The Race Beat Summary

Gene Roberts

The Race Beat

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The Race Beat Summary

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Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff’s 2006 The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation is an examination of the way stories in the news, editorials, and photographs of the American press—as well as the journalists behind them—profoundly altered the way the nation thought about civil rights in the South throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Drawing on private correspondence, notes from clandestine meetings, unpublished articles, and interviews, the authors reveal to the nation its most disgraceful shortcomings and how citizens were galvanized to act.

Roberts and Klibanoff trace the evolution of the press coverage of civil rights in the South, beginning with the publication of “An American Dilemma” in 1944 by Gunnar Myrdal and ending with the assassination of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. While Myrdal, a Swedish economist, was not a journalist, he was likely the first observer to note that the key to race relations was largely in the hands of the American press. Myrdal believed that the most potent antidote to racial discrimination was the dissemination of truthful information. He felt that the majority of American white people would be willing to give blacks a much better deal if they were fully informed of the facts.

During this time, the authors point out, the black press was central to developing protest in the United States. It made notable contributions in its coverage of increasing brutality, such as lynching, and other efforts to undo the political and economic accomplishments of the Reconstruction era.

However, the authors contend that if the protest were to be effective, the mainstream white press would have to focus on racial discrimination and write about it so frankly and continuously that white Americans outside of the South could no longer ignore the state of things. This would put white supremacy, segregation, and black disfranchisement in conflict with the conscience of Americans, who would demand change.

This picture began to emerge, according to the authors, during the two decades after World War II. The mainstream press was sluggish about realizing the significance of the civil rights story. In 1955, New York Times reporter John Popham, who had covered news about the South since 1947, was the only correspondent designated to cover the region for a national newspaper. However, due to the groundbreaking Supreme Court decisions and building racial tensions of the mid-1950s, the press was no longer able to ignore what was occurring in places such as Little Rock and Montgomery. The American public could not either.

The era after Brown v. Board of Education saw an intensifying battle between civil rights activists and die-hard segregationists, which became American’s most enthralling domestic news story. However, the authors note that coverage of the issue was largely consigned to the inside of newspapers, whose front pages were filled with electoral politics and the Cold War drama playing out on the international stage.

As the authors track the development of the national press, they most often note coverage of the legal challenges to segregation that circulated through the courts, especially regarding public facilities and schools. One important journalistic milestone was the press coverage of the trial surrounding fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, whom two white men were accused of beating and killing. The case brought both the white and black press to the South in large numbers.

Key journalists noted by the author include Harry Ashmore, Ralph McGill, Hodding Carter Jr., Buford Boone, Lenoir Chambers, Bill Baggs, and Hazel Brannon Smith, who could be relied upon to write in a push toward national unity. One particular scene the authors are sure to mention is when NBC’s John Chancellor, who was in the Mississippi Delta gathering reactions to the 1956 verdict of the Till trial, halted an angry mob by raising up a microphone to his tape recorder. He was terrified but wanted to make sure the truth was known, and the men quickly calmed.

Another means by which issues of black American identity are discussed in the book include the mention of journals and magazines associated with the Harlem Renaissance, including Opportunity and Crisis. These issues were also raised by white people, women, poets, and writers, in addition to the journalistic publications associated with the labor movements and the Communist Party.

The book concludes by summarizing the fragmented efforts toward a unified national purpose in terms of the race question in post-1965 America. The authors note the transference in both rhetoric—“black power”— and tactics, including the use of violence if necessary. Furthermore, they note the importance of the rise of black nationalism in the speeches of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers.

Having drawn from oral history, interviews, master’s theses, and doctoral dissertations, as well as periodicals, books, and archives, Roberts and Klibanoff fill in a gap in the Civil Rights Movement discussion and remind readers living in today’s media-saturated world what it was like for journalists to appreciate the power of the press to inspire change.