Reporting Civil Rights
Ed., Clayborne Carson, David J. Garrow, Bill Kovach, and Carol Polsgrove
The Library of America
Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 9, 2003

“History,” observes James Baldwin, “does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, ... history is literally present in all that we do.” The civil rights movement is a compelling illustration of Baldwin's insight. Today, with the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., a national holiday, colleges and thoroughfares named after Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks chosen by Time magazine as one of the 20th century's 100 most important persons, the movement has achieved iconic status in our historical self-consciousness. On the other hand, the outrage generated by Trent Lott's remark that the country would have been better off had segregationist Strom Thurmond been elected president in 1948 suggests that the wounds of that era have not yet completely healed.

“Reporting Civil Rights” is a good starting point for anyone who wonders why Lott's comments aroused such a furor. Weighing in at nearly 2,000 pages, this two-volume addition to the Library of America series includes nearly 200 examples of American journalism -- daily reporting, investigative accounts, opinion pieces, and memoirs -- about the struggle for racial justice. It begins in 1941 with A. Philip Randolph's call for a March on Washington to protest discrimination in the rapidly-expanding war industries and ends with a reflection on the extent and limits of racial change in Mississippi, written in 1973.
The editors – historians Claiborne Carson and David Garrow, former Atlanta Constitution editor Bill Kovach, and journalism professor Carol Polsgrove – do not, unfortunately, discuss the criteria of selection. Some of their choices seem questionable. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a magnificent statement of the movement's moral outlook, but it hardly qualifies as journalism. Nor does Tom Wolfe's famous essay, “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” a brilliant, sardonic work of the imagination rather than an account of actual events.

Nonetheless, the editors are to be commended for scouring the era's newspapers and magazines and for including numerous pieces by writers unknown today alongside familiar names like Anthony Lewis, David Halberstam, and Joan Didion. They present accounts of the struggle's familiar high points – Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma. But they also devote considerable space to less well-known parts of the story, such as the bus boycott in Tallahassee that followed the Montgomery campaign and demonstrations in places like Danville and St. Augustine. They make clear that the movement rested not only on national leaders like King, around whom the media tended to congregate, but even more on grassroots people of extraordinary courage who refused to bend to sometimes savage retribution.

The editors have been especially successful in mining the often-neglected black press, which published some of the best reporting on the movement. They include a harrowing 1942 piece by L. O. Swinger from the Atlanta Daily World about the police beating of Morehouse College professor Hugh M. Gloster. His offense was to ask a train conductor if blacks in an overcrowded Negro car could move into the all but empty adjoining coach. One of the most moving pieces in the collection is James D. Williams' stark account in the Baltimore Afro-American of the funeral of a young victim of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing.

Black reporters seem to have had a style and method different from their white counterparts. Reporting for the New York Amsterdam News about white anxiety about the impending arrival of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi, James L. Hicks writes: “Meredith literally rocked and rolled this town out of its senses .... They acted as if this young lone young Negro youth was a man from Mars.” (I, 661, 663) Among the collection's most hilarious pieces is a 1961 account by George Collins, a reporter for the Baltimore Afro-American, of posing as a diplomat from the nonexistent African nation of Goban and seeking to eat in Maryland restaurants. Dressed in African attire and declaiming on the virtues of Goban's “betel nut,” Collins and a colleague are treated with unfailing courtesy. As far as blacks are concerned, Collins concludes, in Maryland “everybody eats but Americans.” (I, 607)

Taken together, the 200 pieces offer a gripping account of a momentous epoch in American history. And while the editors, in keeping with the series format do not provide an introductory essay, the volumes make a compelling case that the modern civil rights movement began not in the mid-1950s with the Brown desegregation decision and Montgomery bus boycott, but during World War II. The war redrew the nation's racial map by drawing hundreds of thousands of blacks out of the segregated South into the army and industrial employment in the North and West. The contradiction between the Roosevelt's administration's rhetoric promising a postwar world based on the Four Freedoms and the reality of racial violence, segregation, and disenfranchisement, inspired a new black militancy. The early selections in “Reporting Civil Rights” remind us that like the 1960s, World War II was a time of freedom rides, sit-ins, and urban race riots.

