In the 1950s, the mainstream American press had very little experience covering segregation and its impacts. In The Race Beat, Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff tell the story of how the civil rights struggle gradually made its way onto the front pages.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. For the American press, it was the biggest story hidden in plain sight - the injustice of segregation. But in the '50s, the civil rights movement finally forced this story onto the front page, reported by those who David Halberstam called "war correspondents on native soil." Gene Roberts was one of them. A cub reporter in his native South, he went on to be the executive editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and managing editor of The New York Times.
Earlier this year we spoke to him about his book, The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle and the Awakening of a Nation. It begins with a portrait of one of the sharpest scribes ever to work on the race beat, a Swedish scholar named Gunnar Myrdal, hired by the Carnegie Foundation in the 1930s to write a study of race in America. GENE ROBERTS: To this day, it is probably the most comprehensive study of race in America ever done. The Supreme Court used it as a footnote in the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954. The most important finding was that the press wasn't covering the story, particularly the Northern press. And he felt that if the press ever started writing about the problems of segregation, that the nation would be so offended that it would demand change. And that's exactly what happened. BOB GARFIELD: Tell me about Emmett Till, the death of Emmett Till, and how that incident helped open up the ugliness for the whole world. BOB GARFIELD: Emmett Till was a 14-year-old black boy who had grown up in Chicago and had relatives in Mississippi and was sent back for a summer. He and some other black kids were in a small-town store one day, and the white woman proprietress claimed that Emmett Till had whistled at her. He was later found in a river with a cotton gin fan around his neck. He had been badly beaten and shot.
And when his body arrived in Chicago his mother insisted on opening the casket, allowing photographers to photograph it. The outcry was enormous. An all-white jury acquitted the defendant. And when the trial occurred, you had, for the first time, a large number of Northern white reporters coming in to cover a racial incident. And you had a turning point. BOB GARFIELD: On the heels of Emmett Till was the Montgomery bus boycott and Rosa Parks' famous refusal to move to the back of the bus. Tell me the effect of the juxtaposition of these two events. GENE ROBERTS: There were four events over about a two-year period - the Emmett Till case, the Montgomery bus boycott, the attempted desegregation of the University of Alabama, and the Little Rock desegregation effort. And from this time on, the coverage of segregation was a major national story. BOB GARFIELD: It's sometimes surprising to recall that things like the Montgomery bus boycott didn't happen spontaneously but because the organizers, including Rosa Parks, knew that they would get a lot of national coverage and generate a lot of outrage. GENE ROBERTS: The civil rights movement, the leaders became serious students of the American press and would pick target communities in which they thought the sheriff or the police chief was most likely to be violent and produce the kind of television and newspaper photographic images that would grab national attention, which is what led Martin Luther King both to Birmingham and to Selma, Alabama. It was so violent and so dramatic that it galvanized the nation and led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. BOB GARFIELD: You describe a meeting in 1959, Southern editors getting together in a secret meeting to fight the influence of the Northern press. GENE ROBERTS: They met in an Atlanta hotel and decided that they would harass the Associated Press. And for several weeks thereafter these newspapers would hear about a routine crime story in the North and say, what was the race of the people involved, why don't we get comparable coverage of this to the way you cover race in the South? And they generally tried to drive the Associated Press officials in New York crazy. It was a serious attempt to divert attention away from the South. BOB GARFIELD: In the mid-'60s, after the Watts riots in Los Angeles and with the rise of the black power movement, the tone and tenor of the coverage of the civil rights movement, you say, began to noticeably change. Why? GENE ROBERTS: The initial riots tended to be more Western and Northern, and the black power movement tended to be suspicious, sometimes hostile, to the press, whereas the conventional civil rights movement had cultivated the press, people like me who were covering the civil rights movement in the South. When I felt threatened in a Southern town, I automatically moved into the black community for protection and to use the telephones. And suddenly, I was covering riots in the North, fleeing out of the black community, into the white community for protection. BOB GARFIELD: I'm glad you mentioned how your tactics changed right in the thick of things. And you've had a storied career. But I get the feeling, from reading your book, that this is the one story that you can't quite shake. GENE ROBERTS: I thought that tensions ran so high in the South that real change wouldn't occur. I went to cover Martin Luther King in Durham, and I expected his audience to be mainly student protestors. But when I arrived at the church, all the students were outside because older blacks had come hours early to make sure they got seats. And many middle-aged and elderly ladies who made up the audience reached in their pocketbooks and pulled out their handkerchiefs in which they had put their nickels and dimes. And they began opening their handkerchiefs to contribute. For the first time that night, I became convinced that there was going to be major racial change in the South. And while I went on later to cover the Vietnam War and the Kennedy assassination, among other things, the civil rights story is still the most important story, certainly, in the 20th century. BOB GARFIELD: Gene, thank you very much, for joining us. GENE ROBERTS: Thank you for having me. BOB GARFIELD: Gene Roberts, former executive editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and managing editor of The New York Times, is the co-author of The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle and the Awakening of a Nation.