The Race Beat : The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation
An unprecedented examination of how news stories, editorials and photographs in the American press--and the journalists responsible for them--profoundly changed the nation's thinking about civil rights in the South during the 1950s and '60s.
Roberts and Klibanoff draw on private correspondence, notes from secret meetings, unpublished articles, and interviews to show how a dedicated cadre of newsmen--black and white--revealed to a nation its most shameful shortcomings that compelled its citizens to act. Meticulously researched and vividly rendered, The Race Beat is an extraordinary account of one of the most calamitous periods in our nation's history, as told by those who covered it.
- Pulitzer Prize
Faced with "a flying wedge of white toughs coming at him" as he interviewed a black woman after the 1955 Emmett Till lynching trial, NBC reporter John Chancellor thrust his microphone toward them, saying, "I don't care what you're going to do to me, but the whole world is going to know it." This gripping account of how America and the world found out about the Civil Rights movement is written by two veteran journalists of the "race beat" from 1954 to 1965. Building on an exhaustive base of interviews, oral histories and memoirs, news stories and editorials, they reveal how prescient Gunnar Myrdal was in asserting that "to get publicity is of the highest strategic importance to the Negro people." The New York Times and other major media take center stage, but the authors provide a fresh account of the black press's trajectory from a time when black reporters searched "for stories white reporters didn't even know about" through the loss of the black press's "eyewitness position on the story" in Little Rock to its recovery with the Freedom Rides. Although sometimes weighted by mundane detail and deadening statistics, the book is so enlivened with anecdotes that it remains a page-turner. (Nov. 21)
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September 03, 2007
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Excerpt from The Race Beat by Gene Roberts
An American Dilemma:
"An Astonishing Ignorance . . ."
The winter of 1940 was a cruel one for Gunnar Myrdal, and spring was shaping up even worse. He was in the United States, finishing the research on the most comprehensive study yet of race relations and the condition of Negroes in America. But he was having trouble reaching conclusions, and he struggled to outline and conceptualize the writing. "The whole plan is now in danger of breaking down," he wrote the Carnegie Foundation, which was underwriting his project.
What's more, the gathering crisis in Europe had thrown him into a depression; he feared for the very existence of his native Sweden. In April, Nazi Germany had invaded Denmark and Norway. Myrdal believed Sweden would be next. He put aside more than two years of work by 125 researchers and began arranging passage home for himself, his wife, Alva, and their three children. He and Alva wanted to fight alongside their countrymen if the worst should come. The boat he found, the Mathilda Thorden, a Finnish freighter, was laden with explosives, and the captain tried to dissuade the Myrdals from boarding the dangerous ship. When this failed, the captain jokingly urged Myrdal to look on the bright side. He would not have to worry about his family freezing to death in icy waters. If German U-boats attacked, the resulting explosion would almost certainly kill everyone instantly.
The U-boats did not attack, and the Myrdals arrived in Sweden only to be appalled by what was happening there. Rather than preparing for war with Germany, the Swedish government was seeking an accommodation with the Nazis.
Knowing that Germany was monitoring the Swedish press for anti-German sentiment, the government first confiscated copies of anti-Nazi newspapers; then, emboldened, it interfered with the distribution of one of the nation's most important dailies, Geteborgs Handelstidning. This, Myrdal believed, could not happen in America. He was outraged. "The press is strangled," he wrote to a Swedish friend in the United States. "Nothing gets written about Germany. News is suppressed."1
There and then, Myrdal's understanding of America and its race relations became crystallized. In a book that quickly took precedence over his Carnegie project, then became its seed, Gunnar and Alva Myrdal wrote Kontakt med Amerika (Contact with America), which was crafted largely to rally Swedish resistance against Hitler. In Kontakt, published in 1941, the Myrdals argued that Swedes had much to learn from America about democracy, dialogue, and self-criticism. "The secret," they wrote, "is that America, ahead of every other country in the whole Western world, large or small, has a living system of expressed ideals for human cooperation which is unified, stable and clearly formulated."2 The Carnegie project, they added, was evidence of America's willingness to sanction a sweeping examination and discussion of a national problem.
Almost all of America's citizens, the Myrdals said, believed in free speech and a free press. Americans respected other viewpoints even when they strongly disagreed. As a result, diverse ethnic groups were living with one another in peace while Europe was tearing itself apart.
Before writing Kontakt, Myrdal didn't have the insight or context he needed for his weightier book on race in America. Nor did he have the words he felt would serve as the road map to change. Three years earlier, in 1938, he had reached the South, the dark side of the moon. There, he had found an enigmatic, sometimes exotic, always deeply divided and repressive society whose behavior was known to, but overlooked by, the world beyond. In pursuit of an understanding and insight that was still beyond his grasp, his immersion had been total, the details of his discoveries had been staggering, and he had come to a point where he was no longer horrified by the pathology of racism or stunned by the cruelty and pervasiveness of discrimination. He had found himself fascinated by the way an entire social order had been built, and rationalized, around race.
By early 1940, Myrdal frequently found himself feeling oddly optimistic about attitudes he found despicable, and he was moving, somewhat unwittingly, toward the conclusion that would become the core definition of his landmark work, An American Dilemma: that Americans, for all their differences, for all their warring and rivalries, were bound by a distinct