David Halberstam’s Mississippi apprenticeship

David Halberstam sits at his desk in 1964 (AP Photo)

David Halberstam rolled into a northeast Mississippi town called West Point in July 1955, driving a ’46 Chevrolet packed with clothes, a hi-fi player, and vinyl records. According to a piece he later wrote in Esquire, he was looking for the offices of The Daily Times Leader, the local newspaper. Less than three weeks earlier, he had crossed a stage to receive a Harvard diploma and now, on a hot Saturday afternoon, he was driving into a rural, Clay County railroad town where he did not know a soul. A welcome sign at the town limits said, “Point of Opportunity,” he recalled in the Esquire piece, but it must have felt something like being banished to Siberia to the tall, bespectacled 21-year-old who grew up in the Bronx and the New York suburbs.

Halberstam had gone to Mississippi to be a reporter for the State Times, a progressive upstart paper in Jackson with a Nieman fellow named Tom Karsell leading the newsroom. They had met in Cambridge the previous year when Halberstam was still an undergrad. Over afternoon martinis, a job was offered. By the time Halberstam arrived in Jackson, however, Karsell had jumped to a competing paper and had no position to offer. Halberstam remembered in the Esquire piece that he holed up in a Jackson motel reading W.J. Cash’s The Mind of the South for three days, trying to decide his next move.

Eventually, Karsell called and said the paper in West Point—150 miles away—was looking for a reporter. Halberstam must have groaned. In college, he had been managing editor of The Harvard Crimson, worked some for The Hartford Courant, and been a stringer for The Boston Globe. Those experiences had instilled in the headstrong young man an understanding of journalism’s higher purpose.

 

Halberstam felt he was “writing for a larger, intangible, invisible national journalistic jury, which somehow would know what I was doing and would reward me if I faced issues of conscience correctly.”

 

Whatever professional horizon Halberstam envisioned for himself, The Daily Times Leader stood in contrast. Its circulation was approximately 4,000, which made it the smallest daily paper in Mississippi, a state known for its conservative and, at the time, racist majority. Not to mention that West Point, population 6,500, lacked the excitement that would have appealed to a young bachelor. But, for Halberstam, nothing else was doing. In a 2001 interview with the First Amendment Center, he said he had left Cambridge after announcing that he was going be a star reporter in Mississippi. Slinking back there was not an option. So Halberstam walked down to his hotel’s lobby and called Henry Harris, the editor of The Daily Times Leader. Harris offered a salary of $46 a week and told him he could start Monday, according to the Esquire piece. Halberstam accepted and set out for West Point. He would be the only reporter on staff.

By the time he found the newspaper’s offices on that Saturday afternoon, the only person there was Beulah Harris, Henry’s mother. After he introduced himself, the 63-year-old Baptist woman looked him up and down and responded: “Jesus Christ sent you here.”

When that left the young Jewish man speechless, she said, “Why else would you be here?”

Halberstam lasted less than a year.

It was not a happy time.

The Daily Times Leader, under Harris’ leadership, did not print bylines with the pieces it published. Harris took the position that each story was a collaborative effort, and if the writer was going to get credit, so should the editor, the copy editor, and so on. Halberstam was not pleased with this approach. “Given the ego of our profession, bylines are considered crucial, part of the trade-off for poor wages, and like any young reporter I wanted them,” he wrote in Esquire. However, this practice was not unheard of; other small papers from that era did not grant reporters bylines.

There was an exception at The Daily Times Leader, though. When a new reporter joined the paper, the first major story he or she authored would carry a byline, a sort of introduction to the community. So Halberstam’s stint in West Point produced a single byline. In some Mississippi journalism circles, a legend has grown up around the story.

Late last year, I went to the Mitchell Memorial Library at Mississippi State University. There, in the library’s special collections, I found Halberstam’s only bylined piece in The Daily Times Leader. It was about a surplus of crickets that converged on West Point in the summer of 1955.

