Covering The Civil Rights Movement
When getting the story was an act of courage, some Georgia journalists rose to the challenge. Most o
Gene Patterson, editor of The Atlanta Constitution, sat at an Underwood manual typewriter in his office on Forsyth Street, pondering what to say to readers who were slow to realize that the Southern way of life, to put it politely, had ended. From his window, he could see the demonstrators outside Rich’s department store – the white-clad Klan on one side of the street and civil rights activists on the other.
Farther away, along dusty country roads and in tiny black churches and biscuits-and-grits diners, newsmen (they were mostly men) were courageously foraging for the story of the century. Angry mobs hurled epithets and objects at schoolchildren who crossed the racial barrier. Klansmen bombed churches and spilled blood. Demagogic politicians cried, “Segregation now! Segregation forever!”
In that turbulent time, journalists sought to chronicle events that they knew marked a fundamental change in American society. Their words and images roused our conscience, touched our hearts and moved a nation.
Today, journalism is both more sterile and more inflammatory. We have Internet blogs and 24-hour news, talk radio and email alerts. The reporters of the civil rights era, aging men with epic tales, are a part of history and lore. But in their time, the printed word brought the news that was vital to our daily conversation. It was a mirror of our humanity.
“At its highest level, the best journalism is an act of both physical and moral courage,” says Roy Peter Clark, vice president of the Poynter Institute, who co-edited a compilation of Patterson’s columns, The Changing South of Gene Patterson (University Press of Florida, 2002).
Today, the greatest journalistic courage is demonstrated in war zones overseas. At least 26 journalists have been killed so far this year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. But here in the “homeland,” where public trust in the media has sunk low, it’s worth remembering the importance of an aggressive, independent and inspiring press.
On The Buses
Rosa Parks had just been released from jail for defying an order to move to the back of the bus when Newsweek Southern Bureau Chief Bill Emerson traveled to Montgomery. It was December 1955, about a year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling presaged a time of painful and tumultuous change. Blacks in that small Alabama city had begun a boycott of the city buses, choosing to walk miles rather than endure daily humiliation.
Emerson, a native of North Carolina whose family had lived in Atlanta since before the Civil War, understood as well as anyone that a great moment in history had arrived. He went to a rally at a Montgomery church to hear a young preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr. People were packed in the pews and the aisles, and spilling out the doors.
In calm and subdued tones, King laid out his strategy. They might be beaten, but they would not hit back. They would surely be harassed, but they would not shout back. “It eased the fury of the opposition,” Emerson says. “It was a brilliant maneuver.”
Emerson later followed alongside blacks who chose to walk home from work rather than ride the bus. He knew that he was covering the greatest news story of the 20th century, a story that played out “like a medieval morality play.”
Some of his family and acquaintances were appalled by the unseemliness of his reports. “My family was very embarrassed,” he recalls. “I’d go to Citizens’ Council meetings [a gathering of segregationists, which he says some of his relatives belonged to] and make them perfectly miserable.”
On one occasion, Emerson walked with a white mother who was bringing her daughter to a newly integrated school. That alone was an act of tremendous courage. Each day, crowds gathered to swear at her and spit on her and her child. “Do you hate ’em?” Emerson recalls asking her, as he, too, endured the venom spewed from the sidelines. “I feel sorry for them,” she told him. “We’re dealing with the most difficult problem in the world, and that’s a new idea.”
The South could not remain a whites-only country club. An entire race could not be kept down. This was a basic truth that journalists of this era reported to a sometimes hostile audience. “Anybody who’s in pursuit of the truth is in great danger of someone who doesn’t want it [told],” says Emerson, 83, who lives in Atlanta.
That pursuit of the truth was a holy cause for journalists then. In telling about those frenzied, dramatic days, a time of bombings and murders, a time when just going to school was a political statement, Emerson’s eyes tear up. “It was so violent,” he says. “It touches me still when I think about those days and the passion and the fury and the heroism and the bravery, and the cowardice and the bullying and all the horrible things and all the good things.”
