The book, The Race Beat by Roberts and Klibanoff, is a detailed account of the mass media contribution to the onset of the civil rights movement. The authors describe several well-known events of the century responsible for the emergence of the movement. Despite the evident heroism and dedication of the individuals described by the authors, the events documented in the book may be perceived as impressive but not entirely unexpected by modern readers. The progress made in the civil rights movement in the last few decades has raised the bar of our perception enormously. Because of this, it may be overlooked, especially by a younger reader loosely familiar with the dawn of the era, that the conditions under which the events described in the book occurred were, in fact, challenging enough to create a real, feasible threat to people who serve as a core of the narrative.
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In reality, in the middle of the twentieth century, the issues connected to race were largely obscured in the society and unanimously ignored in the press. Before the publication of An American Dilemma by Gunnar Myrdal in 1944, few Americans had any idea about the American South beyond that available to them from the obsolete and stereotyped fiction (Roberts and Klibanoff 5). As a result, most media sources were reluctant to even raise the controversial issues, let alone to elaborate on it or investigate. The latter went beyond the intention to stay away from inconvenient truth because it often turned out physically dangerous for the reporter. This is best illustrated by the story of Claude Sitton, a New York Times reporter, who was chosen by Turner Catledge, the newspaper’s managing editor, to go to Atlanta to work in the Southern landscape.
Sitton’s story became a story of success and an example of journalistic qualities, such as his tenacity, attention to details, and, most prominently, his determination to uncover the chosen topic. However, at the time he entered the scene, there was much less certainty, and the criteria for his position were described by Catledge as “a reporter who knew the region well, had the right accent, abided by all the rules, wouldn’t get emotionally involved, wouldn’t argue with anyone, wouldn’t become the news, who would just write what he saw, wouldn’t get beat, wouldn’t get snookered, and was willing to give up his family, perhaps his life, for the story” (Roberts and Klibanoff 186). Simply put, at the time when this topic was slowly gaining attention in the press, there was a real possibility for the journalists working in the field to get in trouble themselves. Nevertheless, according to the book, few of the involved individuals ever showed hesitation in working on the topic.
Another factor that complicated matters tremendously for pioneering reporters was the presence of several newspapers that supported segregation and opposed the progress made in the field. Thomas R. Waring, Jr., described by authors as “as forceful a spokesman for segregation as there was in the South” is among the brightest examples, but certainly not the only one (Roberts and Klibanoff 37). Harry Ashmore of Courier was known to view the ongoing struggle as a problem and a step back for the country, and certain attempts were made to accept segregation on the legal basis, including by James Jackson Kilpatrick from Richmond (Roberts and Klibanoff 109). In fact, the book describes such a harsh environment in which the civil rights journalism took its shape. It becomes hard to comprehend the amount of work done by the reporters of the time. It is, therefore, safe to say that, judging by the book, it would be unrealistic to demand more from Southern newspapers and journalists.
The Race Beat describes quite a few astonishing details on segregation in the American South. The one I found most shocking was the story of Emmett Till, a sixteen-year-old black kidnapped, tortured, and murdered in Money, Mississippi, on August 1955, and the outcry that followed the event (Roberts and Klibanoff 86). The kidnapping took place after Till allegedly whistled at the wife of one of the murderers, Roy Bryant. The kid was taken by Bryant and his accomplice, J. W. Milam, from his great-uncle’s home, beaten, shot in the head, and submerged in the Tallahatchie River with a heavy cotton gin fan attached to his neck with barbed wire. Despite swift apprehension of both perpetrators as suspects, the press was initially reluctant to describe the incident, giving only faint details and putting the word “kidnapping” (a fact confirmed by Bryant’s confession by that time) in brackets.
Eventually, as public awareness grew, white reporters came in to join the Negro newspapers. Over time, this event has become a turning point that signified a shift toward greater involvement of white journalists in the matter, caused in large part by the loud court case that followed. The first detailed account that is cited as responsible for bringing the story out to the white population was written by William Bradford Huie, a freelance journalist who was keen on unearthing the truth behind every story (Roberts and Klibanoff 101). He eventually succeeded in obtaining a step-by-step retelling of the murder from Bryant and Milam by promising them that the information cannot be used against them and offering a hefty sum of money (Roberts and Klibanoff 103).
However, what shocked me most was not the brutality of the incident, and even not the cynicism of the killers’ behavior – both were neither unheard of nor unexpected in the area at the time. The shock came with the understanding that, according to the authors, the incident was “just another in a long history of racial murders in the Mississippi Delta” (Roberts and Klibanoff 86). While it certainly gave a start to important changes, the reader is left wondering about how many of such cases actually slipped the attention of the mainstream press. In my opinion, it would not be an over-exaggeration to assume that even more gruesome murders occurred in the South at the time, and despite the coverage in black newspapers the indicents were ignored by the general public. In this light, the publicity that followed the Till trial can be considered a real breakthrough.
The support of segregation by many white journalists as well as the disparity between the black press and white readers offer another important suggestion. The evidence offered in the book points to the fact that the existing status quo played a major role in the resistance to the civil rights movement. The presence of the newspapers that maintained a convenient silence is one example in support of the existence of the status quo. Under these circumstances, the white population was allowed to reside in the world free of the issues connected to race and imagine the South as an idyllic countryside free of problems. The initial report of the Emmett Till kidnapping in the Jackson Daily News, for example, “pretty much outlined the story in ten sentences” (Roberts and Klibanoff 87). According to Roberts and Klibanoff, “not until the final sentence did readers learn that Till was still missing and that Bryant had told officers that Till ‘had been released’” (Roberts and Klibanoff 87).
In accord with the public’s preferred point of view, the confessions by both murderers were downplayed in this manner until the state-wide spike in the interest to the case. This conformity with the public opinion could even be traced in the statements made by the sheriff, who was “saying there might have been foul play, relatives might be hiding Till, or he might have returned to Chicago” (Roberts and Klibanoff 87). Therefore, the influence of the prejudice can be traced far beyond that displayed by the press. To further complicate the issue, many Southern newspapers took an active stance against the attempts to bring forth the issue. The pro-segregation stance taken by Thomas R. Waring, Jr., and Harry Ashmore, as well as the promotion of interposition by James Jackson Kilpatrick in Virginia, confirm the idea that while the issue of race was a major factor in resistance, the desire to maintain the cultural and social status quo played at least an equally important role.
In conclusion, the book by Roberts and Klibanoff offers a thorough and consistent review of the role of media in the onset of civil rights movement in the United States. The book gives a detailed account of the events, acknowledging all the contributors to the cause, and rightfully pointing out the antagonistic forces. More importantly, it offers insights into the reasons behind the most significant events and provides the social and cultural context necessary for understanding the magnitude of success. Despite being sometimes overwhelmed with data such as names and locations, the book mostly paints a vivid and dynamic picture and can be recommended both as a provocative and insightful source for analysis and as a historical account for research.
Roberts, Gene, and Hank Klibanoff. The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation. Vintage, 2008.