I have lived 25 or so miles from West Point since 2013, and seen no noteworthy spike in the cricket population. But B.J. McClenton, the Clay County agent with the MSU Extension Service, explained to me recently that dry weather leads to cracks in the ground, which give crickets room to lay eggs. If it rains, the eggs hatch.

Halberstam’s cricket piece appeared on Aug. 11, 1955, below the fold, under the headline “Newest Invasion Baffles Everybody But Angler.” Here’s how it starts:

 

West Point has been invaded.

The annual great horde of crickets has descended on the city entering homes, business, and more than anything else, getting under people’s feet.

Local officials today refused to estimate just how many of them have entered the city limits. It is believed to be a staggering figure.

Webster’s Dictionary, when contacted today, termed the cricket a “leaping orthopsterous [sic] insect noted for the chirping notes produced by the male rubbing together specially modified parts of the forewings.”

It refused to say more and had no comment on how to get rid of them.

 

Another friction Halberstam encountered in his first newsroom will be recognizable to most any reporter: His youthful desire to fashion his prose in ways that would impress rather than inform. One can picture him eagerly opening each day’s edition to read his copy, only to be disappointed by what had been done to his stylings. His editor pruned a lot of stilted prose.

There was a larger, more specific problem for Halberstam in West Point, though.

The previous year, the US Supreme Court had declared, in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, that separate public schools for blacks and whites were unconstitutional. The ruling sent shock waves across the south. Halberstam had the foresight to understand that Mississippi at the time was ground zero for the biggest domestic US story of the 20th century: the civil rights movement. In fact, he had come south specifically to cover it. In 2001, Halberstam told John Egerton in an interview for the book Nashville: An American Self-Portrait that he had brought with him to West Point a copy of Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma, a landmark book published a decade earlier about US race relations. By disposition and given the scope of his ambition, Halberstam yearned to cover the civil rights movement head-on. Again, his editor was not enthused.

Henry Harris had inherited his position at the paper from his late father, who had edited and published it since the 1930s. Henry Harris was more businessman than reporter. He knew it would be bad for business for The Daily Times Leader to splash its pages with stories and headlines on the issue of integration.

“Clearly, [Henry Harris’s] style of journalism did not mesh with that of Halberstam, nor likely anyone from above the Mason Dixon line,” Layne Bruce, a West Point native who today is executive director of the Mississippi Press Association, told me. “However, it would not have been considered overly conservative for the time.”

The summer Halberstam turned up in West Point, Harris would have recently turned 30. Harris knew his future lay in his hometown, running his father’s paper. He would have felt how important it was to get along with local leadership.

Halberstam, in the Esquire piece, wrote that Harris “was editing for the very immediate jury of his town peers, who wanted as little that was controversial in the paper as he did.” Meanwhile, each time Halberstam sat down in The Daily Times Leader offices on Court Street, he said he felt he was “writing for a larger, intangible, invisible national journalistic jury, which somehow would know what I was doing and would reward me if I faced issues of conscience correctly.”

 

“Clearly, [Henry Harris’s] style of journalism did not mesh with that of Halberstam, nor likely anyone from above the Mason Dixon line.”

 

It is easy to see the two men, tied to such opposite trajectories, harboring silent resentments about one another. In fact, when you consider how different they were—in disposition, political leanings, career ambitions—it is a wonder Halberstam lasted eight months in West Point.

One of the reasons may have been that while the rest of Mississippi was churning in civil rights strife, West Point was, on that front, relatively quiet. By the late 1960s, the town would be the scene of boycotts, marches, and protests. Halberstam wrote in Esquire, however, that during his time in town, West Point leaders kept change at bay. The chances for him to report directly on the civil rights movement were few.

So Harris and Halberstam managed to coexist.

Harris had a smart and capable, if cocky, reporter who, according to the Esquire piece, began work at 7:30 a.m. each day covering everything from crime to high school football games to monthly selectmen meetings. Halberstam, meanwhile, had an opportunity to learn the ropes of his chosen profession.

