who as a Times reporter covered Vietnam and other major stories before
leading the Philadelphia Inquirer to 17 Pulitzers in 18 years as its
editor, spoke of "a myth" – that most African Americans were indifferent
to the civil rights sit-ins and showdowns of the mid-20th century – and
of a day he saw how untrue it was.
It was not the speaker in the
Southern church that day – the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., giving "one
of his usual spellbinding speeches," as Roberts put it. It was what he
saw in the audience.
The church was packed, but a deacon boosted
Roberts on his shoulders to a high windowsill. From that perch, he saw
that King's listeners included many women, middle-aged or older, who
worked as maids or cooks and saved their pennies, nickels and dimes in
carefully knotted handkerchiefs. When King's aides passed the
collection plate, Roberts saw women take out those handkerchiefs, untie
the knots and give their coins to the cause.
As Roberts spoke in Gore
Hall, he mimed the untying of the knots.
"After that night," he said, "I
came away believing I was going to see massive change."
whose career has included reporting for the Boston Globe and the
Inquirer and top editing posts at the Inquirer and the Atlanta
Journal-Constitution, told students the context: In the South where he
and Roberts had grown up, "Fear and intimidation and violence were used
to enforce the rules of Jim Crow."