“The segregation question,” writes Lucille Milner in a 1944 expose of military Jim Crow, “will be a burning postwar issue.” (I, 56) The rest of the first volume traces the movement down to 1963, when demonstrations involving tens of thousands of protesters swept across the South and President Kennedy committed the federal government to enforcing the civil rights of black citizens.

If the movement's first phase produced a clear set of objectives and a series of coherent if sometimes competitive organizations – SCLC, SNCC, CORE, etc. – the second witnessed political fragmentation and, after 1965, few significant victories. The second volume opens with the 1963 March on Washington. This was the high water mark of the nonviolent civil rights movement. But even at this point, signs of future divisions abounded. Marlene Nadle, riding a bus to Washington to report for New York's Village Voice, encounters young blacks who tell her: “Get out of our organization. We don't need any white liberals to patronize us.” (II, 4) Writing in the Paris periodical Présence Africaine, young black activist Michael Thelwall speaks of the March as a “fiasco,” because it abandoned plans for a sit-in at the Capitol in favor of staging “a mass protest against injustice without offending anyone.” (II, 78, 82)

Soon, Black Power replaces the integrationist vision and non-violence is succeeded by urban rebellion. The second volume ends on a bittersweet note with Alice Walker's 1973 piece about returning to live in Jackson, Mississippi after 10 years in the North. Blacks now vote, and the schools, restaurants, and hotels are integrated. The “white” and “colored” signs are gone and so is the climate of fear that so recently “shrouded Mississippi.” (II, 879) But the movement, too, has passed into history.

In some ways, of course, the most influential reporting on civil rights appeared not in print media but on television. Nothing in these volumes has the visceral impact of the images, broadcast around the world, of Bull Connor's police attacking Birmingham demonstrators with fire hoses and dogs or Sheriff Jim Clark's forces assaulting nonviolent marchers on Selma's Pettus bridge. But “Reporting Civil Rights” proves that sometimes, a word can be worth a thousand pictures.

The best pieces do what television never seems able to -- offer in-depth accounts that illuminate complex local situations. The volumes are filled with memorable pieces of journalistic writing. Among them is Murray Kempton's article describing the end of Ernest Green's senior year at Little Rock's Central High School, which began with troops escorting him to classes in defiance of a howling mob. Kempton quotes the inscriptions written by white classmates in Green's yearbook, ranging from “I enjoyed having home room with you,” to “I really admire you, Ernest. I doubt if I could have done half so well had the circumstances been reversed.” (I, 398-99) An essay by John Hersey from the Saturday Evening Post of 1964, brings into vivid relief the life of Varshall Pleas, a black farmer near Athens, Mississippi. Hersey brilliantly illuminates Pleas's struggle to make ends meet, his aspirations for his children, and his growing commitment to the movement. Other highlights include a long account by George McMillan in Collier's of “The Ordeal of Bobby Cain,” which details the daily courage of a youth who in 1956 became the first black student in a school in Clinton, Tennessee, far from the national media limelight. John Lowell brings to life the intensity of the 1967 Detroit uprising by interviewing National Guardsmen about strategies for fighting snipers. “It was as though the Viet Cong,” Lowell observes, “had infiltrated the riot-blackened streets.” (II, 607)

Another superb piece is Calvin Hernton's wickedly funny essay from 1966 on how black actors in Hollywood movies never seem to be portrayed in sexual situations for fear of offending white Americans obsessed with black sexuality. “Why can't Sidney Poitier, since he is such a superb actor, make love in the movies?” Hernton asks. To see Poitier kiss a black woman, he answers, would lead to revulsion among white patrons. To see him kiss a white woman “would have caused a riot on Broadway and a slaughter in Alabama.” (II, 469, 471)

