- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 14, 2003

REPORTING CIVIL RIGHTS, PART ONE: AMERICAN JOURNALISM 1941-1963

Edited by Clayborne Carson, David Garrow, Bill Kovach and Carol Polsgrove

Library of America, $40, 996 pages, illus.

REPORTING CIVIL RIGHTS, PART TWO: AMERICAN JOURNALISM 1960-1973

Edited by Clayborne Carson, et al

Library of America, $40, 986 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY ANNETTE GORDON-REED

Journalism is often characterized as a rough draft of history — sending signals (if not always sure ones) of what issues in a given era will likely have resonance for coming generations of scholars. Now comes a draft of the history of what has been called the Second American Revolution: the modern Civil Rights Movement that occupied much of the last half of the 20th century.

In two Library of America volumes of essays, columns, speeches, and news articles, “Reporting Civil Rights, Part One: American Journalism 1941-1963” and “Reporting Civil Rights, Part Two: American Journalism 1963-1973” the books chronicle America’s journey from a land where blacks were second class citizens by law to a country transformed by the obliteration of de jure segregation.

This massive (and masterful) work — almost two thousand pages — edited by Clayborne Carson and others, provides fascinating eyewitness accounts of the Civil Rights Movement unfiltered by the passage of time and the benefit of hindsight.

Of course, historians and other commentators have already begun to assess the meaning of the Civil Rights — even as those meanings keep unfolding. A basic outline of the story has emerged, centering largely on iconic persons, moments and images: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, (the “anti-King,” Malcolm X), Brown v. Board of Education, and the March on Washington. American school children learn of Ms. Parks’ defiance and the young people who integrated Southern schools. Dr. King’s birthday is a national holiday, and the March on Washington has become the gold standard of citizen activism.

Even Malcolm X has his own postage stamp. The Movement that emerges from these treatments seems far less radical than it actually was. “Reporting Civil Rights” reminds us of the very contingent nature of the struggle, and what was up for grabs as the Movement progressed.

What was most obviously up for grabs was the question of what it means to be an American citizen. The first volume of these two gives a clear picture of blacks’ devalued status. Although racism — casual and virulent — existed throughout the country, in these pages, the South emerges as the “sick man” of American society.

Slights to blacks’ honor, from the petty to the enormously grotesque, were a daily feature of Southern life. Nothing could compete with grotesquerie of the murder of Emmett Till — this was the South at its worst, the logical conclusion of aggressive white supremacy — and the articles devoted to this story adequately convey this.

But illuminating messages are found not just in the reports of outright depravity. The ordinary customs of the time were soul killing in “smaller” ways. Consider Hodding Carter’s article “Mrs. Means Married Woman,” a meditation on how in the early 1950s his newspaper, the Delta Democrat Times, came to refer to married black women as “Mrs.”, just as married white women were. Mr. Carter was roundly criticized by whites, and applauded by blacks. Think of the states of mind of the whites who felt diminished by having this honorific applied to a black woman, and think of the blacks who lived at the mercy of such sensibilities.

Only a few individuals could participate in the Emmett Till lynching, the bigotry that denied the equal dignity of black family life was shared by a wide range of people with far reaching consequences.

Interspersed with the writings of workaday, and now less well known journalists, are the works of people who have gone on to great fame, and writings that have become classics. Langston Hughes, Carl Rowan, Murray Kempton, Robert Penn Warren, Hunter S. Thompson!, Garry Wills, Joan Didion, Tom Wicker, Jimmy Breslin, Renata Adler, and James Baldwin give their takes on these pivotal moments in American history.

Baldwin seems particularly to have been in his element, and it is hard to re-read his work without concluding that there is no one quite like him writing today, and we are all the poorer for that.

By 1963, the year “Reporting Civil Rights: Part One” ends and “Part Two” begins, harbingers of problems that would ultimately slow the Movement to a halt were on the horizon. The “gentle army” (Russell Baker’s description) that massed in Washington in August of 1963 in front of the Lincoln Memorial was fortified by two decades worth of public demonstrations, legal victories, and intellectual debate about the worth of their goals.

Michael Thelwell’s behind the scenes look at the disputes and maneuvering that took place in planning the March on Washington shows the evolving split between the radical and more moderate wings of the leadership community. By then it was obvious that the transformation of black life would require more than simply doing away with unjust laws. The entire culture had to change. The way to do this, how quickly, and how far ranging those changes should be, was the essence of the dispute.

White liberals began to understand that radically altering black people’s lives would necessarily work changes in their own lives. Was this a zero sum game? Should the project of bringing blacks into full citizenship proceed if it meant that ordinary white people (read non-Southern extreme racists) had to sacrifice? This dilemma was at the heart of Norman Podhoretz’s startlingly frank, “My Negro Problem— and Ours”, which prefigured the post-civil rights movement tensions that would arise among blacks and Jews as the agenda of promoting black advancement moved into the tricky terrain of overhauling American culture in general.

During the Sixties, death and violence, which had never been far from the Movement, became an even more present and integral part of the story. In “Birmingham” ‘My God, You’re Not Even Safe in Church,’”, Karl Fleming wrote, “Within hours, the explosion sent a shock wave of horror and outrage throughout the South, across the land, around the world. The blast had killed four little Negro girls.” The bombing shook something loose. The church had been a symbol of the morality of the Movement and the good faith of its adherents. If the church provided no sanctuary, maybe grounding the Movement in the teachings of the church was not the best way after all.

After Birmingham, more horror followed in nearby Mississippi with the slaying of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney, recounted in “Three Lives for Mississippi” by William Bradford Huie. All of the South was hard for blacks, but “Part Two” of “Reporting Civil Rights” makes the strong case for Mississippi being the hardest place. It was the destination for journalists who wanted to write about civil rights, and some of the articles in this volume sound like dispatches from a primitive foreign country. Of course, one could argue that they were.

By the mid-1960s the Movement changed as the younger generation of blacks in the South, and those trapped in the ghettoes of the North, took a different approach to gaining black rights. An integrated movement arguing for more integration gave way to separatist and nationalist impulses as some blacks chafed at the paternalism of white liberals.

Journalists certainly perceived this and took note of flamboyant and vocal black leaders like Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and other members of the Black Panther Party. Tom Wolfe captures the moment in “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” a sendup of the poverty programs that seemed designed to check the growing militancy as much as to alleviate poverty.

In reading this part of the volume, one senses blacks’ impatience with having to speak to (plead with) whites about their predicament. Although their inward turn alienated many of their allies in the white community, it almost seems a necessary phase given the way the Movement progressed over time. That doesn’t quite come through in these pages. But, in fairness, these types of considerations are really better suited to historians, not day-to-day reporters or real time commentators who cannot as effectively analyze the big picture while they are still in it.

Conventional wisdom holds that the modern Civil Rights Movement effectively died with the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. King’s loss haunts many of the essays at the end of the second of these volumes.” In the volume’s final essay, “Staying Home in Mississippi” Alice Walker rebukes her college-aged self for failing to acknowledge King’s importance.

The example of this black man from the South, and the South itself, Ms. Walker suggests, could teach America a great deal worth learning about itself. The struggle for black rights that took place in the South was a struggle to create a vision of citizenship that elevated the meaning of that word for blacks and whites alike.

“Reporting Civil Rights” is essential reading for scholars and lay people who want to explore how ordinary people, leaders, and the men and women who wrote about them, comported themselves during this defining moment in American history. It is a welcome addition to the record.

Annette Gordon-Reed is professor of law at New York Law School.

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