On the Race Beat  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December 2006/January 2007

On the Race Beat   

Reporters covering the civil rights movement worked under dangerous, pressure-packed conditions—and confronted the limits of objectivity.

By Gene Roberts & Hank Kilbanoff
Gene Roberts, who teaches at the Phllip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, covered the civil rights movement for the New York Times. He is a former managing editor of the Times and executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer.      Kilbanoff, managing editor for news at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, held various writing and editing positions during a 20-year stint at the Inquirer.     


For progressive reporters and editors in Mississippi, occasional refuge and uplift came in the form of salubrious but not especially abstemious weekend pilgrimages to Greenville, where Hodding Carter Jr., editor of the Delta Democrat-Times, and his wife, Betty, opened their home, Feliciana.

In much the same way that editor Harry Ashmore's home had become an oasis for national reporters rolling through Little Rock, Feliciana became a shelter and a community for an eclectic, exotic mix of national and local newspaper, television, and newsmagazine reporters, foreign journalists, field representatives from progressive organizations in the South, an occasional FBI agent and a few enlightened souls of the Delta who subscribed to The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's Magazine, Saturday Review of Literature or The New Republic.

There, with no agenda, the war-weary journalistic outcasts and their spouses would gather in the house, by the pool, on the tennis courts or at the artificial lake stocked with bream and bass. There they consumed oysters and crawfish by the sackload, downed copious amounts of contraband booze and talked through the night and deep into the Delta morning. Bloody Marys were the first sip of the day.

John Herbers and Cliff Sessions of United Press would be there with their wives. Bill Minor, the Mississippi bureau chief for New Orleans' Times-Picayune, would drive up from Jackson with his wife, Gloria. Hazel Brannon Smith, publisher of the Lexington Advertiser, would drive over to Greenville and up the winding driveway to Feliciana's door with her husband, Walter, known as Smitty, who had lost his hospital administration job because of her editorials. Smith's steadfast commentaries against liquor racketeering, gambling and official corruption had made her some powerful enemies long before her campaign to curb police brutality against Negroes had led segregationists to label her a nigger lover and Communist and to start a rival paper to run her out of business.

A Jackson television newsman, Dick Sanders, would join the group, along with other local journalists whose struggles to display editorial courage against prevailing Citizens' Councils sentiment drew strength from the weekend exposure to Carter.

There was a sense of daring at the gatherings. No one doubted that the house was always a possible target of night riders, and Carter kept guns all over the place just in case. But strength, not fear, came from the weekends. Herbers knew, as he left those weekends in Greenville, that the only thing keeping him in the news business was Carter's words of support.

Carter had the courage to write what some frontline reporters could only think. In the summer of 1958, Herbers sent Sessions and Carter sent the reporter Jay Milner to cover the trial of Yalobusha County Sheriff J. G. "Buster" Treloar. The sheriff was charged with beating Woodrow Wilson Daniels, a Negro, with a ten-inch blackjack while Daniels was confined to a jail cell. Daniels died ten days later of a subdural hemorrhage.

Three of the four witnesses against the sheriff were white. Daniels' employer, a grocer, said he had seen the sheriff go into the Negro man's cell, then heard sounds of a beating. "I couldn't stand it," he testified. "I had to leave." The white doctor who had been called in to treat Daniels' injuries said he had seen the sheriff kick the injured inmate and curse him angrily.

The jury took twenty-four minutes to find the sheriff not guilty. In the hot, crowded courtroom, the white people broke into smiles. "In the balcony, also crowded and even hotter, the Negro spectators didn't move and their faces remained immobile as they had been throughout the trial," Milner reported.

The sheriff walked over to the evidence table, picked up the blackjack, and pocketed it while his lawyer joked about the case. "Why that jury knew that you can't kill a nigger by hitting him on the head," the lawyer said with a laugh. "You gotta hit him on the heel."

The next day, in an editorial mischievously entitled "Water Valley Meditation," Carter captured the absurdity of the voices coming from all the Sheriff Treloars in the South: "What with all these nosey newspapermen and preachers and Yankees and other such communistic trash, it's getting to where a Mississippi white man can't kill himself a nigguh without getting his name in the papers and losing up to two or three days in court. Downright subversive, we call it, and something ought to be done. Otherwise, what was the use of us winning the war for Southern independence?"

Satire was both the lance and the balm for P. D. East, the editor and publisher of a small and feisty weekly newspaper, the Petal Paper, in a south Mississippi county named after the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest. East, always on the brink of bankruptcy, took the Klan and other segregationists seriously but delighted in making fun of them. After a rash of cross burnings in 1957, he ran a spoof classified advertisement on the front page for "used lumber desirable for making crosses." He offered free kerosene with orders of a half dozen or more and a free booklet, "How to Build Your Own Cross Kit" with every order.

Some levity was also coming out of Charlotte, where one of Harry Ashmore's poker buddies from his early newspaper days, Harry Golden, delighted in making fun of segregationists and their contortions in defense of racial separation.

