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This is the story of how America awakened to its race problem, of how a nation that longed for unity after World War II came instead to see, hear, and learn about the shocking indignities and injustices of racial segregation in the South—and the brutality used to enforce it.
It is the story of how the nation’s press, after decades of ignoring the problem, came to recognize the importance of the civil rights struggle and turn it into the most significant domestic news event of the twentieth century.
Drawing on private correspondence, notes from secret meetings, unpublished articles, and interviews, veteran journalists Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff go behind the headlines and datelines to show how a dedicated cadre of newsmen—first black reporters, then liberal southern editors, then reporters and photographers from the national press and the broadcast media—revealed to a nation its most shameful shortcomings and propelled its citizens to act.
We watch the black press move bravely into the front row of the confrontation, only to be attacked and kept away from the action. Following the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision striking down school segregation and the South’s mobilization against it, we see a growing number of white reporters venture South to cover the Emmett Till murder trial, the Montgomery bus boycott, and the integration of the University of Alabama.
We witness some southern editors joining the call for massive resistance and working with segregationist organizations to thwart compliance. But we also see a handful of other southern editors write forcefully and daringly for obedience to federal mandates, signaling to the nation that moderate forces were prepared to push the region into the mainstream.
The pace quickens in Little Rock, where reporters test the boundaries of journalistic integrity, then gain momentum as they cover shuttered schools in Virginia, sit-ins in North Carolina, mob-led riots in Mississippi, Freedom Ride buses being set afire, fire hoses and dogs in Birmingham, and long, tense marches through the rural South.
For many journalists, the conditions they found, the fear they felt, and the violence they saw were transforming. Their growing disgust matched the mounting countrywide outrage as The New York Times, Newsweek, NBC News, and other major news organizations, many of them headed by southerners, turned a regional story into a national drama.
Meticulously researched and vividly rendered, The Race Beat is an unprecedented account of one of the most volatile periods in our nation’s history, as told by those who covered it.
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Gene Roberts is a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. He was a reporter with the Goldsboro News-Argus and The Virginian-Pilot, and a reporter and editor with The News & Observer and the Detroit Free Press before joining The New York Times in 1965, where until 1972 he served as chief southern and civil rights correspondent, chief war correspondent in South Vietnam, and national editor. During his eighteen years as executive editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, his staff won seventeen Pulitzer Prizes. He later became the managing editor of the The New York Times.
A native of Alabama, Hank Klibanoff is the managing editor for news at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He is a former metro reporter, national correspondent based in Chicago, business editor, and deputy managing editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for twenty years. He was also a reporter for three years at The Boston Globe and six years in Mississippi for The Daily Herald, the South Mississippi Sun (now the Sun Herald) and the Delta Democrat-Times.
An American Dilemma:
“An Astonishing Ignorance . . .”
The winter of 1940 was a cruel one for Gunnar Myrdal, and spring was shaping up even worse. He was in the United States, finishing the research on the most comprehensive study yet of race relations and the condition of Negroes in America. But he was having trouble reaching conclusions, and he struggled to outline and conceptualize the writing. “The whole plan is now in danger of breaking down,” he wrote the Carnegie Foundation, which was underwriting his project.
What’s more, the gathering crisis in Europe had thrown him into a depression; he feared for the very existence of his native Sweden. In April, Nazi Germany had invaded Denmark and Norway. Myrdal believed Sweden would be next. He put aside more than two years of work by 125 researchers and began arranging passage home for himself, his wife, Alva, and their three children. He and Alva wanted to fight alongside their countrymen if the worst should come. The boat he found, the Mathilda Thorden, a Finnish freighter, was laden with explosives, and the captain tried to dissuade the Myrdals from boarding the dangerous ship. When this failed, the captain jokingly urged Myrdal to look on the bright side. He would not have to worry about his family freezing to death in icy waters. If German U-boats attacked, the resulting explosion would almost certainly kill everyone instantly.
The U-boats did not attack, and the Myrdals arrived in Sweden only to be appalled by what was happening there. Rather than preparing for war with Germany, the Swedish government was seeking an accommodation with the Nazis.
Knowing that Germany was monitoring the Swedish press for anti-German sentiment, the government first confiscated copies of anti-Nazi newspapers; then, emboldened, it interfered with the distribution of one of the nation’s most important dailies, Göteborgs Handelstidning. This, Myrdal believed, could not happen in America. He was outraged. “The press is strangled,” he wrote to a Swedish friend in the United States. “Nothing gets written about Germany. News is suppressed.”1
There and then, Myrdal’s understanding of America and its race relations became crystallized. In a book that quickly took precedence over his Carnegie project, then became its seed, Gunnar and Alva Myrdal wrote Kontakt med Amerika (Contact with America), which was crafted largely to rally Swedish resistance against Hitler. In Kontakt, published in 1941, the Myrdals argued that Swedes had much to learn from America about democracy, dialogue, and self-criticism. “The secret,” they wrote, “is that America, ahead of every other country in the whole Western world, large or small, has a living system of expressed ideals for human cooperation which is unified, stable and clearly formulated.”2 The Carnegie project, they added, was evidence of America’s willingness to sanction a sweeping examination and discussion of a national problem.
