Roads to Freedom | The Nation


Roads to Freedom

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Forty-four years after the March on Washington, the civil rights movement is in no danger of being forgotten. The image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is familiar to every American. Ground was broken on the national King monument in Washington, DC, in November 2006, within a year of huge media extravaganzas over the funerals of Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King. Nearly all American politicians pay lip service to the memory of the struggle--even President Bush had himself photographed hugging Mrs. King in front of King's tomb in Atlanta on King's seventy-fifth birthday in 2004, over a chorus of boos from protesters.

About the Author

David L. Chappell
David L. Chappell, author of A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, is writing a book on Martin...

A rich crop of new books does much more than continue to remind the nation of its great radical movement. These works compel readers to see that civil rights leaders' choices were never as straightforward as people today nostalgically assume. One of the most durable clichés of recent history is that the age of Jim Crow, for all its horrors, had the virtue of moral clarity. Because racism was built into the law, it was simple--easy to identify and to fight. Since the abolition of legal segregation and disenfranchisement, however, racism went underground. According to the cliché, it became subtle, complex, elusive and insidious. These books demonstrate that racism was never simple and the fight against it never clear-cut. Civil rights protesters had to choose among untested strategies. Any choice tended to close off alternatives and was liable to provoke controversy among contending Black leaders. Few activists had full confidence that any strategy would work perfectly.

One strategy was to publicize the terrors visited upon black Southerners. That strategy lies at the heart of the most fascinating new book on the subject, Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff's The Race Beat, which won this year's Pulitzer Prize for History. The Race Beat brings the movement to life--and provides a sense of its wholeness--as no previous book has. There has long been a gap between great reads like Richard Kluger's Simple Justice (1976), which narrated the prehistory of the desegregation struggle up to the 1954 Brown decision, and J. Anthony Lukas's Common Ground (1985), which laid bare the heartbreaking disillusionment with desegregation in the 1970s, when the focus of civil rights activism shifted to Boston and other Northern cities. At last Roberts and Klibanoff have filled the narrative gap with a beautiful, one-volume study of the main act of the civil-rights drama. In doing so they challenge some hitherto unquestioned assumptions about the movement.

The conventional wisdom on the American press's performance during the civil rights era was voiced by the eminent scholar Charles Payne of Duke University: "Rushing to tell the story, they missed much of its substance." Roberts and Klibanoff persuasively rebut this view. They vindicate the assessment of Congressman John Lewis, former Freedom Rider and president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). According to Lewis, the movement succeeded "because we had a group of men and women who were prepared to get up there to write the words or shoot the pictures."

Yet as Roberts and Klibanoff amply document, the press did not initially rise to the occasion. (They leave implicit the parallels with today's media, which began to report thoroughly on the Iraq War only after missing the early story.) Some brave reporters and editors had to battle employers who were as oblivious and superficial as Payne says they were. The Race Beat does not shy away from these failings, particularly those of the New York Times, for which Roberts worked from 1965 to 1972. (Klibanoff, currently managing editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, also has long experience chafing under the constrictions of his industry.)

The Times, anticipating conflict between returning black and white World War II veterans, set up its first Southern bureau in 1947, in Chattanooga. Its chief was Virginia-born Johnny Popham. Popham, who refused to fly, insisted the South was "strictly a grassroots region and must be covered and reported as such; it can't be done from railroad depots and airports; you just don't get the flavor that way." Far from rushing to the story, Popham dawdled. "As long as the South moved at a slow pace," Roberts and Klibanoff observe, "Popham and the Times were fine." It was only when the South exploded that the Times realized that Popham's method of "driving everywhere from Chattanooga, then writing around the edges of the race matter," had led the paper astray.

The turning point was Little Rock. After Popham led his editors to believe that Central High's desegregation in September 1957 would proceed in peace and quiet, the Times sent only its education editor, Benjamin Fine, to record the event. But the historic armed showdown there dominated international headlines for the next two weeks. (The Little Rock story is told with more intimate detail than ever in Elizabeth Jacoway's gripping new Turn Away Thy Son.) Fine was overwhelmed. He was also drawn awkwardly into the spotlight when he couldn't bear to stand by while a mob threatened the black student Elizabeth Eckford. Seeking to shelter Eckford, Fine got on the wrong end of the camera, raising hackles about his objectivity.

