Book Review: The Race Beat

By Jeff Kelly Lowenstein Mar 11, 2009

The civil rights movement produced a series of iconic images.

The 43-year-old Rosa Parks sitting alone in a bus in Montgomery.  Elizabeth Eckford surrounded by an angry mob in Little Rock, Arkansas.  The valiant James Merideth writhing on the ground after being shot on a Mississippi highway.  Buses ridden by an interracial group of riders being attacked and lit in flames in Alabama.   Waterhoses blasting hundreds of protesters in Birmingham.  The attack of peaceful demonstators at the Edmund Pettus  Bridge in Selma during what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”

And, of course, Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, delivered before a crowd of 250,000 at the Washington Mall.

These images, and the courage of the people who placed their lives in harm’s way, changed the nation.

The story of the modern civil rights movement has been told and retold in many different forms.

A less-told story, though, is the role of the media in the movement that riveted the nation, led to the dismantling of segregation and the passage of landmark voting and civil rights legislation.

Veteran journalists Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff tell that story and do it considerable justice in The Race Beat: The Press, The Civil Rights Struggle and The Awakening of a Nation.

The Race Beat starts with Swedish scholar Gunnar Myrdal’s classic two-volume work, An American Dilemma, in which he outlines the nation’s injustice and admits of the possibility of change.

The book is largely chronological, and follows the movement from the post World War II period through the unanimous Brown v. Board decision that overturned decades of legal segregation officially sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1896  Plessy v. Ferguson decision, and continuing through the major civil rights battles and setbacks in the South. 

The book takes at its climax the moment of Bloody Sunday, with a brief coda that mentions John Lewis’ election to the U.S. House of Representatives as evidence that the problems Myrdal identified had been resolved to some degree.

This arc has been traced many times before, but never in such depth this way. 

Roberts and Klibanoff show how for years the black press had almost exclusive access to civil rights stories because white newspapers did not consider the story worth covering.  Once the issue got wider attention from mainstream media publications, journalists from black publications were often pushed aside while their counterparts from bigger newspapers got more and better access.

This replication of power relations within media coverage is just one of many praiseworthy aspects of the book. 

Roberts and Klibanoff have a keen feel for the southern media landscape, which included giants like Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor Ralph McGill, whose views evolved with the movement, and right-winger James Kilpatrick, whose writing about the doctrine of interposition gave desegregation opponents intellectual ammunition.

Roberts and Klibanoff effectively show the interplay between events, and the coverage of them, in the gradual broadening of attention given to the movement, and in the impact the movement had on the nation’s conscience.

Neither progressed in a straight line.

Roberts and Klibanoff do not hesitate either to show moments where the movement sustained defeats, like in Albany, Georgia, where Chief Laurie Pritchettavoided the kind of newsmaking scenes that garnered headlines, stirred consciences and forced legislative action.  Similarly, they take venerable publications like The New York Times to task for missing the story’s significance for years before assigning Southern-born Claude Sitton to the area.

In addition to tracing the movement’s growth and the role the media played in it, The Race Beat is a story of engaging individuals living through an era when the world as they had known it was undergoing decisive shifts and changes. 

The authors devote extensive time to journalistic legends like McGill, but also to lesser-known people like Harry Ashmore, editor of Little Rock’s largest paper, or Joe Azbell of the Montgomery Advertiser, or Gene Patterson, the Journal-Constitution editor who wrote a haunting piece after a bomb blast killed four little girls in a Birmingham church. 

Patterson’s essay was remarkable for its imagery-it returned over and over to a shoe held by one of the mothers-but also for its assumption of collective responsibility by white Southerners, rather than simply the extremists who bombed the church.

“We hold that shoe with her.  Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand,” Patterson wrote.  

The juxtaposition of the hearbreaking reminder of the girl’s innocence, her brutal death and the role bystanding Southerners had played in the murder was groundbreaking and, as with McGill, represented an evolution on Patterson’s part.  Walter Cronkite later asked Patterson to read the entire column on his newscast, and thousands of viewers responded to Patterson’s moral outrage. 

The authors do not only focus on white journalists; black journalists like the late photographer Ernest Withers, James Hicks of the Amsterdam News and L.C. Bates all receive treatment.  Roberts and Klibanoff show neatly how for many of these journalists, the issue was more than one of professional concern, but was part of a mission of community uplift.

Above all, The Race Beat is the story of a time of wrenching, painful and often bloody change in the nation, but also an evocation of a bygone era in journalism. 

During this time television had not completely ascended and editorials, decisions made by daily editors and coverage by their correspondents shaped public perception to a far greater degree than today, when an increasing number of readers get their information throughout the day via the Internet.

The stakes were high, the stories were raw and waiting to be told, and daily print journalism truly was “the first draft of history.”   The beauty of  The Race Beat lies in how Roberts and Klibanoff depict both so vividly.

The book is not perfect.

The civil rights movement in the north gets scant attention, and then only in the context of Dr. King’s struggle in Chicago.  The later electoral gains of the 70s and 80s are similarly ignored.  And the degree to which racism has been vanquished is a subject that is up for legitimate debate.

Still, in a time in which we have seen the initial presidential actions by America’s first Black president, and during a month in which we honor the contributions of Blacks to the nation, it is fitting to reflect on the modern civil rights movement and the role that hundreds, if not thousands, of people played in documenting that valiant effort to close the gap between the nation’s lofty promises and its often sordid reality. 

The Race Beat does so, with honesty, elegance and, at times, even grace.  I recommend it highly.

This review originally appeared on Jeff Kelly Lowenstein’s blog.