Journalism, the saying goes, is the first draft of history. As instant historical analysis, some of the reporting stands up remarkably well. In The New Republic, Thomas Sancton succinctly explains the reasons for the outburst of black militancy during World War II: “The swift tides of war and race conflict sweeping through all countries of the world have caused ... the ascendancy of aggressive Negro leadership.” (I, 43) When the sit-ins begin in 1960, Claude Sitton of the New York Times recognizes that they reflect both a “growing dissatisfaction over the slow pace of desegregation” and “a shift of leadership to younger, more militant Negroes.” (I, 433)

Two contributors to The Nation consistently provide analysis that goes beyond the headlines. One, Howard Zinn, was then a history professor at Spelman College, an elite black women's college. Whether describing the radicalization of the “young ladies” of Spelman or comparing Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln as “reluctant emancipators,” Zinn's pieces offer an unusually high level of historical awareness. (I, 520, 702) The other Nation writer is Dan Wakefield, whose report from Mississippi on the acquittal of Emmett Till's murderers undercuts the common misconception that racism emanates mainly from lower-class whites. The local White Citizens' Council, Wakefield notes, is composed of eminently respectable men -- lawyers, bankers, and school officials. “Their shirts aren't red and they don't wear sheets.” (I, 222)

In another piece, Wakefield notes that segregation is not simply a system of separating blacks and whites, but is designed to maintain “the continuance of cheap labor in the South,” a “major lure” in attracting northern industry. (I, 468) His pieces highlight a glaring weakness of much civil rights journalism – its neglect of what might be called the political economy of racism. With a few exceptions, reporters tend to see the movement as primarily a moral issue, a dilemma for national policy, or a question of racial psychodynamics. Thus, for example, Harrison Salisbury's vivid reporting from Birmingham in 1960, describing a city “fragmented by the emotional dynamite of racism, enforced by the whip, the razor, the gun, the bomb,” makes Bull Connor the villain, entirely neglecting the steel barons who did far more than Connor to shape the city's racial policies and atmosphere. (I, 447)

“Reporting Civil Rights” compounds this problem by neglecting the northern side of the movement. In the North, demands for racial justice revolved around equal access to housing and an end to job discrimination by employers and unions, not legal segregation and disenfranchisement. The North did not offer up ready-made symbols of racism like Bull Connor and southern tactics like marches, sit-ins, and mass arrests, proved ineffective in the face of a less overt but equally powerful system of racial inequality. Only a handful of pieces -- for example, George Schulyer's penetrating 1949 article for The American Mercury describing “Jim Crow in the North” -- deal with racism outside the South. (I, 112) Inexplicably, the editors fail to include any reporting about King's Chicago Freedom Movement of 1966, whose failure in the face of the entrenched power of Major Richard J. Daley's political machine and the ferocious opposition of white homeowners to open housing offered a preview of the movement's national decline.

This neglect is all the more striking because the Marches on Washington that open the two volumes – the protest of 1941, which was called off, and the “I Have a Dream” rally of 1963 – focused on economic inequality as much as desegregation. The call for the 1941 protest labeled American democracy “a hollow mockery” if it “will not give jobs to its toilers because of race or color.” (I, 3) The rallying cry of the 1963 march was Jobs and Freedom, and its demands included not simply the passage of the civil rights bill then before Congress but a public works program to reduce unemployment, an increase in the minimum wage, and a law banning racial discrimination in employment. E. W. Kenworthy's New York Times account of the 1963 March notes that a century earlier, the Emancipation Proclamation had enjoined former slaves to “labor faithfully for reasonable wages,” something still unavailable to them. (II, 12) His is one of only a handful of pieces that brings to center stage what Hunter Thompson, in The Reporter in 1963, calls “segregation's second front” of jobs, housing, and an entrenched white power structure. (II, 87)

