FEATURE — Summer 2007

Hank Klibanoff
The Race Beat Awakens a Nation

Alumnus Hank Klibanoff won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for history for The Race Beat, which he co-authored with Gene Roberts. The book tells of brave reporters who covered the civil rights struggle early on.

by Candace O'Connor

On a book tour recently, Hank Klibanoff, A.B. '71, drove through the heart of Mississippi marveling at the little things, like billboards advertising African-American lawyers, that show how much the South has changed over the past few decades. Although progressive by Southern standards of the day, the 1950s-era racial attitudes of the northern Alabama town where he grew up—"over to Florence," he drawls, in his best Bear Bryant imitation—were dramatically different.

Public schools in Florence only integrated, reluctantly, a dozen years after the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that outlawed segregated education. And as a paper boy in 1963, Klibanoff noticed that the violence taking place in nearby Birmingham, where police unleashed dogs and fire hoses against young black demonstrators, did not appear on the front page of The Birmingham News he delivered. Yet this epic civil rights struggle—which also played out in the streets of Selma, on the "Ole Miss" campus, in North Carolina lunchrooms—at last transformed the South.

Such confrontations came to the attention of a horrified nation because journalists, black and white, braved considerable danger to report on them. In his 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, Klibanoff and co-author Gene Roberts, both veteran newsmen themselves, tell the story of these heroic reporters, many of them born in the South but working for northern newspapers. While praising the book, author and historian David Halberstam called these civil rights reporters "war correspondents on native soil."

"The thing that was most gratifying and uplifting, as a Southerner but also as a journalist, was to explore the lives of lesser-known journalists who were raised in a very segregationist society," says Klibanoff, now managing editor/enterprise at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Everyone was under such immense pressure to go along with the status quo, and I know the feeling of being expected to tell the racist jokes and share in the laughter."

Hank Klibanoff is managing editor/enterprise at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A longtime newspaperman, he also spent 20 years at The Philadelphia Inquirer as a former metro reporter, a national correspondent based in Chicago, a business editor, and a deputy managing editor.

One such reporter was Cliff Sessions, a UPI bureau member in his native Mississippi. In 1958, he wrote not only hard-hitting stories—-about a white supremacy indoctrination campaign in state high schools, for example—but he also dared to invite state NAACP head Medgar Evers and his wife Myrlie to his home for drinks. One day, a segregationist television executive excoriated him in the lobby of Jackson City Hall: "Crawl back under your rock," he said. "You've been exposed. You're an integrationist."

A pivotal moment in the civil rights struggle occurred in 1957, when nine courageous black students in Little Rock, Arkansas, integrated Central High School despite opposition from the governor, Orval Faubus, and a seething mob of white protestors. Reporters moved to the front lines to cover unfolding events. Among the journalistic heroes of this drama, says Klibanoff, one stands out: L. Alex Wilson, a prominent, award-winning black editor and a man of quiet dignity.

"He was jumped by white thugs and brutally beaten, but every time they knocked him down, he would stand up, re-crease his hat and put it back on, then start walking again. The expression on his face never changed—he had a very stoic look—and it had a powerful effect when photo images of him went out on the wire services."

A second Little Rock hero was Harry Ashmore, executive editor of the Arkansas Gazette, who editorialized for moderation and respect for the law. Still another was NBC reporter John Chancellor, who scooped rival news outlets by snagging an interview with one of the black students, thanks to help from white teenager Ira Lipman. Today, a grown-up Lipman sponsors the annual John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism at Columbia University, which has honored several key civil rights-era journalists mentioned in Klibanoff's book: Claude Sitton, John Herbers, and Bill Minor.

It was fascinating to discover these little quirks of fate—Klibanoff calls them "'What if' moments"—that changed history. Perhaps the most breathtaking, he says, harks back to the 1948 presidential race in which Harry Truman squared off against a very popular Thomas Dewey. Unexpectedly, Truman squeaked to a victory, and Dewey, along with his running mate Earl Warren, moved on to other careers.

"The thing that was most gratifying and uplifting, as a Southerner but also as a journalist, was to explore the lives of lesser-known journalists ... raised in a very segregationist society."

"If Earl Warren had been elected vice president in 1948," says Klibanoff, "he would surely not have been chief justice of the United States in 1954. Remember, he is responsible for the Brown decision and for making it a unanimous decision. He insisted that the court was not going to act on this critical constitutional issue if the decision was not unanimous."

As editor of his high school newspaper, Klibanoff already had felt drawn to a life in journalism. At the same time, he did not want to attend college at a journalism school and chose Washington University instead, where he majored in English. Classes with Howard Nemerov, Stanley Elkin, Peter Riesenberg, and Barry Commoner were stimulating—and he ran headlong into something else. "The anti-war movement was mind-chiseling," he says. "I had the sense that something important was happening, and I was lucky to be able to watch it."

Still, the student newspaper, Student Life, which he saw as largely a vehicle for left-wing polemics, disappointed him. After a brief stint as a copy editor, he quit and started his own small wire service on campus, recruiting students to write articles about dramatic performances or interviews with famous faculty members. But sustaining student involvement proved difficult, and the experiment ended.

The Race Beat is an account of journalists, both black and white, who braved danger to report on issues of civil rights early in the struggle. Co-authors Roberts and Klibanoff won a 2007 Pulitzer Prize for history.

After graduation, he forged a successful career in newspapers that included six years in Mississippi, three years at The Boston Globe, and 20 at The Philadelphia Inquirer. There he met Gene Roberts, its longtime top editor, who had once been chief southern and civil rights correspondent for The New York Times. Roberts began work on The Race Beat in 1990 when he joined the University of Maryland journalism school faculty. In 1994, after being named managing editor of the The New York Times, he asked Klibanoff to collaborate with him. Soon the two worked out an amicable system for sharing the work, with Roberts doing his writing in longhand.

Completing the 500-page volume took far longer than they had anticipated. Altogether, the work nearly spanned the lives of Klibanoff's three daughters, the oldest of whom is 17. But the resulting book is a powerful account of a time and place that those girls, growing up in progressive, racially diverse Atlanta, will never know, thanks in part to the efforts of the journalists Klibanoff and Roberts have described.

"In very visible ways, the South has changed monumentally," Klibanoff says. "If the heart of the South hasn't changed along with that yet—and I believe it has, by the way—but if it hasn't changed as dramatically as one would like, I think it will only continue to change for the better."

Candace O'Connor is a free-lance writer based in St. Louis and author of Beginning a Great Work: Washington University in St. Louis, 1853-2003.