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Recalling UPI's civil rights coverage

By TOBIN BECK, UPI Executive Editor   |   April 21, 2002 at 8:49 PM   |   Comments

MONTGOMERY, Ala., April 21 (UPI) -- Veteran journalists who worked for United Press International during the 1960s gathered in Alabama this weekend and remembered that covering the civil rights struggle, which marked a milestone for America, was just another story at the time that needed to get out to the world.

"I know stories came out that never would have come out without UPI having been there," said John Herbers, 78, who worked for United Press/UPI from 1952-1962 in Mississippi and then went on to cover the South for the New York Times, retiring in 1987.

Herbers said UPI's coverage was more complete than other wire services -- and more comprehensive than in Southern newspapers or from radio stations, whose management often opposed the civil rights movement and sought to squelch or downplay coverage.

"There were a lot of stories that would go out that never appeared in local papers, and if they did, they were sanitized," he said Saturday.

Some 14 former reporters, editors and photographers who worked for UPI in the 1950s and 1960s came to Montgomery Friday and Saturday for a symposium on UPI's coverage of the civil rights era.

The conference was sponsored by Troy State University-Montgomery, the Gannett Foundation and the Montgomery Advertiser newspaper. It was the brainchild of Alvin Benn, a former UPI reporter who worked from 1964-66 in Birmingham, and who now is a reporter and columnist for the Advertiser. Alabama Public Television recorded the conference.

"The primary reason for the symposium was to provide something for future generations -- their memories. I would hope in 2065 people can go to the Rosa Parks museum and check out the video and see what it was like," Benn said. "We'll all be gone in a few years, and that's why it's important for the civil rights museums in Birmingham and here to get these first-person chronicles and chronicle them for future generations."

Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman told the conference: "Those of you who were here during the civil rights struggle contributed so much. It had an impact on my life, as it did on so many others throughout the state and the world."

He said the spirit of the marchers -- non-violent activism -- remains alive and has inspired people around the world.

He added Alabama has dramatically changed and now has more black elected officials than any other state. Education and economic development -- including a new $1 billion Hyundai automobile plant to be built about 12 miles south of Montgomery, bringing some 2,000 jobs -- are priorities.

One change is the site of the former Empire Theater, which now is the Rosa Parks Museum on the Troy State campus. The museum, which occupies the first floor of the three-story campus library, is a series of displays, films and sound recordings telling the story of how Parks, a black seamstress, refused to give up her seat in the middle of a crowded city bus and move to the back when a white man wanted to sit down. She was arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct and was fined $10, but the incident led to a 381-day black boycott of the bus system. The boycott ended with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling segregation of the bus service was unconstitutional.

Montgomery, with a population of 202,000, is the second-largest city in Alabama behind Birmingham. The state capital, it was the seat of the Confederate government at the start of the Civil War. The racial mix is 50-50 black and white.

Mayor Bobby Bright, who is white, told the group there still is work to be done, but "when we make big decisions about our city and state, we include everybody" -- a legacy of the civil rights movement.

Tim Robinson, now a media consultant in San Francisco after having worked at the Washington Post and as editor in chief of the National Law Journal, was 18 when he worked weekends for UPI while also working as an assistant state editor at the Birmingham Post-Herald.

"UPI's coverage of the civil rights era was one of the best examples of the free press I've ever seen," he said. "It gave young, aggressive reporters carte blanche to cover this like it was a real story, which it was. These were reporters who recognized a good story and then did the right thing."

On Saturday afternoon, the Unipressers boarded a bus for Selma to see the Edmund Pettus Bridge -- where on Sunday, March 7, 1965, Alabama state troopers and sheriff's deputies charged into some 600 civil rights demonstrators as they began a march to Montgomery. Gov. George Wallace had refused permission for the march.

John Lynch, who had started working for UPI in 1962, recalled the day mainly as a news event to be reported.

"It was a story -- a big story -- and we covered it," Lynch said while standing on the bridge. "It was a story, that's the main thing."

Earlier, Lynch had told a symposium the thing he most remembered about the march to the bridge was a black woman in a white dress, lying motionless, and a white officer who thought she was faking being hurt. "He dropped a tear gas canister in her face," Lynch said.

