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News Of klaxons & confrontation: Inside 'The Race Beat'

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Roberts, Klibanoff take UD on journalism history ride
The book "The Race Beat"

​ "The Race Beat: The Press, The Civil Rights Struggle, and The Awakening of a Nation" won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2007.  All photos/Evan Krape, University of Delaware

By Professor Dan Biddle and his students

The place was a Mississippi fairgrounds. The time was a Saturday night amid the civil rights battles of the 1960s. A red-robed Ku Klux Klan official had invited The New York Times' Gene Roberts and other reporters to seats down front at a Klan rally.

 What could possibly go wrong?

That is, Roberts told some 80 students and faculty members, until a woman noticed he wasn't writing down a Klan speaker's every word.

"This son-of-a-bitch ain't takin' notes!" she shouted, pointing at Roberts. With that, he recalled, "the crowd went crazy."

Thus did Roberts and coauthor Hank Klibanoff, speaking May 11, 2016, in Gore Hall, take their audience on a ride through the history of 20th century journalism and the civil rights movement. Acclaimed journalists Roberts and Klibanoff came to campus to talk about their Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "The Race Beat: The Press, The Civil Rights Struggle, and The Awakening of a Nation."

They spoke as part of professor Dan Biddle's English 409 journalism course, "Reporting and Race," and later took questions in Biddle's English 307 newswriting class.

The 'myth' of indifference
Gene Roberts

Gene Roberts knew "massive change" was coming after a particular
speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King.

Roberts, 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."

Klibanoff, 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."

'Fear and intimidation'
Hank Klibanoff and photo of reporter L. Alex Wilson

​Hank KKlibanoff shows the attack on reporter L. Alex Wilson of the Memphis Tri-State Defender that lead to his death at age 51.

Describing the 1960 lunch-counter sit-in in Greensboro, N.C., that sparked similar protests across the South, Klibanoff called it "one of the most important events in U.S. history that no reporter saw" – and credited the local college paper with getting the story out to the mainstream press.

Both speakers have become presences on campuses in recent years – Roberts as a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, Klibanoff at Emory University, where he is a journalism professor and directs the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project.

As he spoke, Klibanoff put up slides of famous news photos from the 1960s, showing Southern police officers siccing dogs on black protesters, and white men in shirtsleeves kicking and punching a black journalist who wore a suit and tie. Klibanoff said the injuries eventually caused that journalist – L. Alex Wilson of the Memphis Tri-State Defender, one of the black papers that began reporting on racial injustice long before their white counterparts – to die at age 51.

The price of Jim Crow
A full room listens

​A full house greeted journalists Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff.

Roberts told how he had learned of Jim Crow's impact early on. As a young reporter at the Raleigh (N.C.) News and Observer, he'd looked into what had become of an all-black high school class five years after graduation.

He found the valedictorian working as a maid.

Students also heard about great reporters' tactics: How Roberts "cultivated" the law-enforcement source who gave him the famous photo of JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald posing with a rifle. Or how the late Jack Nelson of the Los Angeles Times upended police officers' claims of self-defense in the 1968 killing of three black college student protesters and wounding of many more in Orangeburg, S.C.

Nelson knew the FBI was investigating. So, in his business suit and crewcut, he introduced himself to hospital officials as "Nelson, with the Atlanta bureau. I've come to see the medical records."

As Roberts explained to the audience, Nelson meant the Atlanta bureau of the Los Angeles Times.

He was shown the records – which revealed the students had been shot in the back, or even in "the balls of their feet," Roberts said, as they lay on the ground trying to escape police gunfire.Roberts also told of Nelson's role in the confrontation, half a century ago, with angry Klan supporters at that Saturday night rally in Mississippi.

'Klaxon One to Kleagle One'
Students called visit "a real honor."

​Students called the visit by "The Race Beat" authors "a real honor."
Photo/Evan Krape, University of Delaware

He re-enacted how Nelson – like Roberts, a Southerner – pointed a finger in the face of the red-robed klaxon ("Ku Klux Klan-ese for PR man," Roberts explained).

Nelson asked: Didn't the klaxon want good publicity? The klaxon said yes – and Nelson vowed that if the reporters were harmed as they left the fairgrounds, the Klan would get bad press on the front page of the L.A. Times.

The klaxon got on his walkie-talkie and said, "Klaxon One to Kleagle One. Get me a couple of armed men over here." (Roberts explained: It was before cell phones were invented). Nelson said, "A couple won't do it!" The klaxon got back on his walkie talkie. "Change that," he said. "Send me a flying wedge."

It was that line of pistol-packing Klansmen who escorted Roberts, Nelson and the other out-of-town reporters to safety.

As for the current condition of American journalism, Roberts said, "I worry a lot." He said the widespread downsizing of news staffs leaves fewer reporters to dig out stories that powerful people don't want told. Even when the Inquirer's staff of journalists exceeded 500, he said, "I thought we needed more."

'No beat you can't cover'
Professor Dan Biddle led the discussion.

​Professor Dan Biddle invited Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff to campus.
Photo/Evan Krape, University of Delaware

Roberts counseled young reporters not to fear subjects unknown to them ("If you're diligent, there's no beat you can't master") and to follow the example of "one of my idols," the late Homer Bigart.

Roberts said Bigart, a legendary New York Times reporter who stuttered, excelled by confessing his ignorance and asking very basic questions. As Roberts and Klibanoff wrote in "The Race Beat," and as Roberts explained in class, a Southern minister once told another Times reporter that Bigart "didn't know anything. I had to explain everything to him."

Roberts and Klibanoff's presentations drew comments such as these from Biddle's students: "Mind-blowing." "AWESOME." "Amazing." "A real honor to hear them speak."

When a student in the newswriting class asked how he became interested in newspaper work, Roberts said his earliest childhood memory is of his father, who published a rural weekly, holding him up so that he could feed paper into the printing press, a sheet at a time. He mimicked that motion for the class's benefit.

Journalism was "all I was really interested in," said Roberts, who is the subject of a forthcoming documentary, The Newspaperman. "You can tell people things they otherwise wouldn't know."

Students Ryan Barwick, Hannah Trader, Colin Gordon, Angel Ortiz and Leigh Deitz contributed to this article.

Story published on 9/23/2001 ; last modified on  
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Gene Roberts, Hank Klibanoff, authors of "The Race Beat"

Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, authors of “The Race Beat,” told a UD audience that more reporters are needed to dig out the stories the powerful don't want told.

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Of klaxons & confrontation: Inside 'The Race Beat'
  • The Journalism Program
  • 221 Memorial Hall
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • 302-831-4921