Mark Whitaker: Newsweek Reporters at the Civil Rights Barricades

Civil Rights
Long before the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965 Newsweek brought eloquence and passion to its coverage of racial unrest. Bruce Davidson / Magnum Photos

All hell broke loose as two Newsweek reporters drove into Oxford, Miss., on the night of Sept. 30, 1962. Earlier that afternoon, an escort of U.S. marshals had snuck James Meredith, the boyish-faced crusader who was fighting to register as the first black student at Ole Miss, onto the campus. At the Lyceum, the school’s famous citadel, more than 300 additional marshals were garrisoned and braced for trouble. They didn’t have to wait long. Within hours, an irate mob of several thousand white students and other segregationists stormed the grassy oval outside the Lyceum hurling bricks, stones, bottles, and steel rods, and the feds started firing back with tear gas.

Karl Fleming was a rugged, chain-smoking Navy vet who had joined Newsweek’s Atlanta bureau the year before. Peter Goldman was a shy, bow-tie wearing junior National Affairs writer who had been assigned the Meredith standoff as his first cover story. They parked their car on the side of the campus occupied by the protesters and immediately wandered into the crossfire. Taking refuge in the Science Building, they were confronted by students brandishing what looked like vials of acid. The reporters jumped out a window and dashed toward the Lyceum. Past midnight, Fleming emerged to survey the bloody scene, heard gunfire, and looked up to see “four bullets stitched in a white column six inches from my head,” he would recall in a memoir. Unbowed, they kept reporting as 14,000 U.S. soldiers arrived to restore order, and the next week Newsweek came out with a seven-page account of the siege of the University of Mississippi.

The cover line was “The Sound and the Fury,” a nod to Oxford’s favorite son and a reflection of the eloquence and passion that were starting to earn Newsweek a name for its coverage of race in America. Eventually, the magazine would begin hiring black reporters to participate in that effort, but in those early days it was the work of an idealistic band of four white journalists in their 20s and 30s, three of them reporters, one an editor. Goldman, who wrote virtually all of more than 20 race covers over the next decade, was the poetic wordsmith who packed stories with vivid reported detail and rich social and political context. Joe Cumming was the courtly Atlanta bureau chief whose files brimmed with understanding of Southern history and psychology. And Fleming was the fearless fireman who raced to the front lines with his notebook and Pentax camera, often one step ahead of Klansmen who tapped his phone and trailed him in pickup trucks.

Praised for his courage, Fleming would jape about the fifth of Jack Daniels and bottle of Maalox that got him through many a day on the road. But he was also fueled by sensitivity to injustice pricked by an impoverished childhood in a North Carolina orphanage. In just a few months in the spring and summer of 1963, Fleming was there to chronicle Martin Luther King Jr.’s showdown with Bull Connor, George Wallace’s stand in the schoolhouse door, the dynamiting of the 16th Street Baptist Church, and the assassination of Medgar Evers. When three Freedom Summer workers were murdered, he was one of the first two national reporters to get to Philadelphia, Miss. In 1965, he moved to Newsweek’s Los Angeles bureau just in time for the Watts riots, and a year later he suffered a fractured skull and jaw when black militants chased and beat him as he covered the “son of Watts” protests. His empathetic response: “If I was a young black man growing up on the streets of Watts ... I might feel like hitting some white guy in the head, too.”

Civil Rights As the country struggled with its history of racism and segregation, the magazine began to explore the many ways the story of race in America was changing. Eve Arnold / Magnum Photos

The fourth man was Osborn Elliott, Newsweek’s jovial, martini-sipping editor. From the moment he took command of the magazine in 1961, he lavished special attention on the issue of civil rights. The interest was partly competitive, since he knew that Newsweek could cover it better than Time, the mighty Establishment rival that was slow to react to the way America was changing in the ’60s. But for the patrician “Oz,” it was also a matter of social conscience. He wanted to help readers understand the black point of view, even as the movement veered toward militancy, and eventually decided it was Newsweek’s duty to help. Goldman and Ed Kosner, another ace writer, didn’t know what was up the day Oz invited them to lunch at the Four Seasons in 1967, until he shared his dream of publishing Newsweek’s first-ever advocacy issue on how to address racial poverty and discrimination in housing, education, and employment. The result was a groundbreaking cover called “The Negro in America: What Must Be Done” that won Newsweek its first National Magazine Award.