Leon Daniel was on the bridge that day in 1965.

"The attitude in Selma is relaxed now," said Daniel, as he walked along the bridge spanning the Alabama River. "In those days the tension was incredible. It seemed there would be no end to the hating. And the merchants didn't want change."

Daniel said the Bloody Sunday march was the story that had the most impact on him during his 37-year career that spanned UPI bureaus in Knoxville and Nashville, Tenn., Atlanta, Saigon, Tokyo, Bangkok, New Delhi, Manila, Hong Kong, Brussels and London. Daniel also covered Wallace's "Stand in the Schoolhouse Door" at the University of Alabama in 1963.

"The Selma bridge story -- that was an epiphany for me," he said. "That really did prompt passage of the Voting Rights Act. And that brought about irrevocable change -- things were never going to be the same again."

Stories about the bridge confrontation -- and film broadcast that night by ABC-TV News, which broke into a telecast of the movie "Judgment at Nuremberg" with a bulletin -- galvanized the nation and provided the push for congressional passage of President Johnson's Voting Rights Act, participants said.

"It was the Voting Rights Act of 65 that changed the face of this nation," Tony Heffernan said.

That act is commemorated in Selma at the National Voting Rights Museum, just yards from the foot of the bridge.

"The struggle has not ended and I'm proud to say there are many to carry it on," said Joanne Bland, a black woman who directs tours at the museum.

Jean Martin, a Selma City Council member who is white, told the group: "Things have changed, they need to continue to change, but it's been very good for Selma."

Lawrence Huggins, a black man who was the 10th marcher in line on the Pettus bridge on Bloody Sunday and who marched in the later teachers' march in Selma, works as a volunteer in the museum. He said for Selma, the civil rights legacy is mixed.

"It's calm and peaceful, but as far as socializing (between the races), there isn't any -- at least among the adults; there is among the kids," he said.

He told how as a college student traveling by bus from Connecticut to New Orleans in 1958, he was asked to give up his seat to a white -- and did so, recalling how another black man had been attacked in the area two days before.

"Sometimes you just have to fold 'em and fight again," he said. He was drafted into the Army and then got a job teaching and coaching at a black high school in Selma.

Selma Mayor James Perkins Jr., who is black, was 12 at the time of the Selma march. He said he wanted to be in the march but his mother refused. After the melee on the bridge, marchers streamed back to Brown Church, and Perkins ran to be there.

Perkins, who ran his own information technology company before becoming mayor in 2000, said Selma is working hard at transforming itself while also capitalizing on its Civil War and civil rights history. The city's population is 20,512, down somewhat from 40 years ago, hurt particularly by closure of Craig Air Force base in 1978.

Although the 1965 confrontation on the bridge proved a watershed, a string of other developments led up to it -- including the Ku Klux Klan's bombing in 1963 of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which killed four black girls preparing for church.

Bob Gordon was one of the first reporters on the scene. "It was an awful, awful day," he said.

Gordon also said reporters were supposed to be hands-off observers and he generally was -- except for one instance following a bombing at the home of King's brother, Dr. A.D. King. While in the lobby of the Gaston Hotel with one of Martin Luther King's aides, Wyatt Walker, an officer just outside the door roughed up an associate of Walker. Walker started for the door to confront the officer and Gordon said he tackled Walker.

"He acknowledged I probably saved his life," Gordon said. "I didn't put that in my story."

Gordon, who went on to become managing editor of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., said UPI's coverage was important because it was a voice not beholden to Southern publishers and editors who were trying to squelch coverage they considered unimportant and unfavorable.

"The presence of UPI ensured the flow of news," he said, adding editors tried to pressure the Associated Press, a cooperative dependent upon stories from its newspaper members, to downplay the coverage. He said at one point newspaper editors met in Atlanta and discussed putting a blackout on news about civil rights and pressuring the AP but realized there was no way they could control UPI.

John Hussey, who joined UPI in 1960 as a reporter and later worked as a sales executive, said UPI was pressured but was better able to resist it because it was independent.

"As a sales representative, I heard from some radio and newspaper clients that they didn't like UPI's coverage and wanted to switch to AP because they didn't cover this like UPI did," he said.

