04/17/07 — Pikeville native, former News-Argus reporter wins Pulitzer

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Pikeville native, former News-Argus reporter wins Pulitzer

By Winkie Lee
Published in News on April 17, 2007 1:45 PM

During much of his career, Wayne County native and former News-Argus reporter Gene Roberts worked as executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. During his time there, his staff won 17 Pulitzer Prizes.

Monday, Roberts won his first one for writing. He and Hank Klibanoff were presented the Pulitzer for history for their book, "The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation."

"I really got a lot of satisfaction seeing the staff win Pulitzers at the Inquirer, but it feels especially nice to have one of your own," he said during a phone interview with the News-Argus late Monday.

And it shows that it's never too late, he added, laughing.

Roberts is 74 now, but said that "it seems like yesterday that I was working at the News-Argus and doing the 'Rambling in Wayne' column and learning from (former News-Argus editor) Gene Price."

Yesterday was 1956-57. After that, Roberts' career eventually took him to New York City, Vietnam and Philadelphia, among other places. He wrote many stories, but none so meaningful as that of the civil rights movement.

"I thought this was the most riveting and emotion-laden story I encountered in my lifetime in journalism," he said. "The press, for good and for bad, had an important role in it, and that has never really been told."

Roberts said he spent 16 years on the book.

The idea for "The Race Beat" came about after Roberts left his job at the Inquirer and was approached by an agent.

"He asked if I would consider doing a book," Roberts recalled. "This was the one I outlined to him."

Before he began work on it, he and wife Susan, also a Wayne native, traveled the world.

A year later, Roberts accepted a job as a professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. He began work on the book, doing research and writing a couple of chapters. Then there was another delay. The New York Times asked him to come back for three years as managing editor to assist and give it time to groom a replacement.

"At that time, I was looking for someone who could help me with the book," he said.

He thought of Hank Klibanoff, who had worked at the Inquirer and who was a "wonderful writer and researcher," Roberts said.

"We both did some chapters, and we edited each other and made suggestions. We did a lot of talking back and forth."

This was the optimal time for the book to be written, Roberts said.

"Most of the players in the drama -- whether they be journalists, civil rights activists or segregationists -- are still alive," he said. "I don't think even now you could start a book like that ... There just wouldn't be as many people around to interview. Some of the people Hank and I talked to are no longer around."

Roberts covered the civil rights movement for The New York Times from 1965 until about 1968. The job was very time consuming, he said. "I was on the road a lot."

One of his most vivid memories is of an assignment he had during the second week of February in 1962. On the evening Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at White Rock Baptist Church in Durham, Roberts realized that change truly was coming.

When he arrived at the church, he saw hundreds of black students out front. This was the age group he had expected to see.

He soon learned why they were in front of the church. Filling the inside of the building were middle-aged men and women, with the women making up the larger number of the crowd.

It was an unseasonably warm night, and a church deacon boosted Roberts on his shoulders so that Roberts could see what was happening. Looking through the window, he heard King's speech, he heard the request for donations to help the civil rights movement and then he saw another sign.

"It was clear that most of the middle-aged black women in the church were maids and cooks and, at that time, black maids and cooks usually tied their change up in handkerchiefs so that it wouldn't rattle loose in their pocketbooks," he said. "When Martin Luther King's aides asked for contributions, I could see all these handkerchiefs coming out of all these pocketbooks. Slowly, all the knots were unraveled.

"I came away from the church convinced that there was going to be change because the sympathy for change ran much deeper in the black community than the whites liked to believe at the time."

Roberts got the news of the award Monday when his fellow faculty members brought him into the dean's office. Surrounded by about 20 to 30 people, he read the official word on the Internet.

The journalism school had a champagne and grape juice party for him and friends held a dinner for him that night.

Roberts said he is not planning another book.

"After this, I don't even plan to write my name," he said. "The book was such a long-time thing; it was like having a mountain on your back. I was so relieved to get it off my back that I don't want to do that again."