I remember reading that cover when I was 10 years old. The previous summer my father, a black scholar of Africa who had divorced my mother when I was 6, paid my brother and me a rare visit. He was reading Newsweek one day and told me, “They do a good job on civil rights.” It was all I needed to ask for a subscription for my birthday. I started devouring the magazine, and in its pages I learned the details of King’s murder, followed the rise of the Black Panthers, and first heard of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s jeremiad about the black family.

civil-rights-FE03-third The author began as a summer intern and eventually rose to become the first African-American to edit a newsmagazine. Najlah Feanny-Hicks / Saba-Corbis

Ten years later, I was writing for my college newspaper when I was offered a summer internship at Newsweek. By then, the Watergate crisis and public exhaustion with race issues had dulled the magazine’s appetite for the story. A lawsuit filed by female staffers unable to advance beyond secretarial and research jobs had exposed its inconsistent zeal for equal rights. But an African-American news editor, John Dotson, and his boss, Rod Gander, had finally gotten serious about integrating the magazine’s ranks, and I was soon working with a rising generation of talented black journalists like Vern Smith, Sylvester Monroe, and Dennis Williams. They schooled me in Newsweek’s ways, but also warned about limits to advancement. After two successful summer stints, Dotson predicted that I might become a section head some day if I accepted a full-time job. “What about editor?” I asked. “Newsweek isn’t ready for a black editor,” he replied somberly.

I reminded Dotson of that assessment 20 years later, on the day it was announced that I would get the top job. Still, even I was surprised by how much the press focused on the “first African-American to edit a newsmagazine” angle in covering the news. My predecessors Rick Smith and Maynard Parker had continued to do strong covers on race, including a memorable 1987 cover story (titled “Brothers”) about 12 friends from a Chicago housing project and two special issues on the 1992 L.A. riots. I had contributed to some of those stories, but I owed my rise more to accomplishments in other areas. “I want to be the best editor I can be, period,” I told the reporters, reflecting my journalistic ambition but also my resolve not to be seen as anyone’s token. And over the next eight years my gifted colleagues joined me in pursuing that goal, producing award-winning coverage of Sept. 11, the march to war in Iraq, and the untold stories of George W. Bush’s election and reelection.

Newsweek Civil Rights In the first of two cover stories on “The Negro in America,” Newsweek presented “the first definitive national survey” of black attitudes.

Privately, though, I was determined to stay on the race story, but to do it in a way that grappled with the new ways America was changing. So I championed fresh, provocative black voices like Ellis Cose, Allison Samuels, Veronica Chambers, Lynette Clemetson, and Marcus Mabry. Together with our white colleagues we did covers on the hidden rage of successful blacks, the rise of black women, the future of affirmative action, the complexities of multiracial identity, and the relationship between African-Americans and Hispanics. We even dared to publish an issue called “The Good News About Black America,” taking a measured look at areas of statistical improvement in African-American life. To counter Time’s “Person of the Year” franchise, we launched a new year-end tradition of celebrating “Who’s Next.” In 2004 a newly elected mixed-race senator from Illinois named Barack Obama smiled out from that cover.

Those calls manifested my own interests and background but also the sense of responsibility I felt to the past. On the day I became editor, by fateful coincidence, Karl Fleming was in town. A lunch in his honor had been organized at the Newsweek dining room, and I went to pay my respects. Gathered over cocktails were Fleming, Goldman, Kosner, Oz, and two other lieutenants who later succeeded him, Kermit Lansner and Lester Bernstein. I shook their hands and listened to their war stories, and they instructed me to take good care of the magazine. The most profound thing I can say about the Newsweek of my era is that I hope we stayed true to their legacy. Perhaps mercifully, some of those men are no longer here to see the print magazine disappear. But it is thanks to them that in the annals of America’s “race beat,” the memory of Newsweek will live on forever.

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