Tag Archives: I have a dream

On Dr. Martin Luther King’s Struggles and Strength

The arrival of the annual King holiday prompts reflection on the state of the country relative to the lofty dream he articulated first in Detroit, and then most memorably on the Washington Mall in August 1963.

But it’s also an opportunity to consider the man and how he was able to persevere in the face of the consistently vicious opposition he encountered during the final third of his life.

One part of the key may lie in a speech he gave in Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago in 1967, about a year after his campaign to bring about the “unconditional surrender” of slum housing conditions in what was then the nation’s second-largest city.

The experience he recounted happened late one night in the kitchen of his Montgomery home.

King, who had not originally sought out a church that would become the center of international activism, had emerged as a leader in the boycott sparked by seamstress, NAACP member and former Highlander Center alumnus Rosa Parks. (An interesting side note is that 15-year-old Claudette Colvin had been arrested for the same violation the year before Parks, but had not been considered a sufficiently appropriate face of the moment by the local black power structure.)

The decision came with heavy costs.

King’s house was bombed one night while he and his family were in it.

He received daily death threats for the following 13 years until his assassination in Memphis by James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968.

It was at midnight, King told the Chicago audience, when he received the call. (You can hear King start to tell the story at 18:32 on the recording.)

The message was simple and laced with a racial epithet:

We’re tired of you and what you’re doing.

Get out of town in three days, or we’ll kill you and blow up your house.

Although he had encountered many similar such threats, this one jolted King.

He could not return to sleep.

He eventually went into his kitchen for a cup of coffee to calm his nerves.

He started thinking about the theology he had studied for years, about his beautiful little girl, about his dedicated and loving wife.

Nothing worked.

King then thought of reaching out to his father, a well-respected preacher, but he was 175 miles away in Atlanta.

He even considered contacting his mother.

Then he realized he needed to pray, to call on his profound belief and to ask for help from the god in which he believed so fervently.

With the crowd clapping and calling out its approval and support, King said that he bowed down over the cup of coffee and uttered the following prayer:

“Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. (Yes) I think I’m right; I think the cause that we represent is right. (Yes) But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now; I’m faltering; I’m losing my courage. (Yes) And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak.”

King’s voice rose as he told the crowd that he heard a voice telling him, “Martin Luther, (Yes) stand up for righteousness, (Yes) stand up for justice, (Yes) stand up for truth. (Yes) And lo I will be with you, (Yes) even until the end of the world.”

It rose even further as he roared his belief:

“And I’ll tell you, I’ve seen the lightning flash. I’ve heard the thunder roll. I felt sin- breakers dashing, trying to conquer my soul. But I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No, never alone. No, never alone. He promised never to leave me, (Never) never to leave me alone.”

Based on the strength he drew from the voice he heard, King gathered himself to continue the fight for justice and equality.

He fought from victories in Montgomery and Selma to setbacks in Albany, Georgia and here in Chicago.

He expanded his geographic focus from the southern part of the United States to the north to the entire world (The bombs dropped in Vietnam fall in American cities, he said in one address.)

Animated by his faith and the comfort he received by not being left alone, motivated by what he called the fierce urgency of now, King gathered himself and fought until he drew his final breath in Memphis.

He did so in the face of disappointment, and, as he told the church crowd, in spite of battles with discouragement:

“And I don’t mind telling you this morning that sometimes I feel discouraged. (All right) I felt discouraged in Chicago. As I move through Mississippi and Georgia and Alabama, I feel discouraged. (Yes, sir) Living every day under the threat of death, I feel discouraged sometimes. Living every day under extensive criticisms, even from Negroes, I feel discouraged sometimes. [applause] Yes, sometimes I feel discouraged and feel my work’s in vain. But then the holy spirit (Yes) revives my soul again. “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.” God bless you.” [applause]

The message he delivered in our city, a place where he achieved decidedly mixed results, can help us arrive at a different understanding of the man than one often reads and hears about in history books.

That King is portrayed as a lofty dreamer, a towering giant who stands enshrined in a massive statue on the very mall where he delivered his most famous address.