When not making the rounds or writing stories, Halberstam lived in a West Point rooming house. He wrote in Esquire about playing basketball at the YMCA and hanging out at Moore’s, a cafe where he first heard Elvis Presley’s voice from a jukebox.

Halberstam eventually began writing freelance pieces on the civil rights movement for national outlets like The Reporter, a now-defunct political magazine out of New York. In September 1955, when Emmett Till’s killers stood trial in Sumner, Mississippi, Halberstam asked Harris to let him cover it for The Daily Times Leader. Harris declined. Halberstam ultimately wrote a dispatch for The Reporter about the Till case, driving over to the Mississippi Delta on weekends to take in the scene. He also freelanced a piece about the violent reaction of whites in Yazoo County to a group of African-Americans trying to integrate public schools. Harris, who felt acknowledging the issues in print served to stoke the fire, was not pleased. He initially told Halberstam he could not freelance while working at The Daily Times Leader. He later softened that injunction, as Halberstam recalled in Esquire, telling the cub reporter, “If you have to freelance, can’t you do it for Field & Stream or Outdoor Life?”

The freelance pieces stopped.

 

“A small town, a completely different experience, having to learn how to deal with ordinary people and seeing the complexity of ordinary people. And working in alien circumstances, something that served anybody that covered civil rights well, and later Vietnam well. It was an extraordinary year.”

 

Halberstam wrote in Esquire that the end came in the spring of 1956. Through a contact on the West Point Police Department, he learned about a meeting in town aimed at forming a local branch of the Citizens’ Council, a white supremacist group fighting the integration of public schools. Halberstam attended and wrote a long piece about it. The next morning, after reading the story, Harris told Halberstam he would not publish it. Harris said the meeting had been private, and besides, the Citizens’ Council did not allow reporters at gatherings. The piece did not run. In less than a week, Halberstam was no longer a reporter for The Daily Times Leader. The parting seems to have been by mutual agreement.

Halberstam did not flounder.

According to the interview with Egerton, Halberstam got a recommendation from Hodding Carter, the Pulitzer prize-winning editor of the Delta Democrat-Times in Greenville, Miss., to join The Tennessean in Nashville. In less than a decade, he would receive a Pulitzer of his own for his coverage of the Vietnam War for The New York Times. National magazine assignments—including several from Willie Morris, the Mississippi-born editor of Harper’s—followed, then a storied career in books. He made his name as a dogged, relentless reporter—at heart, the same person he’d been when he showed up in West Point.

Henry Harris died of cancer in 1975. He was 50, and still running The Daily Times Leader.

Despite the sometimes difficult time Halberstam had in West Point, he never forgot his stint there. He produced a novel inspired by his days in Mississippi—The Noblest Roman—in 1961, and he often included the job in biographical blurbs until he died in a car wreck in 2007, at the age of 73.

In fact, he came to view his Mississippi time as crucial to his development as a journalist.

Curtis Wilkie was a longtime friend of Halberstam’s. He is a Mississippi native who, from 1975 to 2000, worked for The Boston Globe, covering the conflict in the Middle East and eight presidential elections. He began his career, though, at a small daily in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in the early 1960s. Wilkie was a professor of mine when I was a student at the University of Mississippi, and I still remember him talking about how covering the civil rights movement during that tough period prepared him, more than anything else, for the rest of his career. There is no question, Wilkie told me recently, that Halberstam’s time in Mississippi post-Brown v. Board of Education was equally valuable to him.

Halberstam said as much in his interview with the First Amendment Center, when he spoke fondly of his brief time with The Daily Times Leader.

“I learned so much,” he said. “A small town, a completely different experience, having to learn how to deal with ordinary people and seeing the complexity of ordinary people. And working in alien circumstances, something that served anybody that covered civil rights well, and later Vietnam well. It was an extraordinary year.”

William Browning is a reporter based in Mississippi. He can be reached on Twitter @wtbrowning.