THE RACE BEAT: THE PRESS, THE CIVIL RIGHTS STRUGGLE, AND THE AWAKENING OF A NATION by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff (Knopf), 516 pages, $40 cloth. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
While the cold war boiled across the globe, the simmering, repressed outrage of racial segregation finally exploded. Many American journalists found the biggest, most dangerous stories of their careers not in the jungles of Asia or behind the Iron Curtain but in the streets, schools and churches of the South.
Those dramatic days of the founding and growth of the civil rights movement are recounted in Race Beat, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, two long-time journalists who just copped the Pulitzer Prize for books on history.
Unlike most studies of the desegregation struggles of the 1950s and 60s, Race Beat rolls out the events through the eyes and actions of the journalists and editors who tackled the ongoing story.
There are many heroes and villains in this tale of resistance, race and riot. Black reporters faced angry crowds who attacked them not for their work, but for their race. White reporters were harassed, beaten and gassed as they reported on blacks who tried to enroll in all-white schools and eat in white-only cafeterias and attempted to cover the people in white sheets, police uniforms and business suits who tried to stop them.
When mobs and sheriffs failed to deter reporters, lawyers brought frivolous lawsuits against newspapers and television networks. It would take the Supreme Court years to rule that the press could criticize public figures without fear of losing libel suits in kangaroo courts in the South.
Racial upheaval brought out the best and worst in Southern journalists. Some used their newspapers and TV stations to encourage mobs in their bloody resistance to desegregation. Progressive news people faced the anger of neighbours who considered them traitors to their race, their heritage and their land.
This is a terrific book about a dreadful time that also gave rise to great hope.
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