But his Chicago sermon reveals an imperfect man who grappled with insecurity, yet who found through his faith, his circle of loved ones and his own inner resources, the strength and courage to continue to fight for a cause he believed in so deeply he gave his life to it.

We are grateful and better as a country for his sacrifice, and closer to him as a man for his having shared his inner struggle.


Chilean Chronicles, Part XXX: Speaking about Dr. King and Dr. Bass at St. George’s College

Leon Bass bookThings are starting to groove here in Santiago, and it feels deep down good.

For starters, Dunreith and I have found a favorite, reasonable restaurant, La Republiqueta, a funky joint on Ave. Lyon, right where we stayed when we first arrived. She goes for a quesadilla salad with all kinds of seeds, while I have a sandwich with three kinds of mushroom and cheese. Throw in a mate to feed her burgeoning passion for that drink, a seltzer water for me, and a tip, and we’re out of there for less than $25.

From there we’ve established a firm, if not unbreakable, nightly ritual of splitting a chocolate bar filled with marzipan and a glass of the latest red wine we’re sampling during the next episode of the original version of “Betty, La Fea,” the inspiration for the American series, “Ugly Betty.”

A project that I’ve been working on around the Chicago Boys, the group of young Chilean economists who trained under Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago in the 1970s and applied his theories in Chile, is starting to bear some early fruit.

I’m having a terrific time with my students, who call me either “Profe” or “Jeff Kelly,” and am starting to connect with more colleagues at the university.

Dunreith is making great strides in Spanish, understanding just about everything and being able to speak more and more.

We’ve got our travel plans to Argentina and Brazil in October just about salted away.

I’ve started running again after a three-year hiatus, and my body is holding up well so far.

Dear friends Lisa Cook and Jim Peters will be flying here on Sunday morning for close to a 10-day visit.

And this morning I confirmed a speaking gig at St. George’s College, a private, English-language school, for next Wednesday, August 28.

Hugo Rojas, a law professor with whom I first connected in 2008 during my second attempt to land a Fulbright, connected me to his wife, a teacher at the school.

As justice-loving people the world over know, this year will mark 50 years since Dr. King gave his historic “I have a dream” speech.

Although he had delivered a similar version of the speech earlier in Detroit, King’s abandoning his notes and delivered an impassioned call for the nation to be true to its founding creed and that one day the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners shall eat together at the table of brotherhood is a high point in American oratory and history.

Twenty years ago, dear friend Dennis Downey and I, along with our ladies at the time, attended the 30th anniversary March on Washington.

Fifty years ago, personal hero Leon Bass was in the crowd of 250,000 people, weeping as he heard Dr. King describe his prophetic vision for the nation.

I’ve had the great privilege of knowing Leon for close to 20 years throughout his ceaseless commitment to fighting bigotry by talking for organizations like Facing History and Ourselves and the Anti-Defamation League.

Over that time we’ve become close friends.

He attended the second wedding Dunreith and I held at Look Park, giving us a check for $100 and telling me to go see a friend called gourmet.

A couple of years ago, after more than a decade of pushing from me and other people who love him, Leon published his autobiography, Good Enough: One Man’s Memoir on the Price of the Dream.

It’s a remarkable story that begins in 1925 and continues until today.

It’s a story of tradition and race and service and family and humility and seeking to find the courage to do the right thing.

Leon takes the reader through his childhood in Philadelphia, where he grew up with four brothers and one sister. His father, whom he revered, was a Pullman Porter. His mother ran a proverbial tight ship. As Leon’s told thousands of audiences, “If corporal punishment was child abuse, I was abused many times.” But he always makes it clear that he knew his parents loved him and wanted the best for him.

After graduating from high school in 1943, Leon volunteered to serve in the army, but was dismayed, and later furious, to find out that the country he had pledged to serve with his life, if necessary, was treating him as if he wasn’t good enough by making him stand at the back of the bus and eat at the back of restaurants.

He survived the Battle of the Bulge before having an experience that, as he described it, brought the blinders off and helped him understand that hatred was not limited to those who detested African-Americans.

This occurred in 1945, when he witnessed the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp and saw what he called “the walking dead.”

Bass spent about four hours in the camp, and that time was enough to alter his life’s perspective, even if he didn’t speak publicly about it for decades.