Testing The Resolve
By January 1957, it was apparent that this story was too big for a one-man Newsweek bureau. Joe Cumming signed on. A Southerner whose family had lived in Augusta for many generations, he had worked as a stringer for Emerson. He had barely settled into the Newsweek bureau when he went to his first mass rally at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. The Montgomery bus boycott had endured for more than a year.
Now black preachers were ready to test Atlanta’s resolve. They boarded a bus and refused to sit at the back. They were promptly arrested, then released on bond. At the church that night, one of the preachers tantalized the crowd with the promise of the most basic equality:
“You know those little sideways seats up front?” Cumming recalls the preacher tempting the crowd.
“I have always wondered what it would FEEL like to SIT in one of those seats…”
“I want to tell you …”
“I sat on one of those seats!”
There was stomping and cheering. “And do you know how it FEELS? It feels GOOD!”
That was the beginning of Cumming’s ride through civil rights history, which unfolded town by town: Albany, St. Augustine, Fla., Jackson, Miss. He recalls another dynamic – the emergence of the more confrontational black power movement.
Stokely Carmichael, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was walking through the black neighborhoods of Canton, Miss., gathering folks for a rally at the courthouse. This was in the wake of the shooting of James Meredith, who had integrated the University of Mississippi and then was shot when he tried to march from Memphis to Jackson.
“[Carmichael] was like a Pied Piper. Some would join, some wouldn’t,” recalls Cumming, 80, now living in Carrollton, where he has retired from the faculty of the University of West Georgia. “That was very dramatic to me. These younger [black] people would join; the parade was swelling in the ranks. The older people couldn’t quite bring themselves to join. They knew what the white people could do.”
In fact, it was the bit players who most impressed Cumming. He recalls seeing a stout black woman standing by the side of the road watching marchers trek with their freedom songs and moral energy along the road from Selma to Montgomery. There was something in the look on her face: Go folks, you go on. I can’t do it with you, but you’re doing it for me.
“It was so simple, but so dramatic,” Cumming says.
The chance to tell those small stories, and yet be a part of a great wave of change, made Cumming feel that journalism had brought him to a special place in American life. “It’s the best place to be if you don’t want to have great wealth or great power but you want to be able to address power,” he says.
In The Churches
Claude Sitton watched from a pew in a tiny church in Sasser, near Albany, as a young black activist, Charles Sherrod, exhorted a few dozen blacks to register to vote. Bill Shipp, then of The Atlanta Constitution, and Pat Watters, from the rival Atlanta Journal, sat beside him, notepads in hand.
Suddenly, two local sheriffs and their deputies appeared at the back of the sanctuary and the room grew silent. The tallest deputy, made even taller by his “Smokey Bear”-style hat, paced up and down the aisles, slapping a five-cell flashlight against his palm, as if he were itching to use it against someone’s head. Terrell County Sheriff Zeke Matthews stepped forward and gave words to the threat, singling out frightened civil rights workers by name. “Ralph, we know you, and we’re gonna take care of you …”
The air was taut with fear as Sherrod led the group in a prayer and a calming hymn. Matthews told them he was “fed up with this registration business” and their “outside agitators.” Then he turned his attention to the reporters, deriding them as Yankees come South to stir up trouble. (They were all native Southerners.)
“And who are you?” the sheriff said pointedly to Sitton.
“I’m Claude Sitton from The New York Times, sheriff,” Sitton offered. “I grew up in Rockdale County and I’m an American. I don’t know who you are.”
“I didn’t think that was the time to say that,” Shipp deadpans now. They could hear more men gathered outside the church. “Oh God, we’re going to get killed,” Shipp thought to himself.
There was no violence that day, although Sitton discovered that sand had been poured in the gas tank of his rental car. The three reporters barely made it back to town. But the danger didn’t deter them.
As Sitton once relayed after some segregationists taunted him outside a motel in Philadelphia, Miss., where he was staying: “Tell them if they kill me, there are going to be 10 just like me here in the morning to tell the story.”
Sitton was, as he describes it, a “journalistic firefighter.” He literally flew from one city to another – in Birmingham, Ala., in the morning covering a desegregation standoff, in Jackson, Miss., in the afternoon covering the murder of NAACP leader Medgar Evers.
