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.
But without a doubt, as we learn from this book, the most pernicious influence was exerted by James Jackson Kilpatrick, the brilliant and talented young editor of the Richmond News-Leader, who led the campaign for a South-wide "massive resistance," barely short of advocating secession, to the Supreme Court's 1954 school desegregation decision. In his editorials Kilpatrick concocted a legal abracadabra called "interposition," which held that state legislatures could "nullify" the Supreme Court's desegregation decision simply by adopting a resolution. Virtually every Southern state passed these defiant resolutions - which were so spurious that even an elected governor, Jim Folsom of Alabama, had the courage to liken them to "an old hound dog, baying at the moon."
Roberts and Klibanoff have unearthed private correspondence revealing that Kilpatrick was deeply involved in secret strategy sessions with like-minded editors and extremist politicians. In one astonishing revelation, the book tells how Kilpatrick would write speeches for a political ally, then publish the texts on his editorial page without attribution of the real authorship.
By 1964 Kilpatrick knew that his battle was lost, and he quietly moderated his incendiary rhetoric when he became a nationally syndicated columnist and television commentator. In his later years he would concede that he was wrong in some of his earlier opinions, but there was always a certain sorry-about-that tone to these mea culpas. After this book, it is hard to see how Kilpatrick - now in his 80s and still occasionally writing columns - can escape history's judgment.
No one recognized the power of this new battlefront journalism more fully than the Southern politicians, and so they concocted a strategy in 1963 to silence the media. That year, these politicians brought a wave of libel suits against The New York Times and CBS News. The cases were tried in local courts in Alabama, and all-white juries awarded huge dollar verdicts.
Turner Catledge, acutely aware that this strategy could make it impossible for the Times, CBS or any other news organization to carry out its newsgathering functions, frantically appealed to professional organizations such as the American Society of Newspaper Editors to join in resisting these lawsuits, but his alarm largely fell on deaf ears. In the end the freedom to report the news was saved not by journalists but by the United States Supreme Court, which overruled the libel judgments on the grounds that the Southern politicians were in effect seeking to resurrect the long-dead doctrine of seditious libel in order to silence critics.
The Race Beat is indispensable to a full understanding of the civil rights movement, simply because the book makes such a compelling case that media coverage was the sine qua non of success in the civil rights movement.
Ray Jenkins is a Pulitzer Prize winner and a retired editorial page editor of The Evening Sun. A lawyer, Jenkins is a serious scholar of Southern political and social matters, especially of the civil rights movement.