'The Race Beat': Media in the Civil-Rights Era
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
And I'm Madeleine Brand.
In the early 1960s, Americans got used to turning on the evening news and hearing reports like this…
(Soundbite of news report)
Mr. HAGAN THOMPSON (Reporter): This is Hagan Thompson at the State Office building in Jackson. James Meredith has just arrived. The crowd is booing lustily.
BRAND: That was September, 1962, when civil rights activist James Meredith attempted to register at the University of Mississippi. The national press corps was there to report it.
CHADWICK: A new book, "The Race Beat," takes a look at how the press covered the civil rights struggle while sometimes ducking for cover. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this report.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Race relations in the segregated South often operated on a don't ask, don't tell principal. Black and white folks usually avoided discussing race with each other unless something occurred that couldn't be ignored, like the murder of Emmett Till, which changed the way the mainstream press covered the South.
Mr. HANK KLIBANOFF (Editor, Atlanta Journal-Constitution; Co-author, "The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation"): The nation's view was fed in large part by the attention that the press paid to the situation in 1955.
BATES: That's Hank Klibanoff, now editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He's a native Alabaman and co-author with Gene Roberts of "The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation." Klibanoff says the murder of the Chicago teen by two white adults in Money, Mississippi riveted the nation's attention. People were now focused not only on the crime, but on the conditions for blacks in the South.
In "The Race Beat" Klibanoff explains that many southern editors felt a strong need to support the status quo. Their editorial coverage was sympathetic to segregation, and they were angry that what they saw as a local issue was getting such intense, national attention.
Mr. KLIBANOFF: They did not believe that race was the story that these other reporters thought it was. They thought they were stirring up trouble, just in the same that they thought the civil rights forces were stirring up trouble.
BATES: But for these segregationist editors, the so-called race beat became increasingly problematic. Eventually, Klibanoff says, some of those editors convened a mini-summit. They wanted to come up with says to counteract what they saw as a tidal wave of negative and unfair coverage from the national press.
Mr. KLIBANOFF: And they came up with a whole lot of cockamamie ideas, including starting their own Pulitzer Prize just for Southern reporting, attacking the wire services with ridiculous requests that they try to cover other things besides race. And all it did was exhaust the Southern segregationist editors, and they didn't get very far.
BATES: In fact, reporters came in ever larger numbers than before. Editors around the country had finally begun to understand the magnitude of this story. The race beat had hurdled to a speedy adolescence a mere two years after Emmett Till's murder. Here in this tape, a reporter's trying to describe the frenzy as a white mob rushes to prevent black students from attending Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.
(Soundbite of TV series, "Eyes on the Prize")
Unidentified Man: You can see from here some of the action occurring down there…
(Soundbite of crowd screaming)
BATES: That's archival tape from the PBS series, "Eyes on the Prize." The resistance to integrating Central High was a crisis for the nation and the Eisenhower administration. Journalists from around the country and globe came to the Arkansas capital to chronicle this racial turmoil. Hank Klibanoff says up until Little Rock, black reporters operated in relative safety under often hostile conditions in the South. But at Central High, things got worse.
Mr. KLIBANOFF: Black reporters who were trying to cover the enrollment of nine black students were brutally beaten.
BATES: Black editors better than anyone understood the importance of covering the movement. But as resistance to integration became more bloody, they were sometimes reluctant to put their staff in harm's way. That had its costs, according to Hank Klibanoff.
Mr. KLIBANOFF: You could say that beginning in 1957, the black press lost its front row seat on what would become the civil rights movement.
BATES: Eventually, black reporters did return to cover the struggle with their white colleagues. Together, they forced the nation to pay attention to one of the most important human rights movements in modern history. Hank Klibanoff believes that covering the race beat was shining moment in the history of the American press.
Post-segregation, race issues are more complicated and literally less black and white. In the future, says Klibanoff, work on race reporting will require this…
Mr. KLIBANOFF: To take each case one by one and to figure out what are the valuable issues here, so that we're not giving a knee-jerk reaction to anything.
BATES: If the race stories in recent years - from O.J. Simpson to the Duke Lacrosse case - are any indication, there will be plenty of occasion to test that standard.
Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
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