Story Of Their Lives
For Reporters on the Civil Rights Beat, The Trick Was to Cover The News, Not Be It

By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 26, 2006


Sometimes they'd arrive quiet as spies in those segregated towns and grab a place at a rooming house. It wouldn't take long to find out which neighborhood it might be wise to avoid come nightfall.

But then the story would ignite and they'd be right in the center of the mayhem. Full of adrenaline and with a deadline to beat.

Emmett Till raised from swampy Mississippi waters.

Freedom buses afire on the scuffed dirt of Alabama.

Those black children in Little Rock -- solemn, in saddle shoes and skirts -- ducking the rocks thrown at them.

"The children were magnificent, just magnificent," recalls Moses Newson, one of the black reporters who covered civil rights battles in the Deep South before the phrase "civil rights" imprinted itself onto the American mind.

Newson was one of many reporters assigned to one of the most riveting stories in American journalism (though not every newspaper realized it at the time) -- the epic battle for equal rights. The tales from those dangerous, sometimes life-threatening assignments get told in a new book, "The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation," by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff.

Some names -- such as white reporters Claude Sitton and John Herbers and Karl Fleming -- have gotten elevated from those times. But a lot of other names didn't. Bylines vanished; old reporters died.

As the story wound down, Moses Newson took a few of his clips, which he keeps in a big manila folder, and went home to Baltimore. Now 79, he still dresses in suit and tie every day. And he still carries burn scars from riding on that Freedom Bus with his notebook and pen and camera down in Alabama.

Learning the Ropes

When he was growing up in the small town of Leesburg, Fla., Newson loved getting his bundle of Negro newspapers from up North to deliver. There was the Pittsburgh Courier and the Baltimore Afro-American, the Amsterdam News and the Chicago Defender. "They'd send you 10 to 15 copies of each and you'd sell them in the community," he says.

The papers were full of stories of black life, the goings-on in big cities, stories about black politicians such as Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and black entertainers such as Lena Horne and Harry Belafonte.

Newson started dreaming of a career in journalism, chasing stories, writing on deadline, eyeing his name in print. "You knew the job market for you," he says, "would be in the black press."

He served a 27-month stint in the Navy, then studied journalism at Lincoln University in Missouri. Sometimes reporters would visit the classes -- black reporters from the black press, white reporters from everyplace else. He'd sit in awe.

He applied for a job at the Tri-State Defender, a black newspaper in Memphis run by a man named L. Alex Wilson.

Newson got hired. The only full-time people at the Tri-State Defender were L. Alex Wilson -- and Moses Newson. They both wore a suit and tie daily. Wilson favored an elegant hat with brim and crease.

In early 1955 in nearby Belzoni, Miss., some brave souls, among them Medgar Evers and George Lee, started agitating for the right of blacks to register to vote. Both men routinely received death threats. In April, Lee, a preacher and businessman and, like Evers, an NAACP official, appeared at a rally in Mound Bayou, Miss. He stood on a stage looking out onto 7,000 people. "Pray not for your mom and pop," Lee bellowed to the crowd. "Pray you can make it through this hell."

He was talking about Mississippi.

On May 7, 1955, having left his wife, Rosebud, at home in her sickbed, Lee was attacked near midnight on a Mississippi road. A shotgun blast ripped into his face, killing him.

Newson was dispatched to cover the funeral. Lee was buried in an open casket to expose the brutality of his murder, a decision that would soon be repeated elsewhere.

The Lee murder was tailor-made for the black press, which had deep contacts in the black church and community. Black reporters, write Klibanoff and Roberts, "had the front-row seat during the early dramas, while the white press sat in the balcony, if it came to the performance at all."

Newson returned to Memphis after covering the Lee story.

"Then," says Newson, "in August we heard that Emmett Till was missing in Money, Mississippi."

Till, a black youth from Chicago, had disappeared after reportedly wolf-whistling at a white woman inside a small grocery store.

So Newson went back to Mississippi.

Two white men, Roy Bryant (Till had allegedly flirted with Bryant's wife, Carolyn) and J.W. Milam, were arrested in Till's murder. Till had been shot through the skull and dumped from a bridge into the Tallahatchie River.

Reporters descended upon Mississippi. Never before had so many white and black reporters worked so close together on the same story.

"There was a feeling this had to be covered," Newson says, "that the world had to be made aware of how the South was treating its people."

