Books
9:15 am
Mon February 18, 2008

The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation

This is not another general history of the civil rights movement but rather a focussed study of the role played by reporters, newspaper editors, radio reporters, still photographers, and, finally and most importantly, television reporters and their crews: cameramen and sound technicians.

Gene Roberts and Alabamian Hank Klibanoff have won the Pulitzer Prize for The Race Beat, so it is not risky for me to say it is terrific. But it really is.

This is not another general history of the civil rights movement but rather a focussed study of the role played by reporters, newspaper editors, radio reporters, still photographers, and, finally and most importantly, television reporters and their crews: cameramen and sound technicians.

Roberts and Klibanoff begin their history with a discussion of a man and a book now little known. In 1944 the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal and his associates published An American Dilemma, a study of race and racism in America. Among its conclusions was that only when the rest of America became aware of the racial oppression in the South?Jim Crow, abject poverty, violence, humiliation of minorities?only then would a civil rights movement have any chance of success. Before national media coverage, the rest of America was simply ignorant of the "gothic region where pervasive inhumanity had become a perverse condition and custom." And even when informed, the rest of the nation needed to be moved, emotionally, before private citizens and legislators would be energized to act.

At first, the media situation favored the segregationists. Only the black reporters, writing for the black press, covered the race beat. But then, slowly at first, with the horrific murder of Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi, and then the Montgomery bus boycott, the national white press began to arrive in significant numbers.

What they saw was shocking to them, even though most of these reporters were of necessity southerners. With their southern accents, they could communicate with the locals. It didn't take long, however, for all the national press to become personae non grata, and in a big and violent way. At the Ole Miss riots, half the federal marshals were wounded and the press was mostly holed up in the Lyceum Building. In the morning, a French reporter's body was found in the bushes, shot execution style. In Anniston, Birmingham, Philadelphia, Mississippi, and Little Rock, Arkansas, where daily television coverage was born, to be a reporter was to be in combat. Toughs would rough up reporters, beat them with fists and pipes and clubs. Reporters, nearly all white now since black reporters would have been murdered, hid their notebooks, moved in groups, lived together, and watched out for one another.

Most vulnerable and most courageous of all were the photographers, both still photographers and cameramen. The sight of cameras became infuriating to the segregationist mob, who often destroyed the equipment and beat the newsmen. Among the bravest of these fellows was Charles Moore, an Alabamian whose pictures, taken in the tear gas of Ole Miss and at Kelly Ingram Park, close up, with a short lens, during the days of dogs and hoses, appeared all over America, in the daily papers and the weekly magazines, but not in the Birmingham News, to its everlasting shame. (The Montgomery Advertiser is described thusly: "put out by a mismatched collection of hard-drinking has-beens and inexperienced wannabes.") Roberts and Klibanoff pull no punches, but they heap praise on reporters such as Claude Sitton and editors like Ralph McGill, Harry Ashmore, Hazel Brannon Smith, and Tuscaloosa's own Buford Boone.

The still photographs and especially the television coverage in Birmingham can be credited with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and the footage of Bloody Sunday at Selma can be credited with the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Some southern segregationists understood the media and their message. The Movement in Albany, Georgia, failed because a canny segregationist sheriff, Laurie Pritchett, forbid his men to hurt anyone. Bull Connor of Birmingham and James Clark of Selma were less sophisticated, shall we say, and, while the world watched, helped speed the civil rights movement toward its goals.

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