Cliff Sessions Dies; Civil Rights-Era Reporter

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 29, 2005

Cliff Sessions, 74, a wire service reporter who covered the civil rights struggle at its most tumultuous in his native Mississippi and who, in later years, was a co-founder of National Journal, died Dec. 24 of complications of Parkinson's disease at his home in Biloxi, Miss.

Mr. Sessions came of age as a reporter at a time when it was both exciting and dangerous to be asking questions and digging deeply into the activities of white racist organizations obsessed with thwarting integration and the push for equal rights for black Americans. He and his remarkable team of reporters at the Jackson, Miss., office of United Press International kept the story in the public eye when local news organizations preferred to ignore it.

As bureau manager from 1957 to 1964, he covered Freedom Rides, the lynching of Mack Charles Parker in Poplarville, Miss., and James Meredith's effort to integrate the University of Mississippi.

In the course of his reporting he became acquainted with Medgar Evers, and in 1958, he wrote the first in-depth profile of the emerging civil rights leader. "Merely writing about him was unusual, but writing a profile, as if he were a human being, was groundbreaking," recalled Hank Klibanoff, an editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who -- with Eugene Roberts, a former Philadelphia Inquirer and New York Times editor -- is writing a book about media coverage of the civil rights movement.

Sessions told Klibanoff that he and his wife invited Evers and his wife, Myrlie Evers, to the Sessions home one evening in Jackson. "The invitation was freely given, freely accepted, but fraught with uncertainty," Klibanoff has written. "No professional cloak of respectability was sufficient to gussy up the ugly fact that Negroes and whites did not mingle socially, and an evening with a Negro activist came only with great risk."

Knowing that they were being watched by citizens group vigilantes, Sessions drew the drapes in the living room, and the two couples talked of movies, baseball and politics. Later, Evers told his wife that if anything ever happened to him, she should call Cliff Sessions first, not the police. That is exactly what she did on a June evening in 1963, when she found her husband, fatally shot, in the driveway of the Evers home.

John Herbers, a retired New York Times reporter who worked with Mr. Sessions in Jackson, described him as "a quiet-spoken kind of guy, an excellent reporter." He also recalled that Mr. Sessions drove around Jackson in a flashy red car.

"Cliff was the one who just marched right ahead and did what he had to do," Herbers said. "He was very strong."

Clifton Farr Sessions was born in Bolton, Miss. He graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi in 1955.

"Cliff Sessions grew up believing that segregation was providentially ordained," Klibanoff and Roberts have written. ". . . Only as a newsman did he start to think differently, and he was acutely aware that he was moving away from the mainstream."

Herbers recalled that Mr. Sessions was just out of college and working for a Hattiesburg, Miss., radio station, when he aired an Orson Welles-type broadcast of an "invasion" of Mississippi by a seven-story monster emerging from the Gulf of Mexico. His wife recalled that he expected to lose his job over the stunt, but the station manager kept him on. Herbers hired him at UPI not long afterward.

In early 1958, he broke the story that Mississippi's white Citizens' Councils had initiated a "white supremacy indoctrination campaign" in Mississippi high schools, a campaign that depicted African Americans as "lazy, thieving and cowardly." Mr. Sessions reported that it was "a full-scale effort to wipe out any integrationist leanings among the children."

Herbers recalled, "We weren't worried about our physical safety, but we were worried about our financial safety." Many of UPI's subscribers were Deep South radio and TV stations that were not interested in reporting civil rights unrest.

Mr. Sessions became aware of the depth of indignation in the lobby of the Jackson City Hall one day, when a local TV station executive shouted the ultimate insult: "Sessions, you're an integrationist. Crawl back under your rock. You've been exposed."

He and CBS News reporter Charles Kuralt worked for months on the 1959 Parker lynching in Poplarville, and his chilling reports of vigilante justice and coldblooded conspiracy roused the ire of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who wondered where Mr. Sessions was getting his information.

In 1964, Mr. Sessions moved to Washington, where he covered politics for UPI for two years. In 1966, he was appointed deputy director of public information at the Justice Department under Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and then director under Attorney General Ramsey Clark. He was a spokesman for the department in the aftermath of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

He co-founded National Journal in 1969 and was managing editor from 1969 to 1971. He also worked as executive director of communications for the American Bankers Association and deputy assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now Health and Human Services).

From 1980 to 1990, he was manager of corporate issues at General Foods in White Plains, N.Y., before retiring and returning to Mississippi.

Survivors include his wife of 54 years, Shirley Sessions of Biloxi; two children, Steve Sessions of Biloxi and Carol Riordan of Chester, Conn.; and two grandsons.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company