazette, Ralph McGill of the Atlanta Constitution, Hodding Carter Jr. of the Delta Democrat-Times in Mississippi, Buford Boone of the Tuscaloosa News, Eugene Patterson of the Atlanta Constitution, and Lenoir Chambers of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, all of whom won Pulitzers for editorial writing.
They stood in stark relief against their segregationist colleagues who distorted the news and fanned the fires. The Advertiser of Montgomery, Alabama, downplayed the city bus boycott’s effectiveness so that only “in the twentieth paragraph out of 47, readers learned that 90 percent of the Negro riders had refused to ride,” the authors report. In its “complicity, indifference, or laziness,” the Advertiser also published a hoax — a phony story planted by segregationists that the boycott had ended.
Mississippi’s most influential television station, WLBT, gave free time to the segregationist Citizens’ Council and space in the lobby for a bookstore displaying white supremacist literature. Its manager, Fred Beard, “reviewed, edited, censored, and sometimes added editorial comment to national broadcasts coming into the station, shaping them to his Citizens’ Council point of view.”
After the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King declared, “I have a dream” and moved the nation, the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson put on its cover a photograph showing the litter left behind and the headline washington is clean again with negro trash removed.
In Philadelphia, Mississippi, The Neshoba Democrat invited vigilantism, stating: “Outsiders who come in here and try to stir up trouble should be dealt with in a manner they won’t forget.”
Roberts and Klibanoff interviewed, sifted through clips, and mined memoirs and personal letters. They are never simplistic; their portraits are spare but revealing, their subjects often complex, evolving painfully. James J. Kilpatrick, the intellectual, crude, pugnacious editor of the Richmond News Leader, promoted the legal strategy of “interposition,” whereby states placed themselves between their people and a federal government that was trying to impose “mongrelization of our society.” Virginia followed his advice, enacting laws that automatically closed down schools when federal courts ordered them integrated. But later Kilpatrick expressed shame after seeing a sit-in by “colored students in coats, white shirts, ties” juxtaposed against the “gang of white boys come to heckle, a ragtail rabble, slackjawed, black-jacketed, grinning fit to kill, and some of them, God save the mark, were waving the proud and honored flag of the Southern States.”
Words had impact. Mississippi suffered violence in part because its newspapers stirred the pot of hatred. Georgia desegregated its university peacefully thanks in part to McGill, the Atlanta Constitution editor. Ashmore defused some resistance by assembling a consortium of editors who created the Southern School News, a straight, factual monthly newspaper reporting reactions by school districts to desegregation orders.
Editors on both sides often stepped beyond their proper roles into the thicket of policymaking. Boone, of The Tuscaloosa News, held meetings with business leaders on maintaining calm when the university was integrated. Patterson, of the Constitution, wrote a speech delivered by Lady Bird Johnson at a 1964 campaign stop in Georgia. The Washington Post’s publisher, Philip Graham, arranged for a phone call in which Ashmore appealed to deputy attorney general William Rogers to urge intervention by President Eisenhower to quell the violence in Little Rock. North Carolina editors, coordinating with school boards that were planning peaceful desegregation, kept the news from their own reporters to avoid giving segregationists a chance to mount resistance.
When four little girls were killed in the church bombing in Birmingham, Patterson eloquently spread the blame. “Only we can trace the truth, Southerner — you and I. We broke those children’s bodies. We watched the stage set without staying it. We listened to the prologue unbestirred … . We — who go on electing politicians who heat the kettles of hate … . This is no time to load our anguish onto the murderous scapegoat who set the cap in dynamite of our own manufacture … . He thinks he has pleased us.”
Who is writing that way now, as our government tapes cardboard and newspapers over the windows?
Ends today: If you'd like to help CJR and win a chance at one of
10 free print subscriptions, take a brief survey for us here.