A history well worth waiting for

Review Civil Rights

November 19, 2006|By Ray Jenkins | Ray Jenkins,Special to the Sun

The Race Beat

Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff

Knopf / 518 pages / $30

Like aging veterans of a long-past war, the news reporters who covered the civil rights movement half a century ago spend a lot of time these days in misty-eyed reunions. At these gatherings, inevitably someone would ask anxiously, "What have you heard about Gene's book?"

After all, 15 years had passed since Gene Roberts retired after a distinguished career in daily journalism and committed himself to write a history of how "the race beat" was covered. The problem was, Gene kept getting called back to duty - first as a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland, then for several years as managing editor of The New York Times. As deadlines went unmet, a co-author was enlisted in what looked like a desperate rescue mission.

Well, the long wait is over, and the result turns out to be well worth the wait. Gene Roberts, and his co-author Hank Klibanoff, have brought forth a book which combines the vigor of journalism and the rigor of scholarship, a work that is certain to take its place on the top shelf of books about the civil rights movement - right up there with such monumental works as Taylor Branch's three-volume history of Martin Luther King's impact on America.

(For the record, I should state that I've known Gene Roberts for 40 years and that I get a generous mention in the book.)

The Race Beat covers roughly the period from 1955 to 1965 - the parameters being the year a 14-year-old black boy named Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman, and the year that the politics of the South was forever changed by the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Before the 1950s, the nation's newspapers, even the best of them, had a shabby record of neglect in the area of racial coverage. At least 3,000 lynchings occurred in the first half of the century, and only the most outrageous received any attention. A few black-owned newspapers, including The Baltimore Afro-American, performed yeoman journalism in reporting the terror under which Southern blacks lived, but these stories got little notice outside the black communities. In the mainstream dailies of the South, blacks made the news only when they committed crimes.

The situation was so deplorable that Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish sociologist who in the 1940s wrote a seminal work about race in America entitled An American Dilemma, lamented that nothing would change until the brutality of institutional racism was thrust forcefully before the eyes of the American people.

Among those who took Myrdal's admonition to heart was an improbable Mississippi-born man named Turner Catledge, who by that time had become the top editor at The New York Times. Catledge becomes one of the central figures of this book.

Catledge's first move was to replace John Popham as the Times' Southern correspondent. Although a man of humane instincts, Popham doggedly clung to - and espoused in the Times - the naive notion that Southern moderates would one day assert themselves and reclaim the Southern honor which had been so besmirched by crass demagogues.

To replace Popham, Catledge chose a largely untested Georgia-born wire-service reporter named Claude Sitton, and it turned out to be a master stroke. At first Sitton had the field almost to himself, but as his stunning reports put a human face on the brutality of Southern resistance, other major newspapers and, most importantly, the emerging new medium of television began to focus on the story. Sitton became the North Star of journalism in the South; all the other reporters learned that if they knew where Sitton was, they knew where to go.

As the vigorous coverage began to seize the nation's attention, the South's newspapers reacted with ferocity. A columnist for Mississippi's largest daily, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, advocated cutting out the tongues of blacks who were caught "lying." Moderate editors such as Ralph McGill of Atlanta and Virginius Dabney of Richmond were all but silenced by their newspapers' owners, who shared the views of their white readers on race issues. During Police Commissioner "Bull" Connor's repression of voting-rights demonstrations with fire hoses and attack dogs, The Birmingham News never played stories of the violence on the front pages.

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