Overall, these volumes offer a revealing portrait of how journalists during the civil rights era pursued their craft. It was an overwhelmingly male profession – only a handful of pieces here are by women reporters. Its practitioners displayed considerable physical and moral courage. Reporters were beaten while covering the Freedom Rides and one was killed in the Oxford, Mississippi, riots of 1962. They prided themselves on being where the action was. “When I heard about the rioting on the radio,” writes Lez Edmond in Ramparts in 1964, “I grabbed my tape recorder and I got into Harlem, deep in, quick.” (II, 138) They were participant journalists, who developed “a sort of proprietary feeling about the Movement,” as Pat Watters put it in 1969. (II, 716)

The editors' selections reinforce this flattering self-portrait. But there is another, less pretty side to the story, largely ignored in these volumes. Where are the pieces from national publications like the Wall Street Journal and Time, warning that the 1963 March on Washington was certain to set back the cause of civil rights? Where is the voice of anti-civil rights journalism, the articles, for example, in The National Review during the 1950s that referred to whites as “the advanced race” and defended black disenfranchisement on the grounds that “the claims of civilization supercede those of universal suffrage?” [[ Editor -- These are quoted in my book, The Story of American Freedom]] Where is the southern segregationist press, which consistently misrepresented the movement and stirred up or extenuated violence against it?

“Reporting Civil Rights” includes selections from liberal white southern editors – Ralph McGill of the Atlanta Constitution calling on the “good people” of the South to unite against the Klan, Hodding Carter explaining how he decided to add “Mrs.” before the names of married black women in his Mississippi newspaper. (I, 123, 134) But the massive abdication of journalistic responsibility by much of the southern press is only hinted at via the complaints of civil rights activists.

Only indirectly do we learn that during the Montgomery bus boycott the Montgomery Advertiser printed nothing about the wholesale arrest and harassment of black participants or that it later called civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy an “unprincipled and unspeakable bum.” (II, 688) Or that the Athens Courier published the names of blacks who attempted to register to vote, so that they could be singled out for economic retribution and the “entire Mississippi press” concentrated its reports on how civil rights workers “smelled” and “stank,” as if their odor was what inspired violence against them. (II, 166)

In a revealing 1962 piece, John Herbers, a southern-born journalist reporting on Mississippi for UPI, notes that local newspapers refuse to print anything that might embarrass the state or discourage outside investment. “There is,” Herbers writes, “a need for a new approach in reporting the kind of social change that is going on in the South today.” Most newspapers, however, “seem content to continue under the old formulas.” (I, 644-45) This, too, is part of the story of reporting civil rights, but it remains unrepresented in these volumes.

Today, we live in the post-civil rights era. In unprecedented numbers, blacks now work alongside whites in offices and on factory floors and sit together in college classrooms (although public schools are increasingly segregated). Sidney Poitier can kiss anyone he wants in the movies. Journalism, too, has changed. The Nation and New Republic survive, but there seem to be fewer and fewer venues for serious reportorial essays. The rise of the Internet has not replaced Look, Collier's, The Reporter, Ramparts, and other now-defunct magazines where some of the best essays in these volumes were published.

This is a pity, because a new generation of journalists needs to make sense of issues that mostly eluded their predecessors. In the 1970s and 1980s, just as Jim Crow finally ended in many workplaces and unions, deindustrialization devastated the black working class. Today, the black rate of unemployment remains double that of whites, and half of all black children live in poverty. The widespread incarceration of black men, an issue all but ignored until the late 1960s, has had devastating effects on black families and communities. Blacks today are entitled to vote, but with 39 states denying the franchise to those in prison or on probation and 10 barring ex-felons for life, an estimated one black man in six cannot cast a ballot.

In 1965, reporting on the Selma campaign, the free-lance writer George B. Leonard observed that the civil rights movement was attempting to bring about an unprecedented revolution in laws, practices, and “the hearts of men.” “If we can pull this one off,” he added, “then what is impossible for us?” (II, 331) Did we pull it off? Nearly four decades later, the answer is still uncertain.