But the lesson of those days, says Sitton, 80, a 1983 Pulitzer Prize winner and former editor of the Raleigh News & Observer now living east of Atlanta in Oxford, was to find the context. “You have to immerse yourself in the story. You have to soak up all the background, the history, the culture and traditions of the place you’re covering, to be an intelligent purveyor of information,” he says. “You can’t just watch someone take a shot at someone else and think you know the story. That’s only part of the story. You have to provide the ‘why’s.'”
Soul Of The South
No one understood the soul of the Southerner better than Gene Patterson, who grew up on a farm outside Adel, a tiny town in South Georgia, hoeing crops, milking cows and guiding a mule-drawn plow.
He believed in the Southerner’s essential goodness and, in daily columns, he took on the monumental task of evoking that spirit to prevail over racial hatred and conflict. By the time he came to The Atlanta Constitution in 1956, and became editor in 1960, Ralph McGill had already forged a fearsome path as a voice for racial tolerance and justice.
(Editor’s note: Gene Patterson founded Georgia Trend in 1985, when he was President and CEO of the St. Petersburg Times Corp.)
“I decided to make it a letter from me to the readers every day and tell them what I was thinking,” Patterson says. “And it was a period in which we were all extremely interested in what each other thought.”
By today’s standards, many of Patterson’s columns seem gentle. But he was trying to rouse a white populace who didn’t want to be confronted about the issue of race, and in that context, his words were inflammatory.
Not too long after he began writing the columns, Patterson got a phone call from then-Mayor William Hartsfield, who also was trying to guide the city toward a peaceful transition to integration. Hartsfield wanted to know if Patterson was getting anonymous telephone threats. Yes, he was.
“Well, I’ve been in this business a long time,” the mayor said. “And I’m telling you to ignore them. They’re cowards or they wouldn’t be calling you and not leaving their name. The only person you have to worry about is the guy you never hear from.”
“That was not too comforting, was it?” Patterson, now 82 and living near St. Petersburg, Fla., says wryly. “But it did put in perspective the silliness of the anonymous threats.”
Some incidents, though, were personally painful. Patterson’s daughter, Mary, often came home from school, telling of children who had called her father a communist or a “race-mixer.” One day she called him at the office with news that their lovable Labrador was bleeding. Patterson hurried home and discovered that the dog had been shot in the chest.
The vet said it wasn’t possible to operate because the bullet was too close to the dog’s heart; amazingly the wound healed, and the dog lived to the ripe old age of 18 – with the bullet still lodged in him.
Nonetheless, Patterson knew that most of his readers decried violence. So when nightriders burned three small black churches in Terrell County, Patterson appealed for donations from his readers to rebuild them. Checks poured in, large and small, with notes of outrage that someone would burn a place of worship. “I believe it moved us forward in the racial conversation of the time,” he says.
His words were searing when a church bombing in Birmingham killed four black children in 1963. Patterson told his readers that the stain of blood was on the hands of all white Southerners because they had created the climate in which “an evil mind” could believe he was a segregationist hero. “We know better. We created the day. We bear the judgment. May God have mercy on the poor South that has so been led,” he wrote.
“I knew that that was an opportunity to be heard, not in the minds but in the hearts of the Southern white people who read my column,” recalls Patterson, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1967. “I deliberately took all stops out on that one and appealed to what I knew was the basic decency and outrage of white parents who read that column.”
Today, the voice of conscience at the Journal-Constitution is provided by Cynthia Tucker, the paper’s editorial page editor, “who speaks as plainly to her black kinsmen as we spoke to our white,” Patterson says. “It has a great historical symmetry to it, and it is just and proper that it be done.”
The world has traveled far from the days when blacks sat at the back of the bus or were barred from lunch counters and restaurants. But Patterson cautions that the nation’s racial concerns have not been resolved and the obligation of journalists to cover the story has not subsided.
“Now you have a much more diffused issue before the people. It’s just as real in the hearts of many Americans. Racism does exist and we have to personally address that in our own selves and in our society,” he says. “There’s too much silence about it right now. We have to get back to it one of these days.”