He returned home from the war and became the first member of his family to go to college, generally, but not always, heeding his father’s words to not go running his mouth so that he could complete his education.

“Once you get that, no one can take that away from you,” his father said.

Bass eventually graduated, becoming a teacher.

In the mid-50s, after some initial reservations, he became a follower of Dr. King after learning about his endorsement of the discipline and philosophy of non-violence.

One day, King came to Philadelphia, and Bass brought his class to hear him speak.

“He was a little guy,” Bass recalled, referring to King’s comparatively small stature. “But then he started speaking and I recognized him for the giant of a man that he was.”

King’s message to the students was direct. Not all of you may become doctors or lawyers, but whatever you do, you be the best at it. If you have to sweep the streets, so be it, Bass said later. You sweep the streets the way Michelangelo painted his paintings.

Bass was mesmerized, and, when the March on Washington came, he made his way down from Philadelphia to hear King offer his soaring rhetoric that endures to this day.

Bass later became a principal at Benjamin Franklin High School, one of the toughest in the city, if not the entire nation. He served there for 14 years before retiring in 1982.

About a decade before that, while at the school, he came across a Holocaust survivor talking to a class in the school.

She had lost almost all of her family, but the students were not interested in hearing about her pain.

Bass intervened, and, for the first time since that day in Buchenwald a quarter century earlier, spoke publicly about what he had seen.

What’s she saying is true, he told the young men. I know because I was there.

After the class ended and the students filed out in silence, the survivor implored Bass to start speaking in public.

You’ve got something to say, she said.

He has done it since.

One of my favorite parts of working at Facing History was taking speakers like Leon around to talk with students.

Leon and I traveled with his wife Mary, who was starting to be in the grip of Alzheimer’s, to Springfield, where he spoke to the entire student body at Cathedral High School.

I took him to Dorchester High, where, in his mid-70s, he stood down a group of unruly students by telling them, “You want to talk, you can come up hear and talk,” and then staring hard at them.

And I had the pleasure of working with Leon to tell his story in 20 minutes at a Facing History dinner that honored his years of service to the organization and that included a tribute by Dr. Calvin Morris, my former boss at the Community Renewal Society and one of Leon’s former fifth grade students.

Indeed, Dunreith and I later traveled to Cleveland, where Leon was again honored by Dr. Morris. That time, I got to have lunch with a select group of former Philadelphians that included Leon, Dr. Morris and one of Dr. Morris’ former students who had been a substitute teacher at Benjamin Franklin the last year Leon was a principal there. (They jokingly told me they’d let me hang around as a token Bostonian.)

Dunreith and I called Leon last night.

He sounded a bit tired when he answered the phone, but perked up when he recognized my voice.

He had just buried Claude, his last remaining sibling, on Friday.

I’m the last rung on the totem pole, he told me.

Even though there was mercy in his brother’s passing as he had suffered for a number of years, sadness crept into Leon’s voice.

We talked about our families and his attendance at Obama’s second inauguration, an experience he treasured. Although he’s not doing as much travel as he used to, he’s still speaking up for justice and still working to build the world that Dr. King described so memorably a half-century ago.

I told him about the speaking opportunity next week at St. George’s.

I’ll tell the students about Dr. King, I said. But I’ll tell them about you, too.

