Journalist Karl Fleming Chronicled Civil Rights Era

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Journalist Karl Fleming chronicled many of the key moments in the civil rights era in the South. He then moved to Los Angeles, where he was beaten during the 1965 Watts Riots. Fleming died last weekend at age 84.


Now, we remember a famed civil rights era journalist. Karl Fleming died this past Saturday. He was 84. Fleming covered the most turbulent period of the civil rights movement for Newsweek, both in the Deep South and in Los Angeles. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates tells us more about his life.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Karl Fleming didn't come from the North to cover the civil rights movement. Those journalists often sneered at Southern life and its customs, convinced they were immune from the racism they were chronicling. Nor did he come from a genteel Southern family trying to push gently from within to end segregation.

Fleming could report so effectively on the rage of white segregationists because he knew many up close. He'd grown up poor in rural North Carolina. Here, he reads from his memoir, "Son of the Rough South," for FRESH AIR in 2005.


KARL FLEMING: (Reading) I could talk and look just as tough as the bigots did. Except for the suit, clean-shaven cheeks and evidence of a recent bath, I looked more or less like one of them: a crew cut, 210-pound, belligerent, profane, reckless, cigar-smoking, hard-drinking, drawling redneck. I could talk the cracker talk and walk the ploughboy walk.

BATES: Karl Fleming grew up at the tail end of the Depression in eastern North Carolina in desperately poor circumstances. His father died when he was very young. And eventually, to make sure her children would survive, his mother placed Fleming and his sister in an orphanage in Raleigh. When he was 17, he joined the Navy and served until the end of World War II. After two years at a local college, he left school to work at a succession of small newspapers until he got an offer to be Newsweek's Atlanta bureau chief in 1961. It was the challenge of a lifetime.


BATES: Fleming covered angry segregationists' riots as they protested James Meredith's attempt to integrate the University of Mississippi in 1962 and the '63 bombing that killed four little girls as they sat in Sunday school in Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church. He was one of the first reporters to arrive at the place where three civil rights workers disappeared in Mississippi. After that, Newsweek moved Fleming to Los Angeles. He told NPR he was astonished when he arrived to find a city almost as segregated as the ones he'd left. Riding toward Watts in 2005, Fleming told me the LAPD in 1965 hadn't been much better than its Birmingham counterpart.


FLEMING: These guys, these cops rode around in these cars with the windows rolled up, looking nothing less than kind of an occupying army in a hostile and foreign country.

BATES: Six months later, he covered the Watts Riots, and a year after that, was almost killed when he attended a Watts community meeting that was pulsing with anger over the police shooting of an unarmed man. Fleming told FRESH AIR he understood people's fury.


FLEMING: Had I been a young black man growing up on the streets of Watts, knowing what I did about how their lives had come to that point, I probably would have had enough anger in me to want to hit some white guy over the head as well, although I would certainly not have done that.

BATES: That ability to clearly see the other person's pain, even when he didn't agree with him, made Fleming a full and fair storyteller. He had his demons, to be sure, among them, a three-pack-a-day cigarette habit and a fondness for strong whiskey. Those things could assuage but not erase much of the horror he'd witnessed as a reporter. But demons and all, Karl Fleming was one of the last links in the chain of reporters who risked their lives to put the civil rights struggle on the nation's doorsteps and in its living rooms. Now, that chain is a little shorter. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) ...turn me around. Ain't going to let nobody turn me around. I'm going to keep on a-walking, keep on a-talking, marching up to freedom land.


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