Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Race Beat: the Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation: Hank Klibanoff and Gene Roberts (Knopf, 2006). Race hatred is at the core of U.S. history. The twin efforts to document and fight these ugly sentiments have long moved arm in arm. The dark shadow of racism is cast over our history and pre-history. The white on black struggle that would in modern times become known as the civil rights movement can trace its origins to the 16th Century when a Dominican priest named Las Casas tried to end the genocide of one oppressed people – the Haitian Indians -- by replacing it with another slower, larger genocide. The importation of 15,000 African slaves to San Domingo slowed the enslavement of the island natives and introduced the slave trade to the Americas. The American Revolution itself rose up from the economic need to ensure the continuation of slavery, after a 1772 decision in the High Court of London to free a slave named Somerset. The history of the civil rights movement is an enormous body of work, and the relationship between the press and the struggle for civil rights is a rich source for historical narrative. In an era in which new technologies are forcing journalism through many rapid not necessarily healthy changes, it is more important than ever to look into the recent history of media. Many well-known journalists of the last half of the 20th century had careers jump-started and/or reputations enhanced by work on what was called “the race beat.” This new book likewise called The Race Beat is thankfully biased toward those papers where editorial departments came down on the side of freedom. Yet it also tells the story of the segregationists and white supremacists. Such wretched figures as James J. Kilpatrick of The Richmond News-Leader and Thomas R. Waring at The Charleston News & Courier fought to the bitter end to insure African-Americans remained under the bondage of Jim Crow. Coming down on the side of good sense and goodness was Atlanta’s own Ralph McGill at The Atlanta Constitution. His words sound timid today, but at the time he was one of only a few editors in the south speaking words of sanity. Less well known but equally as important as McGill was the brave African-American journalists named L. Alex Wilson who fought racism for many years. On one occasion at Central High in Little Rock he became part of the story, passively fighting with his body. He died not many months later as a result of his injuries. Other journalists, black and white, died or received grave injuries trying to tell the story of the fight for civil rights. Their story is told with clarity and detail in The Race Beat.