Southern Exposure: How Three Niemans Drove Coverage of the Civil Rights Movement

By Roberts, Gene | Nieman Reports, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Southern Exposure: How Three Niemans Drove Coverage of the Civil Rights Movement


Roberts, Gene, Nieman Reports


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A RUNNING JOKE ABOUT LOUIS M. Lyons--the taciturn genius who was the Nieman Foundation's curator for 25 years--was that when you first got to know him, he stared at his shoes. Then, when you really got to know him, he stared at your shoes.

There was, however, no better student of the American press than Lyons during his curatorial years, from 1939 to 1964. He had the ability to see developing, under-covered national and international stories early on and then arrange fellowships for journalists likely to cover them. He was far ahead of the vast majority of the nation's editors and publishers in recognizing the emerging racial story. He and his selection committees reached out in the '40s, '50s and '60s not only to white Southern journalists at mainstream papers but to black journalists whose job opportunities during those years were almost entirely limited to black publications.

It is difficult to imagine how racial coverage might have developed had it not been for the input of Nieman Fellows. My view on this comes in part from being one of the Southerners brought to Harvard, but mostly from my interviews and research for "The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation,' the 2006 book I co-authored with Hank Klibanoff.

When the Little Rock desegregation crisis erupted in 1957, a former Nieman Fellow, Harry Ashmore, class of 1942, was in the editor's chair at the Arkansas Gazette and put most of his staff on the story, setting a high standard for the coverage of racial crises yet to come. He also wrote editorials saying that if the federal government could not enforce the Supreme Court's school desegregation decision, it was inviting anarchy in the South. Ashmore's stand made it easier for President Dwight D. Eisenhower to intervene by sending in federal troops.

When violence flared in Alabama in 1961 against freedom riders attempting to desegregate interstate buses, only two reporters were on the buses. Both were black; one, Simeon Booker, was a Nieman, class of 1951, and full time on the race beat for Jet and Ebony magazines.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. launched his campaign for voting rights in Selma, Alabama in 1965, only three reporters were covering the South on an ongoing basis for non-Southern newspapers. All three were Nieman Fellows during the Lyons era--John Herbers and Roy Reed of The New York Times and Jack Nelson of the Los Angeles Times.

IN A FORTUITOUS COINCIDENCE, Booker, Nelson and Reed have books that are being published, Nelson's posthumously, within a few months of each other. These books add impressively to our knowledge of the crucial civil rights years of the 1950s and '60s and give gripping insight into the journalists who covered the story. They also underscore the importance of Nieman fellowships in shaping careers and invigorating news coverage.

I confess, in the interest of full disclosure, and indeed am proud, that Reed and I worked together as Southern correspondents for The New York Times in the '60s and began a friendship that has endured for decades. I was in the same Nieman class as Nelson, became a close friend, and can testify that the title of his book, "Scoop,' is an accurate reflection of his prowess. As for Booker, we were never, alas, in the same place at the same time in the civil rights years, but I have admired his work from afar for decades.

At the end of his year at Harvard, Booker became the first black journalist hired onto the staff of The Washington Post. He was not well received, either by his Post colleagues or on the beats that he covered in a capital that was then racially segregated. He left the Post to cover racial issues for Jet and Ebony, magazines that until then had focused more on black celebrities than on civil rights. He covered the assassinations of black leaders trying to register black voters in the Mississippi Delta, the Emmett Till murder trial, and a long string of civil rights battles. …

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