By: Gene Roberts
Reviewed by: Edward Reynolds
Alfred A. Knopf, 2006
Gene Roberts and Alabama’s Hank Klibanoff have written a fascinating Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the media’s role in the civil rights movement. The Race Beat is an in-depth, often moving account of the dangers of reporting the plight of black Americans’ fighting for equal rights during the turbulent 1950s and 1960s in the South. Newspaper and television reporters were at times included in the beatings inflicted upon African-Americans by segregationists.
Among the most uncomfortable, eye-opening aspects of The Race Beat is the segregationist stance taken by many southern newspapers. Famed columnist James “Jack” Kilpatrick is often painted in an unflattering light as he championed segregation while editor of the Richmond News Leader. Though he had at times written in defense of black Americans wronged by the judicial system, Kilpatrick remained a staunch segregationist for years. He later recanted his views on separation of the races, though he continued to insist he was simply acting to defend the preservation of states’ rights decades ago. His ugly side is best described by authors Klibanoff and Roberts in one particularly disturbing paragraph: “This Jack Kilpatrick felt there was a profound genetic, behavioral, and cultural gap between white and Negro people that could not be closed. This Jack Kilpatrick used social science when it fit the racial and cultural stereotype he wanted to believe and discounted social science as irrelevant when it didn’t. In addressing the white segregationist southerner’s concerns about school integration, this Jack Kilpatrick grabbed everything he could and threw it into the mix so that a sober treatise on the problems of interracial education would veer into the subjects of illegitimate births, syphilis, and gonorrhea.”
Klibanoff and Roberts remind readers that the first black news correspondent admitted to a White House press conference was Harry McAlpin in 1944. Ironically, they write, black reporters’ access to the House and Senate chambers press sections had been blocked by the white journalists who made up the Standing Committee of Correspondents. African-American reporters were instead forced to sit in the pubic galleries. Once the Republicans won the House and Senate in 1947 and took control of committees—kicking out southern Democrats in the process—were the rules finally changed. The Senate Rules Committee overrode the Standing Committee to allow black reporters into the legislative press areas.
In the 1940s, even the northern media ignored coverage of black America until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball, report Klibanoff and Roberts. Eventually, they write, newspapers across the country began covering the civil rights movement, though some remained in denial. When Bull Connor turned fire hoses and snarling police dogs loose on protestors in Birmingham, both The Birmingham News and The Birmingham Post-Herald ran stories of the violence on inside pages and without photographs. The two local daily papers eventually moved coverage of Birmingham racial strife to the front page after realizing that the entire world was watching the disturbing images on television sets nightly.
Edward Reynolds is a journalist in Birmingham.