Golden, the gadfly author of the Carolina Israelite newspaper, which circulated weekly mostly among southern Jews, developed a series of "Golden Plans" to show the absurdity of segregationist positions. Golden observed, for example, that whites did not mind standing next to Negroes in the grocery, at the bank and at other counters. "It is only when the Negro 'sets' that the fur begins to fly." The Golden Vertical Integration Plan? "Provide only desks in all public schools of our state," he suggested. "No seats." His Golden Out-of-Order Plan called for hanging out-of-order signs on all water fountains designated for white people; soon, thirsty whites would be drinking out of the "colored" fountains and not noticing a difference.

Golden, whose books had broad appeal in the 1960s, gave liberals scattered and isolated across the South an opportunity to enjoy a collective laugh each week.

It was with Harry Golden and another literary giant, Carl Sandburg, that Atlanta Constitution Editor and Publisher Ralph McGill sometimes sought refuge and emotional sustenance. Over a fifteen-year period, until Sandburg died in 1967, the three men would gather for weekends of quiet talk and expansive debate, rocking in chairs and walking in the woods at Sandburg's antebellum home, set inside the 240-acre Connemara Farms in Flat Rock, North Carolina.

In Atlanta, McGill provided New York Times correspondent Claude Sitton with the same kind of moral support that Carter was dispensing in Mississippi. Whenever Sitton would return to his office inside the Atlanta Journal and Constitution Building, little time would pass before he'd look up and see McGill standing in the doorway.

"Hey, what's going on in Mississippi?" McGill would ask as he walked into Sitton's office. "What do you know that I ought to know?" Sitton shared his findings with McGill, whom he and other younger reporters called "Pappy," and McGill shared his insights and analysis with Sitton. Early on, Sitton learned the price of sharing too much too soon: he'd pick up the Constitution the next day and see his soundings massaged beautifully and crisply into an astute McGill column that had been distributed nationwide – before Sitton had gotten them into the Times. Sitton had to laugh at how masterfully McGill had picked his brain; and he had to groan at the realization that readers who saw similarities in his story and McGill's column were far more likely to conclude that Sitton had stolen from McGill than vice versa.

At the same time, a much more important fusion of ideas and sense of direction was taking place when McGill and Sitton sat and discussed the South and how their profession was covering it. McGill proselytized his fellow journalists with the idea that they had become mindless, robotic followers of the "cult of objectivity," at the expense of truth.

Certainly, reporters had to try to be fair, McGill felt, but he did not see the point of purely objective news presentations if that meant the truth got lost in the process. Objectivity, he believed, was an anachronistic antidote that had emerged in earlier days, when publishers had been wild and reckless in pushing their biases into the newspapers. It had evolved into a formula of printing all sides of the story – sometimes in the same number of words or paragraphs – and leaving readers to make their own choices. From there, McGill felt, the goal of objectivity had devolved to the point where newspapers had become neutered. If a public figure said something that was untrue or mischaracterized a situation, McGill felt, most newspapers wouldn't report the falsity unless the reporter could get someone else to point it out. And if that someone else stretched the truth, McGill said, newspapers devoted to blind objectivity found themselves in a bind, printing two falsities.

If Citizens' Council leaders in a town, for example, said they were not putting economic pressure on Negroes to withdraw their names from petitions and the newspaper had incontrovertible proof that they were, why were newspapers so reluctant to report it? Why did they have to wait until they found someone who was willing to say it on the record? Why did they fall back on the conventional thrust and parry of grouping the allegation and denial all in the first couple of paragraphs, which steered readers away from the truth, not toward it? McGill felt that Sitton and the Times were exceptions.

The Times had embarked on a bolder form of news coverage that gave reporters room to go deeper in explaining and interpreting news events and developments. Sitton was a tenacious reporter who did his own legwork, who didn't rely on official sources, who reflexively felt the need to cover the same ground as investigators, and who trusted his own judgment to guide his articles.

But even with Sitton's reporting, McGill's analysis and their combined understanding of the South and its people, the question neither could answer, the question no one could answer, was how far each side of the racial divide was willing to go to get its way. To McGill, Ashmore, Carter, and other liberal editors in the South, massive resistance as a toy weapon in the hands of a James J. Kilpatrick, segregationist editor of the Richmond News Leader, was one thing; but it was quite something else in the hands of armed and dangerous freckle-bellies, as Bill Emerson, Newsweek's Atlanta bureau chief, called the great unwashed. Massive resistance, once allowed to root, could not be controlled or contained and would lead to a kind of brutal lawlessness that none of its high-minded advocates wanted on their consciences. If you allow the states to thumb their nose at federal edicts, the editors asked, what's to stop all those poor, angry backwoods white folks, whipped into a paranoid frenzy by demagogues, from taking the next step? And who was going to stop them?

Some segregationist editors were asking the same thing.

This article is excerpted from "The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation" by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff. Copyright (c) Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, 2006. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House.

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