Dr. King’s capacity for growth

The life, death and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who would have turned 83 on Sunday, has been thoroughly chronicled, analyzed and celebrated.
From a national holiday to hundreds of streets in cities across the country to scores of books, people can learn about King, his message of nonviolent social change, and his epic declaration at the Washington Monument of his dream.
King’s courage in the service of his ideals and his soaring oration have garnered plenty of coverage. So, too, have his marital infidelity, and, to a lesser degree, his plagiarism on his doctoral dissertation.
Yet in all the coverage of King’s life, one quality of his has received comparatively little attention: his capacity to grow and to expand his vision.
King exhibited this ability from the time he was tapped to head the Montgomery Bus Boycott in large part because he had been in town less than a year and thus did not have deep ties to the various factions within the city’s black community.
The first request issued by the Montgomery Improvement Association he came to head in the struggle that launched him to national prominence did not call to overturn legal segregation.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
Rather the group founded after the arrest of Rosa Parks, a 43-year-old seamstress trained in the discipline of nonviolence at the Highlander Center in Tennessee, asked the city to tell its bus drivers to treat them more kindly when asking them to move to the back of the vehicles.
Starting from there, King led a movement that eventually saw its cause vindicated by the Supreme Court headed by Earl Warren.
After Montgomery, Ralph Abernathy, King and other clergyman founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Their focus expanded from a Southern city to the entire system of desgregation that was legally entrenched throughout the South.
This effort took years, saw King arrested dozens of times and ultimately led not only to the dismantling of the system that had gained official sanction in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, but also to the affirmation of voting rights in the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
King received the Nobel Peace Prize the year before the Selma to Montgomery march that preceded then-president Lyndon Johnson’s signature of the landmark legislation. In his address to the Nobel Committee and the world, he used his prophetic voice to signal the ascendance of economic injustice and the devastating impacts of war.
He continued to follow the trajectory he articulated in that address during the less than four years before his assassination at a Memphis hotel in April 1968.
After the Southern campaigns, he moved north to Chicago, where he went up against Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley in a campaign to eliminate slum housing conditions.
Although there were some victories that came from that effort, including inspiring the lifelong commitment to social justice of a then-teenaged Michael Pfleger, it was largely deemed a failure by observers within and outside of the movement (Longtime strategist Bayard Rustin had one of the more colorful assessments.).
Be that as it may, the effort to address economic conditions showed a broader concern and deeper analysis of American society as a whole than the exclusive focus on gaining access to segregated facilities.
King maintained that focus until the end of his life.
King was killed a day after giving the Mountaintop speech that would serve as his eulogy.  He died supporting the “I am a Man” campaign held by striking sanitation workers in Memphis and while planning a Poor People’s March that would converge in the nation’s capital.
He also started to speak out against the Vietnam War.
Starting at the Riverside Church exactly a year before his assassination, in an address called A Time to Break Silence, King disregarded the counsel of many of his top advisers and broke ranks with the administration that had been a staunch ally.
He did so, he said, because he could not segregate his outrage about what he saw as the needless destruction of Vietnamese life that, based on his religious convictions, he had come to see as equally as valuable as the American soldiers who also died in their service to their country.
This global perspective came from the capacity to reassess, evaluate and expand one’s vision.
King is not unique in that capacity, as fellow Nobel Peace Prize winners Jane Addams and Nelson Mandela each demonstrated the same tendency.
Addams started pushing for improved sanitation services in Chicago wards and ended up being one of the world’s strongest voices for world peace.  Mandela evolved from a homophobic firebrand to a leader of national reconciliation and an advocate of all people’s rights.
King’s capacity for growth is not diminished for being shared by other leaders.  Rather it is an indicator that points us toward highlighting the importance of this ability in others who, like King, draw on their successes and failures to make a lost and global impact on the all too troubled world.
So, on the day when we pause to remember the Atlantan who strove mightily to improve life on the planet for millions of people during his less than four decades of life, we would do well to learn from, and seek to apply, this same quality of growth and expanded vision in our own lives.

On difference maker Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King would have been 82 years old today.

Martin Luther King, Jr., by general consensus one of the greatest civil and human rights activists in American history, would have been 82 years old today.

King has been an enduring presence since I was in second or third grade and first heard his legendary “I have a dream” speech. As a senior at Stanford, I did my honors thesis on Dr. King in which I argued that his childhood experience formed the basis for his later non-violent philosophy and attitudes toward women.

While doing the research for that project, I had access to thousands of primary source documents that my adviser Clay Carson and his staff at the King Papers Project, now the King Institute, subsequently published in a series of volumes that continues until today.

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Detroit’s National Profile, the Race Riots of 1943


These scenes of violence were common during the Detroit Race Riot of 1943.  Robert Shogan and Tom Craig's book looks at the events before and after the riot.

These scenes of violence were common during the Detroit Race Riot of 1943. Robert Shogan and Tom Craig's book looks at the events before and after the riot.

