By: Joe Strupp
Some 16 years after signing a book contract to write about press coverage of the civil rights era, legendary journalist Eugene Roberts has finished the project, to be published by Alfred A. Knopf in November. Titled “The Race Beat: The Press, The Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation,” the book touches on several areas not previously investigated at length, such as the role of the black press in early coverage of the story and insight into what drove segregationist editors of the time.
The tome is co-authored by veteran scribe Hank Klibanoff, a former Philadelphia Inquirer staffer and currently managing editor for news at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“I figured it for a long-term project, but not this long,” jokes Roberts, who made the book deal upon leaving the Inquirer in 1990 after 18 years as editor. “It was a very ambitious project to begin with.” Roberts says he initially worked on the book while teaching at the University of Maryland from 1990 to 1994, but set it aside when he became managing editor of The New York Times in 1994, a post he held for three years. “It was an interesting era that told you a lot about the press,” says Roberts, who covered the civil rights struggle himself from 1965 to 1967 for the Times.
Klibanoff calls the book “truly a labor of love.” He cites the role played by segregationist editors: “It was fascinating to see how they felt they had something very important to defend. It is possible to find some of those editors who would have nothing to do with Klansmen, but felt strongly about the issue in an intellectual way.”
Roberts says the black press owned the civil rights story in the decades prior to the historic 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision that desegregated schools. Several of those newspapers, such as the Chicago Defender and the Baltimore Afro-American, actually had regular “lynching beats.” Vincent Tubbs, a reporter with the Afro-American, would even dress as a poor sharecropper when he went on assignment to investigate those hangings. Tubbs went to Texarkana, Ark., in the 1940s to cover the aftermath of a lynching, “and got stopped by the sheriff, who brought him to police headquarters — and they ordered him out of the state,” Klibanoff adds.
Roberts notes the black press’ role in the 1956 Autherine Lucy case, in which two black college students received admission to the University of Alabama, but were denied enrollment when it was discovered they were black. “It was hatched in the newsroom of the Birmingham World,” Roberts says. “One of the paper’s reporters, a woman, applied for admission and got her friend, Autherine, to apply. Then the paper wrote the story.”
The authors also describe how a CBS News crew went to Little Rock, Ark., in 1957 to cover the government-ordered integration of Central High School — and just missed getting film of a white mob harassing a black student. Still in need of the shot, the crew asked the group to do it again. “One of the things that strikes me is how the press can make big mistakes,” Roberts says of that event. “But we learn quickly.”
The book also includes other less historic journalistic developments from the era, such as the practice by many reporters of dressing like FBI agents to avoid physical assaults, and the first use of the slimmer reporters’ notebooks (more easily hidden and carried, a plus when running to avoid tear gas or water hoses). The authors also draw on many newspaper archives that had rarely been utilized, Klibanoff says: “I’ve learned so much about our history from this.”