College Park-- It is, in a way, his first Pulitzer.
Gene Roberts, a University of Maryland professor and revered journalist, won the Pulitzer Prize for History yesterday. He shares journalism's highest honor with Hank Klibanoff, the managing editor for enterprise at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The men co-wrote The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, an account of how the Southern press covered America's emerging civil rights movement 50 years ago.
After the Pulitzer announcements yesterday afternoon, Roberts was honored by students and faculty over cake and champagne in the lobby of the university's Philip Merrill College of Journalism. After leading The Philadelphia Inquirer to 17 Pulitzer Prizes, this was Roberts' first Pulitzer for his own work.
"It feels like it's never too late, and I say that as a senior citizen," said Roberts, 74. Asked whether he has another Pulitzer in his future, "I'll just enjoy this one for the rest of my life," he said.
Waving off a formal speech, Roberts appeared taken aback by the attention. As customary on Mondays, he had flown in from his home in New York to teach classes in advanced writing and civil rights and the press, for which The Race Beat is required reading. Carol Horner, director of the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at Maryland, is one of many Inquirer veterans who worked with Roberts. She toasted her former editor.
"I can't tell you how it fills my heart to see you with your very own [Pulitzer]," Horner said, tears welling. "He made it possible for us to do our best work."
The university's former dean of the journalism school, Reese Cleghorn, gave Roberts a hug.
"It's long overdue," Cleghorn said.
Roberts began The Race Beat in the early 1990s but put the project aside when he accepted the managing editor's job at The New York Times in 1994 and, later, resumed teaching at UM. About 12 years ago, Roberts brought in Klibanoff, also a former Inquirer veteran, to collaborate on The Race Beat, which was published last year to favorable reviews.
"The book was Gene's idea. It was his vision," Klibanoff said yesterday. "Until today, he never had a Pulitzer with his name on it. Now he does. The fact he has to share it with my name is an honor for me."
Their book chronicles the efforts of Southern journalists and editors in covering the modern civil rights struggle roughly between 1955 and 1965. It's a story of the American press initially ignoring the story of the Jim Crow culture in the South until a group of progressive Southern editors and reporters awakened to what Roberts has called "probably the most important domestic story of the 20th century," he told The Inquirer this year. The book also profiled black journalists who spurred their white colleagues to better cover the story.
"What Gene and Hank have done is to really explain how significant the role of the news media was. Other books have reported on the civil rights era, but very few books are able to capture in detail the role of the press," said Gene Foreman, Roberts' longtime managing editor at the Inquirer. Roberts didn't need another Pulitzer to validate his career, but the award was certainly well-deserved, Foreman said yesterday. "It is a great recognition for what they both have done."
Roberts, an influential figure to legions of journalists, led The Philadelphia Inquirer to 17 Pulitzer Prizes during his 18-year tenure as the paper's editor. Known for his Southern drawl, long pauses and rigid standard of excellence, Roberts was credited with turning a poorly performing newspaper into one of the best papers in the 1970s and 1980s. William K. Marimow, editor of the Inquirer and former editor of The Sun, won two Pulitzer Prizes as a reporter under Roberts' leadership.
"It's a crowning achievement for a truly brilliant and inspiring career," Marimow said yesterday. "There's a great symmetry in the fact Gene led the Inquirer to so many Pulitzers and now, along with the brilliant Hank Klibanoff, has won a Pulitzer Prize himself."
John Carroll, former editor of The Sun and the Los Angeles Times, also worked with Roberts in Philadelphia. Carroll, now retired from journalism, said Roberts was not only an inspirational editor, he was first an impressive reporter. They had met while covering the war in Vietnam.
"But the story that really made Gene's eyes light up was the civil rights movement," Carroll said. "What The Race Beat did for me was really portray both the best of the press and the worst. Some in the press really deserved eternal damnation, and some really distinguished themselves to a degree that is historic."
Roberts certainly distinguished himself as both reporter, editor and now author. After his storied run at the Inquirer, he left the paper in 1990 and the next year began teaching at UM's College of Journalism. He took a hiatus from teaching to serve as managing editor of the Times from 1994 to 1997. In 1998, Roberts returned to College Park, where he resumed teaching courses on writing, newsroom management and the press and civil rights.
A North Carolina native, Roberts began his newspaper career at the Goldsboro News-Argus, a 9,000-circulation paper in Wayne County, N.C. He was the proud author of the newspaper's farm column called "Ramblin' in Rural Wayne." Roberts wrote about the season's first cotton blossom, picnic tables sagging under the weight of fried chicken and banana pudding, and a sweet potato that resembled French president Gen. Charles de Gaulle. He learned an invaluable lesson from the paper's editor, Henry Belk, who was nearly blind. Roberts, a cub reporter, needed to be more descriptive.
"'You aren't making me see,' Mr. Belk would say. 'Make me see,'" Roberts said in a Sun profile in 2002.
Roberts saw many stories in his years as a reporter for the Detroit Free Press, The Virginian-Pilot, The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., and for the Times, which Roberts joined in 1965. He became the paper's chief Southern and civil rights correspondent, and chief war correspondent in South Vietnam, where he covered the 1968 Tet Offensive. But it was his time at the Raleigh newspaper where he became convinced the emerging civil rights struggle in America was "the greatest story of our time." In North Carolina, he saw the first lunch counter sit-ins, covered a visit by a pastor named Martin Luther King Jr., and covered a meeting that led to the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Later, as a reporter for the Times, Roberts knew what he wanted: the civil rights beat. It was a subject he would return to more than a half-century later. It was a subject that would earn him his own Pulitzer.
After the champagne and cake reception yesterday (and an appearance by the Maryland Terrapin mascot), congratulatory phone calls made Roberts late for class. He joined in progress a discussion on the Birmingham, Ala., riots. The students applauded when they saw their Pulitzer Prize-winning professor, who merely looked at his teaching assistant and inquired about the newsreel scheduled.
"Did you show the movie yet?"