The prosecution at the Till murder trial struck Newson as lethargic. "When we first got there, we found out the prosecutors hadn't come up with any witnesses," he recalls. "And the sheriff was working with the defense team!"

On the race beat, the reporters sometimes couldn't help but put themselves into the middle of the story. Newson befriended three NAACP officials, Medgar Evers, Amzie Moore and Ruby Hurley. The quartet decided to find witnesses to the Till abduction on their own. So they donned plantation-style clothes to disguise themselves and drove into the Mississippi countryside. "Medgar was driving," Newson says of the NAACP operative who would be assassinated in 1963. "We confirmed that Willie Reed had heard some of the beatings." (Reed was a local high school student.)

There was an even more crucial witness than Reed. His name was Mose Wright, Emmett Till's great-uncle. Wright was tall, old and gaunt. He was also brave, showing no hesitancy in waving the journalists into his home.

"He lived in a little frame farmhouse," remembers Newson. "While I was interviewing him I kept watching the cars going by. He said, 'Don't worry 'bout nothing. You all right.' "

The murder, the trial, the acquittals, all took a mere 30 days. It was all over.

Only it wasn't. Young Till became a memory bigger than a mountain.

And the journalists stayed on the story.

"In his death," write Roberts and Klibanoff, "Emmett Till not only brought Negro reporters into the heart of of the white man's kingdom -- the courtroom -- but he brought white reporters into the Deep South in unprecedented numbers to cover a racial story."

Lucille Newson lost sleep worrying about her husband out there on the road in dangerous Mississippi. "I always worried," she says. "I tried not to let him know it. Being raised down South, I knew how the people were at that time."

In 1957, Newson took a job with the Baltimore Afro-American, thanking Wilson for the opportunity at the Tri-State Defender as he moved up in the world of Negro newspapering.

It wasn't long before both men were together again, on the road to Little Rock.

Standing His Ground

Like Newson and Wilson, many of the same reporters who covered the Till trial descended upon the Arkansas capital, where President Eisenhower had sent in federal troops to stop rioting over the integration of Central High School.

"It was like barnstorming," co-author Klibanoff says of the black journalists working and traveling. "It's the Negro Leagues all over again."

"We were at the bottom of the totem pole out there," recalls Newson. "But white reporters were also in danger, particularly anyone with a camera. And particularly those from non-Southern states."

Many of the other reporters imagined that with federal troop presence -- bayoneted rifles at the ready -- that the Little Rock mob would back off.

"The worst day for us," remembers Newson, "was the day the kids were supposed to go in the school. We got attacked by the mob. They were gonna kill us. When somebody said, 'The kids are going in the school!' the mob turned fierce."

Get 'em!!!

They kept hearing those words.

Get 'em!!!

Newson and others took off, heels slapping against the concrete, skinny neckties flying over their shoulders.

Newson took a punch, then another, but broke free.

Once in the clear, he looked over his shoulder. He and other reporters were aghast: Wilson wasn't running. He wouldn't unbutton his suit jacket.

Wilson took fierce punches to the head and body. He was momentarily imprisoned in a headlock. His hat floated from his head; he reached and picked it up with an eerie calmness.

Wilson stubbornly refused to go to a hospital. Some of the reporters got him to a house where, dazed and in pain, he lay on a sofa for days. "He just said he was all right," says Newson.

The next morning there were pictures of Wilson in newspapers across the country. To much of America he was just as unknown as Emmett Louis Till had been.

But to those who knew him, there were reasons why L. Alex Wilson didn't run in Little Rock.

The Damage Done

His first name was Lucious, but in junior high, other students teased him and called him "Luscious." So Lucious Wilson became L. Alex Wilson.

He began his professional life as a schoolteacher in Florida but soon was grabbed by journalism. He had been a Marine and a foreign correspondent in Korea for a string of Negro newspapers. Wilson met his wife, Emogene, in the newsroom of the Tri-State Defender. She wrote society news.

His assignments were often dangerous, so he'd keep a lot of information from Emogene. "He would leave for Mississippi and wouldn't tell me," recalls his widow, who lives in Texas now. "He'd leave money with my sister because he knew I'd have tried to stop him from going. But he felt it was his duty to go."

