Jonathan Yardley

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, November 26, 2006


The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation

By Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff

Knopf. 518 pp. $30

A good case can be made that the period from the mid- 1950s to the mid-1970s was the Golden Age of the American press -- a period bracketed, roughly, by Edward R. Murrow's exposure of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's mendacity in the anti-communist cause in 1954 and the resignation of Richard Nixon from the presidency two decades later following the disclosure, primarily in this newspaper, of the sordid details of the Watergate scandal. Between those signal events, the press covered the Vietnam War with a dogged insistence on uncovering the truth -- in sharp contrast to the tame acquiescence with which it reported the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 -- as well as the extraordinary social and cultural changes that swept through the country during those years.

Among those changes, none were more important than those initiated by the civil rights movement, and in no other story did the press distinguish itself so admirably and effectively. The reporters who fanned out through the South beginning in the mid-1950s were determined, resourceful and courageous. In print and on the air, they awakened the nation to the terrible conditions in which countless black Southerners lived and the daily denial of the most basic rights to which they were subjected. The best of their journalism -- and much of it was exceptionally good -- took no sides and preached no sermons but simply laid out the facts, which were all the country needed to begin the long, complicated and difficult task of fixing things.

No doubt I am prejudiced in this view of the press's performance in the civil rights era because I was an exceedingly minor participant in it, not as a reporter but as an editorial writer. During my junior and senior years at Chapel Hill, I was the editor of the student newspaper when the sit-ins began in 1960 in Greensboro, 55 miles to the west in the North Carolina Piedmont, and I wrote often about this and other forms of protest, including the student boycott of Chapel Hill's two segregated movie theaters. Then, in 1964, I moved to the Greensboro Daily News and spent a decade there writing editorials, often, again, on matters relating to civil rights ranging from protests to federal legislation.

In doing this work, I relied, daily, on facts and narratives supplied by the reporters out in the field. Their work provided the essential information on which the nation conducted its debate over how to assure the civil rights of African Americans. I say without embarrassment that these reporters were my heroes then, and that reading this history of their work by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff takes me back to my youth in vivid and intensely personal ways. It was at once one of the most terrible times in the nation's history and one of the most enthralling. On the one hand, ordinary American citizens were being jailed, beaten and even murdered for simply attempting to exercise their most basic rights as citizens; on the other hand, there was a pervasive, almost palpable sense of possibility, an understanding that the nation was at last beginning to live up to the promises in its Constitution and a hope that a better country might emerge at the end.

The stories of these men -- and with the notable exception of Hazel Brannon Smith, who owned a few small-town papers in Mississippi and wrote bravely against the racist White Citizens' Council, they all were men -- may seem inside baseball for journalists, but they are essential to the history of the civil rights movement and thus of broad interest. The authors are well qualified for the task. Roberts, who now teaches at the University of Maryland, had a long and distinguished career during which he often reported from the civil rights front lines; so, too, did Klibanoff, now the managing editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who began his career working on three different small Mississippi papers. At times, their attention drifts away from the press and onto rehashes of familiar stories -- the murder of Emmett Till, the march in Selma, the mob violence at the University of Mississippi, the church bombing in Birmingham -- but these may be useful to younger readers for whom, alas, these events are ancient and perhaps unknown history.

The authors take their cue from Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish lawyer and political economist whose study of race in the United States, An American Dilemma, was the seminal book on its subject. Published in 1944, it painted a grim picture of the lives of black Americans and argued, passionately, as Roberts and Klibanoff put it, "that if the mainstream press told the southern racial story, the rest of the nation would be 'shocked and shaken' and demand sweeping changes." No one in the press deliberately or consciously set out to publicize the plight of African Americans, but events forced the media's hands, and ultimately exactly what Myrdal had urged came to pass.

