With all the great news stories packed into the last 50 years of the 20th century, it is at first hard to believe the claim made by the authors of this book that the civil rights movement “grew to be the most dynamic news story of the last half of the 20th century.”
But the authors of The Race Beat are hard-driving North Carolinian Gene Roberts, under whose editorship The Philadelphia Inquirer won 17 Pulitzer Prizes in 18 years, and Alabamian Hank Klibanoff, who spent 20 years at The Inquirer and currently is managing editor for news at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Both covered “the race beat” themselves, and both are consummate masters of the kind of arresting journalism we see too seldom in today’s feature-laden McPapers, whose circulation keeps shrinking as fast as their news holes.
Insiders in both the civil rights movement and the changes in journalism itself, Roberts and Klibanoff spent more than six years trying to cover this historical “perfect storm:” the remarkable intersection of the hard-won breakthrough of civil rights for black Americans and American media power at its height in the 1950s and 1960s. And they have succeeded in creating a masterpiece. The Race Beat is a riveting piece of social history that balances both its subjects brilliantly. It recalls dimly remembered battles — and the distinctive personalities and hard-fought issues on all sides — with the kind of arresting detail that makes them live again, as suspensefully as if the outcome were still in doubt.
Just before World War II, Swedish academician Gunnar Myrdal was selected by the Carnegie Corp. to take a de Tocquevillesque look at race in America. They wanted as objective a view as they could get, directed by a European with no vested interest or national colonial heritage. Myrdal and his team’s conclusions, published in 1944 in An American Dilemma, found what Roberts and Klibanoff confirm, that media attention and any solution to racial injustice were inextricably intertwined: “to get publicity is of the highest strategic importance to the Negro race. … A great majority of white people in America would be prepared to give the Negro a substantially better deal if they knew the facts.”
So “the race beat,” once it was finally covered by the American press, was not some kind of intellectual parsing of a larger issue. The coverage itself was essential to solving the issue.
In the America that emerged from a Depression-ending World War II, no one, North or South, knew or cared about Myrdal’s “facts” of racism in their rush to enjoy the emerging postwar consumer economy. The only coverage racist America had to worry about came from a courageous black press made up of weekly papers with a scattering of dailies, depending on mail subscriptions and samizdat-type distribution.
Roberts and Klibanoff give full and long-overdue credit to what Myrdal had recognized as “a fighting press,” providing a Homeric listing of these papers and their editors and reporters.
The importance of the black press becomes all the more evident when Roberts and Klibanoff run down the Southern white reporters and editors whose names today are prominently listed on the honor roll in the fight for civil rights. We have forgotten how long it took them to get on board. For instance, Ralph McGill at the Atlanta Constitution asserted that “separation of the two races must be maintained in the South.” Hodding Carter at the Delta Democrat-Times felt the race problem was something the South should solve itself and blamed the NAACP for “trying to poison the atmosphere,” as the authors put it, at the trial of Emmett Till’s murderers.
Still, one of the ironies the authors unearth is the extraordinary number of white Southern journalists like themselves who led the national coverage of the “race beat.” Harry Ashmore of the Arkansas Gazette began what sounded like an innocuous publication called the Southern Education Reporting Service to put out the objective facts on just what the segregated school system looked like after Brown v. Board of Education was decided. He staffed its board with a balance of prominent progressive and segregationist editors across the South. No news organization was unaffected by its research.
The New York Times‘ managing editor Edwin James was a Virginian, and his assistant managing editor, Turner Catledge, was a Mississippian. They had to be pushed into opening the paper’s first bureau in the South by another Virginian, John Popham.
According to Roberts and Klibanoff, the Emmett Till murder trial in 1955 became the turning point at which “the facts” finally reached the American people. A Chicago teenager visiting relatives in Catledge’s hometown of Philadelphia, Miss., Till was accused of wolf-whistling at a white woman. His brutalized body was found in the Tallahatchie River weighed down with a cotton-gin fan. The trial brought out more than 50 newspaper reporters and photographers. After 4 ½ days of devastating testimony, the jury retired for all of an hour and a half before proclaiming the accused murderers not guilty.
The brilliant Alabamian journalist William Bradford Huie actually got confessions out of the two murderers and their attorneys for an extraordinary piece in Look magazine. Nine years later, after Freedom Summer in 1964, Huie also broke the murder case of Freedom Riders Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney in a spectacular investigation that caught the local FBI branch twiddling its thumbs under “go slow” instructions from J. Edgar Hoover.
By now, the story was on fire. Louisianan Howard K. Smith had to leave CBS because he could not get support to cover civil rights; John Chancellor gave up a promising newspaper career to cover it for NBC News. The press got caught up in the violence as well: NBC’s Richard Valeriani was smashed in the head with a baseball bat at Selma. William Diehl had his throat slashed while covering the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s march through Mississippi, and Newsweek’s Karl Fleming was bashed across the face with a two-by-four.
Roberts and Klibanoff have everything here that it is possible to pack into 528 pages. There has never been a better study of the importance of a free press — with all its flaws — bringing to the American public unsparing coverage of issues that can no longer be avoided. The details — the stories of valor and cowardice, intransigence and reluctant change — remind the reader that nothing of great social consequence happens quickly or simply.
U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta, who was part of King’s Southern Christian Leadership movement in its darkest days, summed it up well in testimony before Congress last year: “If it hadn’t been for the media — the print media and television — the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings, a choir without a song.”
Thomas Lipscomb is a senior fellow at the Annenberg Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California and a journalist who grew up in the South.