Elvin Stanton, who worked for UPI in Montgomery in 1961, covering the arrival of the Freedom Riders among other stories, continued to freelance for the agency after he became news director for WSGN radio in Birmingham - including coverage of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.

"We covered the civil rights movement because it was on our beat," he said, noting that unlike newspaper reporters, wire correspondents normally covered all stories within a geographic area, rather than a specific beat.

Bob Mants, who in 1965 was a field coordinator for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee that was organizing voter registration among blacks, said UPI's reporting played a critical role in getting out the story of the civil rights movement.

"Had it not been for guys like these, I know our story wouldn't have gotten out," he told the seminar during a panel discussion. Mants was on the Pettus bridge on Bloody Sunday but said he wants to be remembered instead for riding a mule down a country road working on black voter registration.

Heffernan, UPI Birmingham bureau manager in 1964 and 1965, said "nobody was in more danger than the photographers."

"When a guy had a camera, he was identified (as a journalist who could be singled out for attack). It took not only talent but courage to be a photographer in those days."

Heffernan said the Alabama news media underreported the civil rights story while UPI did not.

"I've always maintained the main reason for that was Don Martin," he said. "Don Martin made it crystal clear we were going to report this story to the world."

Martin, who came to work for UPI in Montgomery in 1957 and was state news manager from 1959-64, said: "Our three bureaus -- Birmingham, Montgomery and Mobile -- did our concerted best to be as honest and as non-partisan as possible."

Pat Harden, who worked for UPI in 14 bureaus in six countries during a 22-year career, started in Knoxville in 1960 and came to Montgomery in 1961.

"I'm suspicious of reporters who tell you 30 years after an event that they knew they what they were covering was a watershed," Harden said. "You might say that with the Selma march -- that was a milestone. But you might also argue that Selma was the culmination of everything that had happened previously."

On May 21, 1961, he covered the arrival of a busload of "Freedom Riders" arriving in Montgomery. A mob attacked the riders as they got off the bus. Harden said one of his vivid memories was a Montgomery police officer directing traffic around the mob of about 200 people.

The next day, the Freedom Riders went to the First Baptist Church for a reception. Harden was inside with 1,200 people, including civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, when a mob of 1,000 people surrounded the church. A firebomb came through one window but was extinguished.

"I went up into the tower and saw this small ring of marshals who had been flown in the night before," he said. He said the marshals were well outnumbered. "It looked like we were going to be burned. I was never so scared in my life."

King phoned Attorney General Robert Kennedy and ultimately the Alabama National Guard was federalized.

"We were in that church for many hours. We stayed until the National Guard thought it was safe to bring us out," he said. "To this day, that remains perhaps the most memorable and terrifying experience in my 45-year journalism career."

Lewis Lord, a native Mississippian who worked in the Jackson, Miss., bureau, told of being asked by H.L. Stevenson, who went on in later years to lead UPI's editorial team, what he thought about segregation.

"I said I hadn't really thought about it," Lord said. He recalled seeing a column by I.F. Stone that what the American Negro needed was a Gandhi. Then came the Montgomery bus boycott and emergence of Martin Luther King as a national black leader.

"This grand revolution occurred -- non-violent and Gandhi-like," he said. "We had a front-row seat for it."

Joe Chapman, who worked for the Birmingham Post-Herald from 1960-68 and worked as a freelancer for UPI, mainly taking photos, said working for UPI "was the closest thing to pure journalism I've seen anywhere. There were a huge number of anonymous people who made contributions the world being seen in a way it was."

Chapman praised Clarke Stallworth for his work as an editor at the Birmingham Post-Herald in trying to counter management efforts to downplay civil rights stories.

Stallworth, now a consultant, gave the keynote address at a Saturday luncheon, and said newspaper management thought the civil rights movement was using newspapers and wire services "and sure enough they were." But he said it was important to tell the story.

"Deep down, if we don't tell them, they don't know, and if they don't know, civilization folds up," he said.

But he also asked the group why would reporters and photographers put themselves in harm's way, knowing they were likely to get hurt. Without answering that question, he said: "I hope the next wave of people covering dangerous stuff will do it as well as you did."

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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