AJR  Books
From AJR,   March 2003

A Trove of Courageous Coverage   

Reporting Civil Rights

The Library of America
Part One, 996 pages
Part Two, 986 pages
$40 per volume

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.


Honesty first: I have not read every word on every one of these 1,982 pages. But I have read more than I expected to, because this collection is a treasure, filled with eloquent, moving, often courageous coverage of a momentous era.

Much of the material presented here is classic journalism, and some of it, such as Martin Luther King Jr.'s -- Letter from Birmingham Jail," is literature. Dipping in almost anywhere will inspire you.

Yet in the end this anthology also says something cautionary about journalism's limitations. Taken one by one, these articles show reporting at its best. In aggregate, as a model for covering fateful issues, they leave us with the troubling sense that some depths remain resistant to even the best journalism.

On balance, though, this is an impressive collection of some 200 articles and excerpts from 1941 to 1973. It joins two other important Library of America journalism anthologies, on reporting World War II and Vietnam.

"Reporting Civil Rights" begins with A. Philip Randolph's 1941 "Call to Negro America" to march on Washington for equal rights and concludes with Alice Walker's 1973 meditation on how far things had come ("The mountain of despair has dwindled.... But freedom has always been an elusive tease").

In between come Bayard Rustin on Jim Crow laws, Langston Hughes on integrating train dining cars, John Steinbeck on New Orleans school desegregation, John Hersey on voter registration, Charlayne Hunter on integrating the University of Georgia, Earl Caldwell on Martin Luther King's assassination and Tom Wolfe on "mau-mauing the flak catchers."

There are stirring columns by Murray Kempton and Jimmy Breslin, essays by Robert Penn Warren and Fannie Lou Hamer, and show-stopping daily news stories, such as this one in 1954 by Robert J. Donovan in the New York Herald Tribune: "In a historic decision portending vast social changes throughout the South and in the District of Columbia, the United States Supreme Court held unanimously today that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional."

Or this 1957 report by the Associated Press' Relman Morin: "Little Rock, Ark. -- A howling, shrieking crowd of men and women outside Central High School, and disorderly students inside, forced authorities to withdraw eight Negro students from the school Monday, three and one-half hours after they entered it."

Some of the most affecting stories are the gritty flesh-and-blood reports on the suffering and valor of everyday people driven to revolt. Before he became famous as a columnist and commentator, for example, Carl Rowan reported for the Minneapolis Tribune on the 1953 South. He talked with black people who had been fired, foreclosed on and threatened, but who wouldn't stop pushing to end discrimination.

"Mister, we live in hope," a black store owner tells Rowan. "That court has got to cut this segregation out, cause I'm telling you, we Negroes have caught hell long enough."

Ebony's Bob Clark relates his harrowing "Nightmare Journey" of being detained and brutalized by National Guardsmen while covering riots in Detroit. "I guess they had to take it out on somebody and the somebody was anybody black that passed by in a car.... There, ahead of us, stood a gauntlet of two long rows of blood-hungry firemen. They were screaming at the top of their lungs: 'Kill the black bastards! Castrate those coons!' "

It is striking, and nostalgic, to note how many serious reports appeared in unlikely venues. James Baldwin's essay on black student demands ran in Mademoiselle. John Hersey's "A Life for a Vote" was published by the Saturday Evening Post. Redbook ran Alice Lake's intimate, detailed portrait of college volunteers serving in Mississippi in 1964.

My one serious complaint is that the New York Times and Northern publications in general seem over-represented. The Atlanta Constitution's Ralph McGill turns up, bravely shaming the Ku Klux Klan, but few other entries come from Southern papers. Much of their coverage was undoubtedly uncritical, but surely there were outposts whose courageous work deserves remembrance.

This is not to take away credit due the Times, which served as an all-important lifeline in the most honorable tradition of journalism. Through reporters such as Claude Sitton, the Times stayed stoutly atop the inflammatory story, bringing it world attention.

Despite the objective standards of the day, much of the writing was uncompromising. Covering a voter-registration rally in Sasser, Georgia, for example, Sitton described how a deputy sheriff "swaggered back and forth fingering a hand-tooled black leather cartridge belt" and related how three officers "took turns badgering the participants."

In one of several powerful pieces in Newsweek, Karl Fleming led a report this way: "Spring came menacingly to Birmingham as the Negro revolution budded, then blossomed violently amid the police dogs and fire hoses."

Even blunter was David Nevin, reporting in Life from Philadelphia, Mississippi: "It is a simple truth of Mississippi justice that white men are rarely penalized for treatment dealt Negroes and Negro sympathizers. That is the way it is in Mississippi."

Ultimately, this anthology re-engenders faith in journalism's role in providing illumination of evil conditions and in offering outreach to the oppressed.

But I also was struck by how few stories penetrated to the systemic roots of bigotry and the state-supported institutions that enabled it. There is sterling coverage of incidents, individuals and passions, but relatively little comprehensive attention to the corrupted legal, economic and political systems under which discrimination flourished.

As Sen. Trent Lott and many others have found, the matter of race is even today only an unguarded outburst away from headlines. Reforms of the 1960s era, catalyzed at least in part by dogged journalism, were transforming but incomplete. Maybe prejudice can never be purged. But an important journalistic lesson here is that, as fittingly subversive as it was, civil rights coverage never quite got to the deepest of the depths.