Almost all of America’s citizens, the Myrdals said, believed in free speech and a free press. Americans respected other viewpoints even when they strongly disagreed. As a result, diverse ethnic groups were living with one another in peace while Europe was tearing itself apart.
Before writing Kontakt, Myrdal didn’t have the insight or context he needed for his weightier book on race in America. Nor did he have the words he felt would serve as the road map to change. Three years earlier, in 1938, he had reached the South, the dark side of the moon. There, he had found an enigmatic, sometimes exotic, always deeply divided and repressive society whose behavior was known to, but overlooked by, the world beyond. In pursuit of an understanding and insight that was still beyond his grasp, his immersion had been total, the details of his discoveries had been staggering, and he had come to a point where he was no longer horrified by the pathology of racism or stunned by the cruelty and pervasiveness of discrimination. He had found himself fascinated by the way an entire social order had been built, and rationalized, around race.
By early 1940, Myrdal frequently found himself feeling oddly optimistic about attitudes he found despicable, and he was moving, somewhat unwittingly, toward the conclusion that would become the core definition of his landmark work, An American Dilemma: that Americans, for all their differences, for all their warring and rivalries, were bound by a distinct “American creed,” a common set of values that embodied such concepts as fair play and an equal chance for everyone. He was coming to that view in the unlikeliest of settings. He had been able to sit with the rapaciously racist U.S. senator from Mississippi Theodore Bilbo, listen to his proposal for shipping Negroes back to Africa, ask why he hadn’t proposed instead that they be sterilized, and come away uplifted by Bilbo’s answer. “American opinion would never allow it,” Bilbo had told him. “It goes against all our ideals and the sentiments of the people.”3
But for all his excitement, information, and knowledge, Myrdal remained mystified. How had the South’s certifiable, pathological inhumanity toward Negroes been allowed to exist for so long into the twentieth century? Why didn’t anyone outside the South know? If they did know, why didn’t they do something about it? Who could do something about it? Who would? Where would the leadership for change come from?
Myrdal returned to the United States and his racial study in 1941, brimming with the insights he would need for An American Dilemma to have an impact on the country.4 Seeing his homeland’s willingness to trade freedoms for security of another kind, Myrdal came to appreciate the vital role the American press could play in challenging the status quo of race relations.
In Sweden, newspapers wanted to report the news but were blocked by the government. In America, the First Amendment kept the government in check, but the press, other than black newspapers and a handful of liberal southern editors, simply didn’t recognize racism in America as a story. The segregation of the Negro in America, by law in the South and by neighborhood and social and economic stratification in the North, had engulfed the press as well as America’s citizens. The mainstream American press wrote about whites but seldom about Negro Americans or discrimination against them; that was left to the Negro press.
Myrdal had a clear understanding of the Negro press’s role in fostering positive discontent. He saw the essential leadership role that southern moderate and liberal white editors were playing by speaking out against institutionalized race discrimination, yet he was aware of the anguish they felt as the pressure to conform intensified. There was also the segregationist press in the South that dehumanized Negroes in print and suppressed the biggest story in their midst. And he came to see the northern press—and the national press, such as it was—as the best hope for force-feeding the rest of the nation a diet so loaded with stories about the cruelty of racism that it would have to rise up in protest.
“The Northerner does not have his social conscience and all his political thinking permeated with the Negro problem as the Southerner does,” Myrdal wrote in the second chapter of An American Dilemma. “Rather, he succeeds in forgetting about it most of the time. The Northern newspapers help him by minimizing all Negro news, except crime news. The Northerners want to hear as little as possible about the Negroes, both in the South and in the North, and they have, of course, good reasons for that.
“The result is an astonishing ignorance about the Negro on the part of the white public in the North. White Southerners, too, are ignorant of many phases of the Negro’s life, but their ignorance has not such a simple and unemotional character as that in the North. There are many educated Northerners who are well informed about foreign problems but almost absolutely ignorant about Negro conditions both in their own city and in the nation as a whole.”5
Left to their own devices, white people in America would want to keep it that way, Myrdal wrote. They’d prefer to be able to accept the stereotype that Negroes “are criminal and of disgustingly, but somewhat enticingly, loose sexual morals; that they are religious and have a gift for dancing and singing; and that they are the happy-go- lucky children of nature who get a kick out of life which white people are too civilized to get.”6
Myrdal concluded that there was one barrier between the white northerner’s ignorance and his sense of outrage that the creed was being poisoned. That barrier was knowledge, incontrovertible information that was strong enough, graphic enough, and constant enough to overcome “the opportunistic desire of the whites for ignorance.”
“A great many Northerners, perhaps the majority, get shocked and shaken in their conscience when they learn the facts,” Myrdal wrote. “The average Northerner does not understand the reality and the effects of such discriminations as those in which he himself is taking part in his routine of life.”
Then, underscoring his point in italics, Myrdal reached the conclusion that would prove to be uncannily prescient. Even before he got to the fiftieth page of his tome, he wrote, “To get public...
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