It started slowly and uncertainly. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the South was terra incognita to the rest of the country. Newspapers did not cover events there -- the New York Times, usually the leader in such matters, did not appoint its first full-time Southern correspondent until 1947 -- and if white Americans thought about the South at all, they thought about "Gone With the Wind." Not until the murder of Till in Mississippi in August 1955 -- a 16-year-old visiting from Chicago, he was killed and thrown into a river by two white men for allegedly whistling at a white woman -- did the mainstream press begin to discover what was going on down South. The killing aroused intense interest in the Northern black press, and eventually the rest of the press caught on to the story as well. The acquittal of his killers was so obviously a perversion of justice that it called into question the entire judicial system of the South and left no doubt about the injustices to which it subjected blacks.

One of the white journalists who covered the trial was a white man from Alabama named William Bradford Huie, a freelance writer and occasional novelist of uncommon resourcefulness and guts. After the acquittal, he persuaded the killers to tell him their story -- what he persuaded them with was money -- then sold it to Look magazine, which published it in January 1956. It "was a detailed, narrative reenactment showing how [the killers] had beaten, tortured, killed, and submerged Till," and it shocked the nation. After this there was no turning back; the civil rights movement rose to the forefront and stayed there for years.

Some of the journalists who kept it there were Southern-born editors who defied local majority opinion among whites and wrote forthrightly, sometimes passionately, about the race question: Ralph McGill in Atlanta, Hodding Carter and P.D. East and Hazel Brannon Smith in Mississippi, Buford Boone in Alabama, Lenoir Chambers in Norfolk, Va., and, at the head of the class, Harry Ashmore in Little Rock. Few now remember their names except as they appear in histories of journalism. Ditto for the reporters: Claude Sitton and John Herbers of the New York Times, Robert E. Lee Baker of The Washington Post, John Chancellor and Sander Vanocur of NBC News, Joe Cumming of Newsweek, Simeon Booker of Ebony and Jet magazines, Carl Rowan of the Minneapolis Tribune, Howard K. Smith of CBS News, Ted Poston of the New York Post, Jack Nelson of the Los Angeles Times.

The most important of these was Sitton. He was 32 years old when, in 1958, the managing editor of the Times, a native of Mississippi named Turner Catledge, pulled him off the copy desk and sent him to Atlanta to cover the South: "The civil rights story needed a reporter who knew the region well, had the right accent, abided by all the rules, wouldn't get emotionally involved, wouldn't argue with anyone, wouldn't become the news, who would just write what he saw, wouldn't get beat, wouldn't get snookered, and was willing to give up his family, perhaps his life, for the story." Sitton was all that and more. He "set into motion a level of reporting that would establish the national standard for two decades." He was little known among readers, except those who remember bylines, but his fellow journalists were in awe of his tenacity, thoroughness and quiet, intense courage. For six years (he became national news director of the Times in 1964), he was the best reporter in the country; to me, in my early 20s, he was the exemplar nonpareil, the best that a journalist can hope to be.

There were un-Sittons, too. Thomas R. Waring Jr. of the Charleston News and Courier was "as forceful a spokesman for segregation as there was in the South"; Harry Ashmore said that "the News and Courier feels that what's wrong with this country is democracy." Both newspapers in Jackson, Miss., owned by the Hederman family, were "fervently segregationist." Grover Hall of the Montgomery Advertiser took a moderate tack at first but eventually aligned himself with George Wallace. In Richmond, James Jackson Kilpatrick of the News-Leader embraced the sham doctrine of interposition -- it held that the individual states could nullify federal laws they believed to be unconstitutional -- and egged Virginia on toward the "massive resistance" that left a lasting stain on the state.

Mostly, though, the journalists stuck to the facts, reporting and interpreting them thoroughly, fairly and honestly. As the years passed many of them became more and more sympathetic to the protesters whom they covered, but they kept their opinions and emotions to themselves unless they were commentators rather than reporters. They did us all -- their fellow journalists and their fellow Americans -- proud. ยท

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is

© 2006 The Washington Post Company