Beleaguered Detroit has been capturing a lot of attention from national magazines recently.

Sports Illustrated used  a recent Lee Jenkins cover story, “The Righteous Franchise,” to kick off a periodic series on the city.   The news division of parent company Time Inc. even purchased a house over the summer to provide a physical space for journalists to set up and do their reporting. 

Unsurprisingly, Time magazine is part of that project.  

The publication began its year long focus on the Motor City with a cover package by native Daniel Okrent with an accompanying sidebar about former NBA great and current Mayor Dave Bing and a powerful graphic that shows just how many of the city’s properties are abandoned.

Among other causes for the city’s decline, Okrent writes about the riots of 1967 that he says accelerated white flight from the city. 

I have not yet read John Hersey’s account of those tumultuous and bloody days, but look forward to doing. 

I have, however, recently read Robert Shogan and Tom Craig’s The Detroit Race Riot: A Study in Violence, a slender book that suggests that the departure of white people began decades earlier than when Okrent asserts. 

Published in 1964, the book is a bit dated-black people are referred to as “Negroes,” for example-and the authors do an effective job of establishing where the city and the nation stood when the riots occurred.  

Shogan and Craig devote some time to talking about Detroit’s comparatively robust economy during the period that earned it the name from President Franklin Roosevelt The Arsenal of Democracy, the influx of people, many of whom were black Southerners, to the city, and the more assertive posture many black people adopted toward the nation that was fighting for democracy abroad and enforcing de jure and de facto segregation at home.

From there, they move to describing the events of the riot, the main elements of which bear a disturbing similarity to many others before and since: decades of pent up frustration manifesting itself in initial racially-based skirmishes involving black and white youth; community escalation; disproportionate law enforcement being meted out on the black community; state and even federal authorities being brought in to quell the violence; the damage primarily being confined to the black community; and half-hearted measures to address the underlying causes by those in authority after the carnage had been stopped.

To their credit, Shogan and Craig probe deeper than the elected officials in identifying the various elements of discrimination perpetuated by the city’s educational leaders, real estate authorities and elected officials in creating the conditions that contributed to such an impassioned and physical response. 

Toward the end of the book they write about the restrictive covenants that real estate agents used to try to confine the surging black populations to specific neighborhoods.  The 1948 U.S. Supreme Court case of Shelley v. Kraemer made the enforcement of these covenants, if not the covenants themselves, unconstitutional.

This decision prompted much of the black movement than then triggered the white flight Okrent says began nearly 20 years later. 

Shogan and Craig end the book by talking about the activism in the black community that led to demonstration and marches, and, in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. first uttering what two months later became his signature phrase, “I have a dream.”  

As he did at the Lincoln Memorial, King concluded his speech, “Free at last, free at last, free at last.”

Close to half a century after he uttered those words, Detroit residents may be forgiven for considering King’s dream an elusive reality.  But for those people wanting to go deeper than Time and Sports Illustrated’s take on the Motor City that is enduring enormously hard time, The Detroit Race Riot is a fine place to start.

Black History Month: Charles Payne’s I’ve Got the Light of Freedom

Charles Paynes discusses the grassroots organizing tradition in his history of the civil rights movement in Mississippi.

Charles Paynes discusses the grassroots organizing tradition in his history of the civil rights movement in Mississippi.

Many civil rights histories have Martin Luther King, Jr. as their subject.

The electrifying orator first came to national prominence during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, thrilled the nation during his “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on the Washington Mall on August 28, 1963, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and expanded his focus to economic issues when he was killed in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

As I wrote last month, King’s life and actions have been thoroughly chronicled, and deservedly so.

But there was another organizing pattern during the civil rights movement that did not focus on charismatic leaders, that was locally based, and that came out of a community tradition of struggle.

Charles Payne writes about this tradition, the people who forged it and the gains they made in what was arguably America’s most racially recalcitrant and dangerous state in I’ve Got the Light of Freedom:  The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle.

Payne starts the book by describing the conditions in Mississippi that activists confronted.

To say that there were daunting would be an understatement.

Efforts at white supremacy enforced by violence, terror and lynching were absolute, as was suppression of the black vote.  The book first chapter is filled with generations of murder, intimidation and oppression of black people by white people in the state.

