Book Examines Covering the Race Beat
TONY COX, host:
During the civil rights movement, heroes of all kinds emerged. Some were journalists. These reporters risked their lives to capture brutal moments in the South's history for newspaper, radio and for television. A new book tells the story of these truth-seekers. It's called "The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle and the Awakening of a Nation." NPR's Farai Chideya spoke with one of the book's authors, Hank Klibanoff, managing editor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, as well as Moses Newson, a retired reporter who covered the civil rights movement for the Tri-State Defender in Memphis and the Baltimore Afro-American. Hank says the black press broke the story on race relations in the South.
Mr. HANK KLIBANOFF (Co-Author, "The Race Beat"): They were the pioneers. They had the front row seat long before the white press was even interested. And they did some reporting that was pretty bold and courageous and that the white people in this country allowed to go forward, perhaps because they didn't know it existed and didn't know what was going on, didn't know what was being said.
FARAI CHIDEYA: Mr. Newson, let me turn to you. First of all, did you consider yourself and insider or an outsider? And secondly, I want you to really talk about what happened when you went to Little Rock, where just doing your job was potentially deadly.
Mr. MOSES NEWSON (Reporter): I considered myself an outsider as far as the kind of access we could get and the kind of rapport that we had with people we were dealing with. You were asking about Little Rock, for instance. My first day at Little Rock, I was met by the colonel who was in charge of the National Guard there. And he just told me flatly that I wouldn't be able to work up there in the area of the school because he thought it might cause some extra problems.
So I got escorted out of there by his troops back to my car. Meanwhile, the white reporters were still there, the photographers and whatnot was still there to do their jobs. And of course when we got beaten up that morning, when the kids first went into the school, that was pretty much an example of what could happen to you out there.
CHIDEYA: So Mr. Newson, how did you see yourself as a reporter? There's been kind of a classical dilemma in the field of reporting, saying we have to be objective or we can be a bit of an agitator for social change. How did you see your role?
Mr. NEWSON: We intended to be as objective as possible. On the other hand, the black press was founded as a crusading press. We were agitating for a change. To the extent that in 1942, the federal government was considering sedition charges against some of the black press because we were demanding that our military people be treated fairly, with dignity, and given the same opportunities that others were given who were fighting for freedom of the United States.
CHIDEYA: So Mr. Klibanoff, I just want to read you something that you guys have in your book, in the chapter Little Rock Showdown. As the civil rights movement reached across the South, and as confrontations at other notorious stateliness made Little Rock look like a beginner course in racial violence, the Negro press lost its front row seat. What exactly do you mean by the Negro press losing its front-row seat? What kind of sea change was occurring in the coverage of civil rights?
Mr. KLIBANOFF: Well, if you examine what had happened over the prior 20 years, the black reporters were the first on the scene anywhere. They had a view of the black thought and the black community feeling about civil rights that white reporters did not venture in to find out. And you look at the Montgomery advertisers' coverage. You get the clear impression they had no idea who some of the black leaders were. They were quoting Martin Luther King without knowing what his name was in some stories. And what Mr. Newson talked about, on the day the nine black students enrolled at Central High in Little Rock and the thugs on the streets, the white thugs on the streets, attacked Mr. Newson and L. Alex Wilson, who was the editor at the Tri-State Defender in Memphis, and the message was clear, this is not your story, you're not going to cover it.
Now, I'm going to say that the white reporters were treated all that kindly, 'cause they weren't. But they weren't the targets that the black reporters were.
CHIDEYA: Mr. Newson, so do you feel in the end that the white press pushed you out of the story that you had begun to cover?
Mr. NEWSON: No, I don't think they pushed us out. I think they came in and because of their frequency, because of the manpower, because of their national reach, and when they got into it, it had to expand the coverage that we were doing and to give more people true insight as to what was going on in the country. I think most people had a pretty good idea of what was going on in our country.
But when you saw people being attacked with hoses and beaten by police and buses being burned up on Mother's Day and people inside those buses scrambling to get out, those kind of things had an impact on the general population.
CHIDEYA: Among the very last lines of this book is one from Congressman John Lewis, who was beaten up in Selma, Alabama as a civil rights activist. He said if it hadn't been for the media, the print media and television, the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings, a choir without a song.
That is high praise for a profession, myself included, that doesn't always get a lot of respect in America, that people don't always esteem these days. What can we learn moving forward from how the press operated during the civil rights movement and how it emerged as a force to be reckoned with? I'm going to ask Mr. Klibanoff first and then Mr. Newson.
Mr. KLIBANOFF: Well, the mandate for the press today, and it now has broadened into being called the news media, to my mind remains the same. Public service is its first goal. Courage is required to tell those stories that other people won't tell and to go wherever the truth leads you.
CHIDEYA: Mr. Newson?
Mr. NEWSON: My view has always been that a democratic society does not function properly unless the people are properly informed. And that has been the role that the black press and the general media have sought to fulfill.
CHIDEYA: Mr. Newson, Mr. Klibanoff, thank you so much.
Mr. KLIBANOFF: Thank you.
Mr. NEWSON: It's been a pleasure.
COX: That was Moses Newson, a retired journalist who covered racial stories for the Tri-State Defender in Memphis and the Baltimore Afro-American; and Hank Klibanoff is the managing editor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution and co-author of "The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle and the Awakening of a Nation." They spoke with NPR's Farai Chideya.