Newson pondered Wilson's recalcitrance in Little Rock, and it led him back to a Memphis memory: "We had driven to a store. Wilson goes in. When he comes out, some man came out waving a gun at him. I get out of the car and say, 'Whoa. Whoa. What's going on here?' It settled down and Wilson got in the car. After some quiet, I said, 'What was all that about?' He told me about this situation in Florida, and the Klan coming around and him running. And he said to me, 'I promised myself I'd never run from anybody again.' "

Little Rock would be the last great civil rights battle that L. Alex Wilson would see up close. Afterward, he moved to Chicago where he took another newspaper job. He died in 1960. He was 51 years old. The official cause of death was Parkinson's disease, but some attributed it to neurological damage he suffered that day in Little Rock.

The Memento

In the spring and summer of 1961, a contingent of men and women decided to ride buses in the South to test a court decree desegregating public facilities.

Newson got himself down to North Carolina, where he hopped aboard one of the buses. It didn't take long for his first dispatch to get filed. It was from Charlotte, and this was how it started:

"The 1961 Freedom Riders ran out of luck here Monday afternoon when the first member of the integrated group was arrested. Joseph Perkins Jr., 28, a CORE field secretary from Kentucky was arrested on a trespassing charge while attempting to get a shoeshine at a barbershop in the Union bus terminal."

From North Carolina, the Freedom Riders went to Atlanta and then to Alabama. As they crossed the state line, they were flagged down by riders on another Greyhound bus and they learned there was trouble ahead in Anniston. When they arrived, hell broke loose. "The mob started breaking out our windows with pipes and sticks," Newson says.

But they got away, into the countryside.

"Then our tires went down," Newson recalls.

No one had noticed it, but back in Anniston some of the segregationists had punctured the bus tires. Six miles outside of town, hell broke loose again.

"The bus had to stop," says Newson. "The mob started in again, cursing, breaking out windows. It was Mother's Day. I will always remember this black woman getting down on her knees, saying, 'Lord, I don't want to die here.' "

Then Newson saw a white passenger leap to the front of the bus, where the mob was trying to pry the door open. He turned out to be Ell Cowling, an undercover law enforcement officer. "Cowling pulled a gun and stood in the front door," says Newson.

The mob retreated a bit.

"Next thing I knew someone threw a gas bomb on the seat behind me," he says. "I was burned behind my right ear. That was the blackest smoke you ever saw."

Eventually help arrived and the mob retreated. The Freedom Riders hustled off the bus. Newson hid his camera beneath a seat, having long realized a camera was the telltale sign of a reporter.

Once off the bus, though, sporadic beatings continued before they were all whisked away to a hospital in Anniston. Newson sneaked out of his hospital room -- he was suffering from smoke inhalation -- to call in his story. It ran with an editor's note on the front page:

"He and other Freedom Riders were saved from a probable lynching by presence of two state investigators."

Over the next several months, Newson would jump from one big story to another. The fall of 1962 found him in Oxford, Miss. James Meredith, a preternaturally calm military vet, had won a court battle to enter the University of Mississippi. Military troops had to be called out to deal with the violent reaction by whites.

"The night they had the big clash down there -- people shooting -- Jimmy Hicks of the Amsterdam News and I were riding toward Ole Miss and hearing all this stuff on the radio," remembers Newson. "We heard black reporters were not going to be allowed on the campus that night."

White segregationists descended upon the campus to try to stop Meredith. Smoke bombs were hurled, gunshots cracked the air. Someone sneaked up on Paul Guihard, a European journalist, and shot him in the back of the head. His was the first death. A young jukebox repairman, a mere bystander, was the second.

Newson and Hicks stayed away from the university that night. The next day, both in suit and tie, they stepped onto the campus. "Tear gas was still in the air," Newson says. "I had thought that after Little Rock, when Eisenhower called out the federal troops, that no one would have gone as far as they had in Mississippi. A standoff with the government? But when people go out to fight a civil war and die by the thousands in order to protest their superior view of their position in the world, that's serious. You can't laugh that off."

There never were any big-time journalism awards for Moses Newson. He wrote his stories, kept a few.

He left journalism in 1978, taking a job in public affairs with the federal government, from which he retired in 1995. But the story won't leave him.

One day, not long after his sojourn with the Freedom Riders, Newson got a package in the mail from Greyhound. He had no idea what it was. Turned out to be his camera, the one he had left on the burning bus, charred and mangled -- his lens and his pride.

He stared at it for a very long time. He felt mighty good to have it.

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