Yet, despite this climate, in the early 60s, a band of dedicated volunteers worked with local residents to boost the number of voters in places like Greenwood, Mississippi-and succeeded.  Payne writes that by 1964, “Black Greenwood was so much behind the movement that it could have slept a small army of civil rights workers (and did).”

The background to, people involved in, and philosophy behind, this success is the subject of Payne’s book.

He argues that the Mississippi movement, in contrast with the campaigns led by Dr. King, reflected a tradition of “community organizing, a tradition with a different sense of what freedom means and therefore a greater emphasis on the long-term development of leadership of ordinary men and women.”

I’ve Got the Light of Freedom explore the tradition and the people who forged it in the decades before the 1960s.  Amzie Moore, Medgar Evers and Aaron Henry all receive extensive attention from Payne.  Each worked tirelessly with the community, each placed themselves in grave physical danger, and each helped establish a foothold for later workers to use.

Payne also talks in-depth about  the role of the Highlander Center, founded by Myles Horton and where Septima Clark taught citizenship classes for many years. Many of the attendees, including Rosa Parks and Dr. King, went on to play significant roles in the movement.

Payne explains that the tradition was not just rooted in trendsetting men or in supportive external institutions, though.  Rather he writes how the organization tradition came out of a feisty, and not always non-violent,  commitment to struggling for justice. 

In one of the book’s more entertaining sections, Payne writes about Mrs. Laura McGhee, a small, soft-spoken and determined woman who punched out a cop, grabbed a nightstick away from another officer and raised three sons fearlessly dedicated to the movement.

Payne quotes a civil rights worker who say that McGhee’s sons  “out SNCC-ed SNCC.”  The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committe  and its grassroots and long-term approach to social change also receive a lot of attention from Payne, with movement “mother” Ella Baker and legendary organizer Bob Moses being people on whom he focuses in particular.

Still, Payne’s overarching focus is on Mississippi natives who worked with these organizers-people like Hollis Watkins, who I had the honor to meet in South Africa in 1996,  and Fannie Lou Hamer, whose speech at the 1964 Democratic convention in Atlantic City remains a movement highlight.

Together, these people changed the landscape of politics and society in Mississippi.  While the movement did lose steam in the mid-60s-at one point Bob Moses compared SNCC to a boat that simultaneously needed both to be in the water to be effective and to be out of the water to be repaired.  The issue of white people’s role in the movement and the relationship between northern and southern black people both became contentious.

Still, the courage, accomplishments and approach of the people in the Mississippi movement all deserve recognition and gratitude from the rest of us, who have benefited from their efforts.

Payne’s book is a significant step in that important direction.

Black History Month: The Media and the Civil Rights Movement

Veteran journalists Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff explore the media's role in the civil rights movement.

Veteran journalists Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff explore the media's role in the civil rights movement.

The civil rights movement produced a series of iconic images.

The 43-year-old Rosa Parks sitting alone in a bus in Montgomery.  Elizabeth Eckford surrounded by an angry mob in Little Rock, Arkansas.  The valiant James Merideth writhing on the ground after being shot on a Mississippi highway.  Buses ridden by an interracial group of riders being attacked and lit in flames in Alabama.   Waterhoses blasting hundreds of protesters in Birmingham.  The attack of peaceful demonstators at the Edmund Pettus  Bridge in Selma during what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”

And, of course, Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, delivered before a crowd of 250,000 at the Washington Mall.

These images, and the courage of the people who placed their lives in harm’s way, changed the nation.

The story of the modern civil rights movement has been told and retold in many different forms.

A less-told story, though, is the role of the media in the movement that riveted the nation, led to the dismantling of segregation and the passage of landmark voting and civil rights legislation.

Veteran journalists Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff tell that story and do it considerable justice in The Race Beat: The Press, The Civil Rights Struggle and The Awakening of a Nation.

The Race Beat starts with Swedish scholar Gunnar Myrdal’s classic two-volume work, An American Dilemma, in which he outlines the nation’s injustice and admits of the possibility of change.