Hit by "the wrenching realization that they had blown the coverage of Little Rock," Times editors called Fine back to New York and sent Pulitzer winner Homer Bigart to accompany the federal troops who occupied Central later that year. In the spring of 1958, the paper also replaced Popham with Claude Sitton, the Georgia-born adventurer who'd spent the early 1950s working at United Press and hanging out in Greenwich Village. Released back into his native land after landing a job with the Times, Sitton became an inspiration and model for the new breed of investigative reporters. "Sitton's byline would be atop the stories that landed on the desks of three presidents," Roberts and Klibanoff write. "His phone number would be carried protectively in the wallets of civil rights workers who saw him, and the power of his byline, as their best hope for survival."

The Times's new efforts helped save its reputation but provoked the fury of white Southern editors, who felt robbed of their authority to interpret the region. While a few Southern papers, notably Little Rock's Arkansas Gazette, "became their region's conscience," most Southern editors restrained their coverage, whether out of inertia, fear of inflaming violent racist rabble-rousers or a conservative desire to conceal precisely what black activists wanted to expose. Consequently, the "pack" of Southern papers "never got hold of the whole story in front of them," and some "served as adjunct investigative bodies for" local police.

Even with Sitton--and other bloodhounds like David Halberstam, Harrison Salisbury, John Herbers and Roy Reed--the Times was late to report on the sit-ins of 1960, which surprised older civil rights leaders as well as newsmen. The paper also missed the dramatic attacks on the Freedom Riders of 1961 in Alabama; Times lawyers had ordered Sitton to stay out of the state, since state officials were suing the paper for allegedly libelous statements in an advertisement for Martin Luther King's defense fund. But generally black activists used the Times and its competitors to make their voices heard and to raise the movement's profile. Sitton was sympathetic to his sources: He "felt more comfortable on the civil rights side, where there was an openness with the press that didn't exist among the segregationists, who were defensive under the scrutiny of the national news scope."

Many reporters, whatever their initial sympathies, were willing to be used--or saw that they had no choice in the matter--because angry white mobs attacked them. At Marion, Alabama, in 1965, black demonstrators marched out of a nighttime church rally into a blockade of about fifty state troopers. "Suddenly, the streetlight flickered out," Roberts and Klibanoff write. "Troopers began clubbing the marchers with nightsticks, and white bystanders assaulted journalists standing nearby. Two UPI cameramen were beaten as troopers looked on. UPI's Leon Daniels heard a sickening sound like a watermelon being struck by a baseball bat, and saw Richard Valeriani of NBC crumple to the ground, blood spewing from his head." As was so often the case, the white majority was more moved by violence against whites than against blacks--a selective form of compassion that civil rights activists understood well and turned to the movement's advantage.

The black press--surprisingly ignored by most scholars of civil rights--plays a major role in Roberts and Klibanoff's story. Since the New York Times and others missed the early story of the Montgomery boycott of 1955-56, "anyone wanting details from within the boycott had to read the Birmingham World." Mobs attacked black reporters more viciously and with greater impunity than they attacked white ones. Chicago Defender editor L. Alex Wilson died, at age 5l, of complications arising from injuries sustained during the mob's attack at Little Rock. Legendary black reporters Moses Newson of the Baltimore Afro-American and Simeon Booker of Jet and Ebony beat the Times and other white papers to one of the century's great stories by getting on the buses with the Freedom Riders in 1961. Mobs set upon the buses, first at Anniston and then at Montgomery. Newson and Booker got "the most important eyewitness exclusives of their careers." They barely escaped with their lives.

Not surprisingly, black-owned papers suffered more for the role they played in the story. The Arkansas State Press in Little Rock, edited by local NAACP leader Daisy Bates's husband, L.C. Bates, had to shut down. Its guilt by association with the desegregation movement led businesses to withdraw ads and readers to cancel their subscriptions. Yet the black press was not always at the forefront of movement politics and at times showed considerable conservatism, as Roberts and Klibanoff reveal. The Atlanta Daily World often opposed Martin Luther King's crusades. Even the paper's Alabama satellite, the Birmingham World, edited by the radically inclined Emory Jackson, suppressed coverage of civil rights activity. Jackson did so partly because local black advertisers shunned controversy but partly because he had become saddled by personal frustrations--including a decades-long infatuation with his married former student--by the time the movement put his city in the national headlines in 1963. Black reporters brought more than their share of commitment, initiative and inside knowledge to the race beat even as the Times and other national papers staked it out for themselves (and, a little later, began recruiting talent away from the black papers). But the black press as a whole was hampered by a lack of resources, including a sufficient supply of highly trained and experienced writers--and by its inability to reach a large or influential audience.

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