Unforgettable Characters Encountered in Covering the Civil Rights Movement

By Greenhaw, Wayne | Nieman Reports, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Unforgettable Characters Encountered in Covering the Civil Rights Movement


Greenhaw, Wayne, Nieman Reports


Throughout decades as a newspaper reporter, mostly covering the civil rights movement in the South, I have been a witness to history. I covered marches, trials, speeches and midnight gatherings with protesters on their knees singing "We Shall Overcome" in whispery voices echoing in the night like a hymn in praise of freedom. I listened to the words of George Wallace, Martin Luther King, Jr., civil rights attorneys Morris Dees and Chuck Morgan, and Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Despite all that came after, what I remember most vividly is an image from more than 50 years ago. One picture stays with me, haunting and informing my writing about the movement that shook our nation. Days before my 16th birthday, in 1956, I was tiding home one night from my part-time job at The Tuscaloosa News with a photographer when we came upon a mob on University Avenue. Whites were protesting a young woman's attempt to become the first black student at the University of Alabama. The angry crowd stopped a car. Men beat it with sticks. They climbed on the bumpers, jumping up and down. In the darkness I saw the face of a small black boy framed in the back window. His eyes were huge with fear. Although the mob let the car pass after a few minutes, the boy's frightened face was seared into my memory.

A Writer's Beginnings

I had been hired by the sports editor at the News when I was 15, after undergoing spinal surgeries and being confined to a body cast for six months. Bedridden, I fought loneliness by reading Victor Hugo, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and others. Instead of emptiness, my world was filled with excitement: French revolutionists, boys floating down the Mississippi, and bullfighters in Spain. I was thrilled with the magic of written words.

In a magazine, I read an article about San Miguel de Allende in Mexico called "How to Live in Paradise on $100 a Month." At the Instituto Allende professionals taught writing. Descriptions of the Spanish colonial town put me on the narrow cobblestone streets. I pictured myself as a student there.

In my first job as a part-time sports reporter I wrote two-paragraph summaries of Friday night football games. If I wrote one word too many, my editor slashed it. If I used an unnecessary adjective, a scowl covered his face. On Saturdays I wrote headlines for sports stories going in the Sunday paper, learning the true weight of simple words.

I dreamed of writing books. Learning the art of self-discipline, I awakened early every morning and wrote for several hours. I composed a bad 150-page novel that thankfully disappeared long ago. Now and then I would unfold the article about Mexico and read it again. Finally, in the summer of 1958, after graduating from high school, I rode four trains from west Alabama to San Miguel, where I attended the writing center. In an old cantina veterans of World War II and Korea bragged about being writers, but all they did was drink and talk.

Returning to the United States, I showed my stories to professor Hudson Strode, who selected me for his illustrious creative writing class at the University of Alabama. Being admitted to his class was a prize in itself. Later I won an essay contest. The $50 check made me believe I could be successful. In the next three years I managed to sell two stories to pulp magazines. An article about Mexico sold for $100. It was enough positive reinforcement to keep me trying, a quality Strode called "stickability," his top criteria for beginning writers.

A Witness to History

In 1965, after I was hired as a reporter for the Alabama Journal, Montgomery's afternoon newspaper, by managing editor Ray Jenkins, who had just finished his Nieman year, I was soon assigned to cover civil rights. …

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