The book is largely chronological, and follows the movement from the post World War II period through the unanimous Brown v. Board decision that overturned decades of legal segregation officially sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1896  Plessy v. Ferguson decision, and continuing through the major civil rights battles and setbacks in the South. 

The book takes at its climax the moment of Bloody Sunday, with a brief coda that mentions John Lewis’ election to the U.S. House of Representatives as evidence that the problems Myrdal identified had been resolved to some degree.

This arc has been traced many times before, but never in such depth this way. 

Roberts and Klibanoff show how for years the black press had almost exclusive access to civil rights stories because white newspapers did not consider the story worth covering.  Once the issue got wider attention from mainstream media publications, journalists from black publications were often pushed aside while their counterparts from bigger newspapers got more and better access.

This replication of power relations within media coverage is just one of many praiseworthy aspects of the book. 

Roberts and Klibanoff have a keen feel for the southern media landscape, which included giants like Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor Ralph McGill, whose views evolved with the movement, and right-winger James Kilpatrick, whose writing about the doctrine of interposition gave desegregation opponents intellectual ammunition.

Roberts and Klibanoff effectively show the interplay between events, and the coverage of them, in the gradual broadening of attention given to the movement, and in the impact the movement had on the nation’s conscience.

Neither progressed in a straight line.

Roberts and Klibanoff do not hesitate either to show moments where the movement sustained defeats, like in Albany, Georgia, where Chief Laurie Pritchettavoided the kind of newsmaking scenes that garnered headlines, stirred consciences and forced legislative action.  Similarly, they take venerable publications like The New York Times to task for missing the story’s significance for years before assigning Southern-born Claude Sitton to the area.

In addition to tracing the movement’s growth and the role the media played in it, The Race Beat is a story of engaging individuals living through an era when the world as they had known it was undergoing decisive shifts and changes. 

The authors devote extensive time to journalistic legends like McGill, but also to lesser-known people like Harry Ashmore, editor of Little Rock’s largest paper, or Joe Azbell of the Montgomery Advertiser, or Gene Patterson, the Journal-Constitution editor who wrote a haunting piece after a bomb blast killed four little girls in a Birmingham church. 

Patterson’s essay was remarkable for its imagery-it returned over and over to a shoe held by one of the mothers-but also for its assumption of collective responsibility by white Southerners, rather than simply the extremists who bombed the church.

“We hold that shoe with her.  Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand,” Patterson wrote.  

The juxtaposition of the hearbreaking reminder of the girl’s innocence, her brutal death and the role bystanding Southerners had played in the murder was groundbreaking and, as with McGill, represented an evolution on Patterson’s part.  Walter Cronkite later asked Patterson to read the entire column on his newscast, and thousands of viewers responded to Patterson’s moral outrage. 

The authors do not only focus on white journalists; black journalists like the late photographer Ernest Withers, James Hicks of the Amsterdam News and L.C. Bates all receive treatment.  Roberts and Klibanoff show neatly how for many of these journalists, the issue was more than one of professional concern, but was part of a mission of community uplift.

Above all, The Race Beat is the story of a time of wrenching, painful and often bloody change in the nation, but also an evocation of a bygone era in journalism. 

During this time television had not completely ascended and editorials, decisions made by daily editors and coverage by their correspondents shaped public perception to a far greater degree than today, when an increasing number of readers get their information throughout the day via the Internet.

The stakes were high, the stories were raw and waiting to be told, and daily print journalism truly was “the first draft of history.”   The beauty of  The Race Beat lies in how Roberts and Klibanoff depict both so vividly.

The book is not perfect.

The civil rights movement in the north gets scant attention, and then only in the context of Dr. King’s struggle in Chicago.  The later electoral gains of the 70s and 80s are similarly ignored.  And the degree to which racism has been vanquished is a subject that is up for legitimate debate.

Still, in a time in which we have seen the initial presidential actions by America’s first black president, and during a month in which we honor the contributions of African Americans to the nation, it is fitting to reflect on the modern civil rights movement and the role that hundreds, if not thousands, of people played in documenting that valiant effort to close the gap between the nation’s lofty promises and its often sordid reality. 

The Race Beat does so, and do so with honesty, elegance, and, at times, even grace.  I recommend it highly.