DEEP SOUTH DISPATCH: MEMOIR OF A CIVIL RIGHTS JOURNALIST
By John N. Herbers with Anne Farris Rosen
University of Mississippi Press, $28, 260
They don’t make journalists like John Herbers anymore. In fact, I doubt they make people like John Herbers anymore. Full disclosure: I met John Herbers in 1968, and was privileged to be his friend until his death at 93 last year. By the time we met, the years that comprise this wonderful and important memoir, his ground-breaking coverage of the civil rights movement, were over. And because John Herbers was the most modest of men, he rarely spoke of his earlier work, so this memoir, especially its personal as well as professional details, is, to me, new-found treasure.
Mr. Herbers’ Southern life contained more than a touch of Faulkner. His father, on his deathbed, told his son that his own mother, John’s paternal grandmother, had been shot and killed in Hot Springs, Arkansas, by a jealous lover. According to a news account of the day, “Jack Herbers [John’s father], a young man 20 years of age, is the only son of the dead woman. The boy was not sent for.”
Born into a merchant-class family in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1923, Mr. Herbers might well have followed his father’s occupation — owner and proprietor of unsuccessful variety stores — but for WWII (John fought with Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines) and the GI Bill, which he used to go to Emory University. Hoping to be a writer of fiction, Mr. Herbers failed a self-imposed reality check:
“[S]o I turned to journalism as the poor cousin of the literary life, even though the thought of being a newspaperman as depicted in the movies frightened me: Too much bravado and disorder for my introverted nature. I soon learned from first-class professors that journalism, even at small newspapers, could be a high calling of public service, and that was attractive to me I wrote on the university newspaper, where another student, Claude Sitton, was an editor.”
(In 2000, Mr. Herbers and Mr. Sitton won the John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism for their coverage of the civil rights movement in its earliest, most dangerous days — Mr. Herbers for The New York Times and Mr. Sitton for the Raleigh News & Observer.)
In 1949, as he rode a Greyhound bus to his first job — as a reporter-city editor for The Morning Star of Greenwood, Mississippi — he reflected, “The state had the nation’s highest percentage of blacks and the highest rates of poverty and illiteracy More than any other Southern state, ultraconservative Mississippi bred a political philosophy that rewarded acid-tongued race baiters and tolerated naked oppression and lynchings.”
Throughout the 1960s, as he chased down the biggest stories on the civil rights beat, Mr. Herbers sometimes found himself being chased, by angry white mobs and on occasion angry white police officers. All the while, he and his wife, the former Betty Wood, were trying as best they could to give their four daughters some semblance of a normal childhood. One of those daughters, Anne Farris Rosen, herself a journalist (The Washington Post and The New York Times) and now a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland, and her father’s co-author, was instrumental in convincing him to do this book. Ms. Rosen recalls how her father once took her to a Ku Klux Klan rally — when she was 5.
Right from the start, Mr. Herbers covered the big stories. The first was the 1951 Laurel, Mississippi, trial of Willie McGee, a black man convicted (and quickly thereafter executed) of raping a white woman; then the murder of Emmett Till, also in that state, and for the next several years all the major events of the civil rights movement. During this time, many reporters, especially those who looked and sounded Northern, were harassed and sometimes beaten by Southern mobs.
For the most part, Mr. Herbers, who knew enough to wear the good-old-boy uniform of the day (rumpled khakis, a short-sleeved white shirt, and no tie) and kept his reporter’s notebook out of sight, escaped this fate. Once, NBC newsman Richard Valeriani — who had dark curly hair and a decidedly non-Southern accent, was clubbed to the ground, while Mr. Herbers, who’d been standing next to him and doing the same thing, was spared.
John Norton Herbers may not have become another William Faulkner, but he did become a very good writer, as this historically valuable book attests over and over again. Here’s just one of its many recollections:
“My friend’s father owned a dairy, and in the evening, after a long day of work, we would load milk into an old Plymouth for delivery. We boys would stand on the running board and, at every stop, run the milk in quart glass bottles to the front door and bring back empty bottles for the next day. I received no money for this. My pay was the privilege of standing on the running board at dusk and feeling the warm air blow in my hair as we zipped down gravel roads while the stars came out.”
• John Greenya is a Washington writer.