BREAKING BARRIERS: A Memoir

By Carl T. Rowan

ittle, Brown. 395 pp. $22.95

WASHINGTONIANS who have grown accustomed to thinking of Carl Rowan as a television pundit, a newspaper columnist who, as he puts it, "would never find a real slot" in his hometown after the Star folded, and, of course, as the man who shot a teenage intruder in his backyard, may find his memoirs a revelation. Rather than being a dyspeptic member of the fading liberal establishment, Rowan in these pages is vivid, toughminded, funny and impassioned, and he makes it clear that the fire burning within him is that of a race crusader, not a professional curmudgeon.

Rowan grew up in the kind of physically and psychologically grinding material want that federal social-welfare programs have substantially eliminated. His family lived in McMinnville, Tenn., in a house that had no plumbing or electricity, but plenty of rats. His father was an uneducated, unemployed laborer who drank and gambled to ease the pain brought on by the humiliating role he had been assigned; the family often didn't have food on the table. Rowan describes being so hungry as a child that he would steal food, or sneak into farms and "suck hot milk from the teats of a cow."

As people who have made the journey from poverty to prominence often do, Rowan credits the efforts of his mother and a few special teachers with putting him on the road to a better life. He finished high school, scraped together barely enough money to begin classes at Tennessee State University and then got his decisive break: The administration there decided to groom him for the Navy officer candidates' exam. Apparently the Navy, which had never had a black officer, sent its call for candidates to Tennessee State by mistake, thinking it was the University of Tennessee. But Rowan passed, and so became one of a handful of black naval officers who served in World War II. He hints that this severing of ties with his earlier life came just in time, because the situation back home in McMinnville became somehow dramatically worse while he was overseas, and he was the Rowan family's only real success story.

After the war Rowan finished college at Oberlin, went to journalism school at Minnesota, and then, in another important stroke of good fortune, was hired by the Minneapolis Tribune, a paper that from his description justifies all possible nostalgia for the days of enlightened family newspaper ownership. After a couple of years on the copy desk he became a reporter and immediately convinced his editor to let him travel through the South researching a series about segregation.

This ushered in Rowan's journalistic glory years, the 1950s. He followed the segregation series with dream foreign assignments in India, Southeast Asia and Indonesia. He won awards, befriended the likes of Martin Luther King and Eleanor Roosevelt, and was treated like royalty by the Tribune, which let him work from home, write for Ebony and the Saturday Evening Post and cross the traditional journalistic bounds by serving as president of the Minneapolis chapter of the Urban League. He had that great journalist's ability to seem to be everywhere important: He covered the Vietnam War, the Montgomery bus boycott, the integration crisis in Little Rock, the Suez Crisis and the 1960 presidential campaign. Somehow, at least as he tells it, Rowan was able to emerge from a brutalizing background unscarred, and then to escape the usual agonies of assimilation. What is most unusual about his life as the first black everything is that he seems to have enjoyed it so much.

In the early 1960s Rowan moved to Washington and went into government, where he was ambassador to Finland and head of the U.S. Information Agency. For the purposes of these memoirs, what was most useful about this time is that he got to know presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and the leading diplomatic and civil-rights figures, well enough that he can now give us lively thumbnail sketches of them. In 1965, wearying of Johnson's craziness and upset about the escalation in Vietnam (in part because, though he sat on the National Security Council, his advice wasn't sought), he resigned and became a syndicated columnist.

Oddly, at that point -- circa his 40th birthday -- Rowan simply stops telling his life story. There are four more chapters in the book. One is on the FBI's surveillance of King and contains several new tidbits (such as the allegation that J. Edgar Hoover was going around Washington telling people that King and Ralph Abernathy were homosexual lovers), and Rowan's theory that the FBI was involved in King's assassination. The next is on the Reagan administration, focusing on Rowan's dealings with President Reagan the year he was president of the Gridiron Club. The next is an account of the backyard shooting incident, which, like most famous people's accounts of their criminal trials, is poor man's Kafka, though it's interesting to hear that Marion Barry called Rowan's son and offered not to prosecute if the old man would lay off him in print. Finally, there's a reformist chapter called "A New Vision for America."

Why did Rowan choose to shift gears so abruptly? It could be that a deadline was approaching or that the book was getting too long, but two other explanations suggest themselves.

First, when Rowan left government he took on an enormous burden of work: He does three newspaper columns a week, a daily radio commentary, a weekly television show and lectures. This schedule has brought him prosperity and national prominence, but it forces him to be an opinion-generating machine. He no longer has the time to take on the kinds of projects he did in the '50s, when, as he puts it, "my journalistic hormones were raging." The years of reporting make much better raw material for memoirs than do the years of punditry; Russell Baker has so far stopped his autobiography at exactly the moment when he was awarded a column, perhaps for similar reasons.

Second, Rowan left government at a crucial turning point in the civil-rights struggle -- just after the passage of the Voting Rights Act and Johnson's Howard University commencement address, just before the Watts riot and the controversy over the Moynihan Report on the black family. The Howard speech, to which Rowan gives the highest praise (as he does to Johnson's whole civil-rights record), represented the turning of the attention of the government and the civil-rights establishment from the defeat of legal segregation in the South, which was now essentially complete, to improving the economic status of blacks nationwide, especially in the big-city ghettos. This second phase of the movement has never jelled, and the suspicion arises that Rowan finds it much easier to discuss the 20 years of progress and liberal consensus on civil rights that followed World War II than the quarter-century of division and mixed results we've been through since the summer of '65.

In his description of the Montgomery boycott, Rowan makes an astute observation about King: "I sensed immediately the most important of King's powers. He was a great communicator who spoke the white man's language magnificently . . . He knew how to use words, symbols, rhetoric, to provoke guilt among Americans who liked to think of themselves as religious, decent, unbigoted."

This is exactly what nobody has been able to do successfully regarding black economic issues -- including Rowan. Even here, his discussion of the civil-rights agenda often lapses into the kinds of arguments that will only go over with an audience that already agrees with you. For example, instead of attempting to lay to rest the widespread white fears about affirmative action and busing, he pretty much dismisses them as being simply examples of racial insensitivity.

Johnson's Howard speech was meant to provide the rhetorical air cover for affirmative action and other compensatory programs for blacks -- obviously without lasting success. Because words are so important to racial progress, writers can play an essential role in helping to persuade the country of the justice of a civil rights program. Rowan, as a writer, probably did more of that before he went into government than he has since he left it.

Nicholas Lemann, national correspondent of The Atlantic, is the author of the forthcoming "Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America."