Karl Fleming dies at 84; reporter covered civil rights movement for Newsweek


Karl Fleming covered some of the most dramatic clashes in the South as the fight over racial injustice escalated. (Los Angeles Times)
August 19, 2012

Karl Fleming, a former Newsweek reporter who helped draw national attention to the civil rights movement in the 1960s — and risked his life to write perceptive stories about its major figures and the inequalities that fueled it — died Aug. 11 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 84.

He had several respiratory ailments, said his son Charles Fleming.

Raised in the Jim Crow South, Mr. Fleming worked his way through small North Carolina newspapers to become chief of Newsweek’s Atlanta bureau in 1961. (The Washington Post Co. bought Newsweek in 1961 and sold it in 2010.) He covered some of the most dramatic clashes in the South as the fight over racial injustice escalated.

Mr. Fleming was nearly shot in 1962 during riots in Oxford, Miss., after James Meredith’s admission as the first African American student at the University of Mississippi. He covered the church bombing that killed four African American girls in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963. Along with New York Times reporter Claude Sitton, he was one of the first reporters on the scene in 1964 when three civil rights workers taking part in the mobilization known as Freedom Summer disappeared near Philadelphia, Miss.; the three were later found murdered.

Mr. Fleming also covered the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers and Gov. George Wallace’s symbolic stand in the schoolhouse door to block the desegregation of the University of Alabama.

Mr. Fleming managed to escape serious harm in the South but was less lucky when Newsweek assigned him to Los Angeles in 1965. At a tense rally after the Watts riots, he found himself the only white person in the room with Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael and an angry crowd. When Mr. Fleming fled to his car, he was attacked and beaten by a mob. A photograph of him lying in his own blood, his jaw broken and skull fractured, ran in newspapers across the country the next day.

“Karl was one of these reporters who would go anywhere, anytime, no matter what the danger, if the story was good enough,” said Gene Roberts, a former top editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Times whose book “The Race Beat,” co-written with Hank Klibanoff, examined the role of the press in the civil rights movement. “He was one of the great 20th-century reporters — in the right place at the right time.”

Mr. Fleming was born Aug. 30, 1927, in Newport News, Va., the son of a traveling insurance salesman. Karl was 6 months old when his father died of a heart attack.

His mother remarried, and when Karl was 6, his stepfather grew sick and died. When he was 8, his mother sent him to an orphanage in Raleigh, N.C. He lived there until he was 17, when he was allowed to join the Navy as World War II was ending.

Mr. Fleming attended Appalachian State University on the GI Bill but left after two years for journalism. After working for several newspapers in North Carolina, he landed a job at the Atlanta Constitution’s Sunday magazine in the late 1950s. He freelanced for Newsweek, which made him its Atlanta correspondent in 1961.

In 1962, when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the University of Mississippi to admit Meredith, Mr. Fleming headed to Oxford and found white mobs overrunning the school.

“I was ashamed as well as angry,” he recalled in “Son of the Rough South,” his memoir. “These were my fellow Southerners. We came from the same gene pool . . . and most of us from the same impoverished past. But I had identified not with them, but with Meredith, the black interloper.”

As the psychedelic era wound down, Mr. Fleming began to drink excessively and smoke marijuana. Newsweek removed him as bureau chief, and he quit the magazine in 1972. He continued to work in journalism and later in public relations.

His first marriage, to Sandra Sisk, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 39 years, the writer and TV commentator Anne Taylor Fleming; four sons, Charles, David, Russell and Mark; a sister; and eight grandchildren.

— Los Angeles Times

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