04/06/08 — Pulitzer Prize-winning author speaks on race, politics, news

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Pulitzer Prize-winning author speaks on race, politics, news

By Dennis Hill
Published in News on April 6, 2008 3:14 AM

Gene Roberts said he first believed that racial change in America was truly possible after hearing Martin Luther King Jr. speak at a Raleigh church in the late 1950s.

Roberts, a Wayne County native and Pulitzer Prize winning author, spoke Friday night at Wayne Community College as part of the Wayne County Reads program. He talked about his book, "The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation," which described how the press covered the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and '60s.

Roberts said he arrived at the church and found the usual large gathering of young black people in the church yard. But he was surprised to discover the inside of the church was packed, not with young demonstrators, but with middle-aged and older black men and women who had come hours earlier in order to get a good seat to hear the vaunted King speak.

Roberts had to be hoisted onto the shoulders of a church deacon to reach a window to see and hear King. His moment of realization came when King finished his speech and urged the crowd to contribute what they could to the cause.

Roberts said that as a youth growing up in the South, he had seen many black women use handkerchiefs to tie up their loose change. When King asked for contributions, Roberts recalled, he saw dozens of women reach into their purses for those handkerchiefs. That, he said, was when he first believed the Civil Rights Movement would succeed.

"I left that church convinced for the first time that we were going to see major change," Roberts told a gathering of about 100 people who attended the event.

Roberts, who began his career as a reporter at The Goldsboro News-Argus, covered the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the Vietnam War as he moved from newspapers in North Carolina and Virginia to The Detroit Free Press and The New York Times.

The mainstream press had ignored the issue of race in America until the mid-1950s, Roberts said. Before that, black newspapers were the only ones covering the story. The first story that got national attention was the murder in Mississippi of Emmett Till, a black teenager from Chicago, in 1955. After the mainstream Chicago press got wind of the story, it received national attention and 60 journalists covered the trial of the two men charged in his murder.

"That was the biggest concentration of reporters on a racial story up until then," Roberts said.

Two years later came the Little Rock school segregation story, which drew hundreds of journalists.

"In two years, the nation went from getting almost no news on race to a massive amount of coverage," Roberts said, adding that the timing was perfect for the new medium of television. Most racial confrontations such as those in Little Rock, happened in the morning, Roberts noted. At the time, television did not have videotape and had to film news just like a movie. The film had to be processed and flown back to New York City in time for the evening news.

"If it had happened at another time of day, TV couldn't have covered it," he said. The visual images of raw hatred on the screen riveted the country like never before, he said.

"Suddenly, the whole American position on race changed," Roberts said.

Roberts said a European study done years earlier had concluded that most white Americans were unaware of the real problem posed by racial inequality in their own country. The study said that when a majority of Americans became aware of the ugly side of the racial issue, then change would occur. That, Roberts said, is exactly what happened.

He said the press "learned as it went," how to cover the explosive issue.

Most newspapers, even the big northern papers, sent Southern reporters to cover the story in Alabama, Mississippi and elsewhere, he said, because their editors believed that Southerners understood the culture better. Most people still aren't aware that at the time all of the chief editors of The New York Times were Southerners themselves, he said.

Roberts was asked if he ever felt his life was in danger while he was covering the Civil Rights Movement and he admitted that things "got a little hairy," on more than one occasion. The reporter corps soon learned to either "dress down and blend in," he said, or "go the other way," and dress and act like an FBI agent.

He said he and a friend knew that they had gotten their act together when they were mistaken for FBI agents at a drugstore.

Roberts said he operated out of Atlanta but within hours of getting a call he could find himself "on a sweltering road in Alabama or Mississippi with marchers headed this way and state troopers coming in the other direction.

"It was an interesting time," he said.

Roberts described one incident in which he and several other reporters were invited to a Ku Klux Klan meeting, to give the "other side" of the story. They agreed and were led to a field where hundreds of people were rallying. Eventually, the crowd turned on the reporters. Roberts said he remembers being kicked in the back by a woman who was screaming, "Look at this S.O.B. He isn't writing it all down!"