An Act of Patriotism

I went South to work on the Southern Courier as an act of patriotism.  Not to “save black people,” but to “save my country.” I was outraged that there were parts of the country that I couldn’t travel safely in, that others could not travel freely in.  I was outraged that in parts of the U.S., persons were denied the right to vote, to get a decent job, to stay in travel accommodations or eat in a restaurant of their choice.

 image Smith editing the Courier in the 1960's
Robert Ellis Smith is a journalist who uses his legal training to report on privacy issues.  He is a frequent speaker, writer, commentator and Congressional witness on privacy issues.  A 1962 graduate of Harvard College, he was editor of the Southern Courier in 1965 and 1966. Smith received his law degree from the Georgetown University Law Center in 1976.  Since 1974, he has published Privacy Journal, a monthly newsletter based in Providence, R.I.  Smith was the 2002 Clifford J. and Virginia Foster Durr Lecture series lecturer at Auburn University, Montgomery. 
Adapted from remarks by Smith in a session on “Reporting the Civil Rights Movement,” at the 73rd meeting of the Southern Historical Association, Richmond VA, November 2, 2007

I became a journalist because I am very curious and have a short attention span.

I went South to work on the Southern Courier as an act of patriotism.  Not to “save black people,” but to “save my country.” I was outraged that there were parts of the country that I couldn’t travel safely in, that others could not travel freely in.  I was outraged that in parts of the U.S., persons were denied the right to vote, to get a decent job, to stay in travel accommodations or eat in a restaurant of their choice.

I recall, in the first week of my Army service, I read a newspaper headline saying that children had been bombed to death in a Birmingham church. Yet, that afternoon at bayonet training I was asked to chant, “Kill, kill, kill.”  It was so incongruous. I thought, “I don’t belong here.” A couple of months later, we were told that the President had been shot in Dallas, yet we were herded to bayonet training and told to chant, “Kill, kill, kill.”  This time the Army suspended training for the day.

I am a political activist but I’m not a rebel. I continued my Army service until the completion of two years. About that time friends I respected and trusted at the Harvard Crimson newspaper about four years earlier told me about the Southern Courier. Some of us called it “The Dixie Crimson.” The new paper even looked like the original Cambridge version. We simply applied what we had learned about good journalism as undergraduate reporters and editors.

I was determined, as they were, to live in the community – at least longer than a summer – and to get to know the community. We wanted not simply to be “demonstrators,” but to use our professional skills – journalism – for a public good. I had already been a daily journalist for three or four years. I thought of the Medical Committee for Human Rights as a model.

Our intent was to get persons on both sides of the civil rights struggle to at least read the same publication.  We would do so by telling the stories of both sides in the conflict and by providing factual coverage and compelling images that would interest them. This is the kind of journalism that I have practiced for 35 years in publishing the Privacy Journal newsletter. In the process we would get the local and national press to report on the stories that we discovered they were ignoring.

We expected each of our correspondents throughout the state of Alabama and elsewhere to be circulation and advertising representatives, as well as news correspondents. Thus, I came not to subscribe to the conventional wisdom that news reporters ought to be separated by a Chinese Wall from the business functions. We merged the editorial and business functions, just as I came to do managing the Privacy Journal newsletter.

I believe many of these correspondents after they left the Courier influenced the growth of “alternative newspapers” in major cities, the weekly, anti-establishment publications that forced the mainstream press to report on stories they otherwise could ignore.

Many of my colleagues and I got together at a reunion in Montgomery in April 2006. One thing that we discovered is that many of us had never met in person, yet we shared the twin passions of seeking justice and practicing sound journalism. One reason we hadn’t met is that the paper lasted more than four years and many of us did not work on the staff for the whole period.  Another reason we had not met was that we never had staff meetings.  Perhaps that is why we were successful.

One of the great frustrations in my later years is that I cannot persuade many of my white friends that there is racism in America. Instead of looking to the marches and murders and major atrocities, I tend to cite the loss of the simple things in life.  Here are four examples from my Courier days:

In Alabama at a social gathering, I met the gracious and demure wife of the President of Tuskegee Institute. After she determined where I lived, I asked whether she had been to New England.  “No, no,” she said quietly and rather sadly, “I don’t travel much North.”

I conveyed this later to someone at the same gathering, perhaps implying that I didn’t understand why such a worldly woman wouldn’t want to travel North. He took me aside and, as if telling a 23-year-old enthusiastic reporter the facts of life, said, “When that lady travels out of state by car, she has to take a bed pan in the back seat.”

I didn’t write up that story, but I did respond when a grieving mother in Wetumpka called us to say that her son had arrived home from Viet Nam in a box and she could not get him buried in the city cemetery. His body was kept in a morgue while the stand-off continued. After The Courier reported this sad story on its front page, Atlanta-based correspondent for the New York Times (I believe) picked up the story for his paper and focused national attention on this important racial affront.

We often covered Dr. Martin Luther King’s barnstorming tours through the Black Belt either to drum up interest in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 or to assist local “agitators” to highlight local abuses with demonstrations or boycotts. He was always late. He never disappointed the throngs waiting for inspiring rhetoric and encouragement. But of all the things he said, what resonated with me most was when he sighed that his “tongue was twisted and speech stammering,” as he sought to explain to his six-year-old daughter why she couldn’t visit a public amusement park that the father and daughter passed regularly on the way to Atlanta’s airport.

The fourth simple thing in life:  High-school students carried the weight of civil rights progress in rural Alabama, because the grown-ups had so much to lose. In one community near Mississippi they met regularly to plan their next move under the Chinaberry tree. “Meet under the Chinaberry tree” became the code phase for “Civil rights meeting this afternoon.” The kids were strengthened by the unity they found under the Chinaberry tree.  One day they arrived and there was no tree. The sheriff had chopped down the tree, in a particularly mean-spirited act against law-abiding youngsters. Was it a news story?  As editor, I thought so. We reported the incident in the Courier as our “obituary for a tree.”  It was a moving story. And think, today in 2007, of the parallels between this and what happened in Jena, La.

As part of my leaning towards the simple things in life, we initiated TV listings in the Southern Courier, to highlight the presence of black situations or black public figures on upcoming television programs. We covered sports involving black persons. Jim Willse, our Tuscaloosa correspondent, reported that predominantly black Stillman College, located within walking distance of downtown Tuscaloosa, had a renowned basketball team, but the local newspaper paid no attention at all to it. Stillman had one of the nation's leading scorers, and the local editor was unaware of its prominence.

To be sure, we were eye witnesses to the major trends and events in the movement. Reading through our back issues, I’m so proud, as an editor, that we covered every aspect of the growth of “Black Power” in rural Alabama, we recognized the development as extremely significant, we found no reason to be threatened by the movement, and our reporters did not write that the happenings were something other than what they were.

None of us can forget the moving stories we gathered from some of the thousands of black citizens waiting in line in the winter of 1966 to vote for the first time in their lives. The results were mixed, but Dixie was never the same.

It has been pointed out how many white Southerners were instrumental in covering the civil rights movements for the major news media and indeed covering much of the great news of the 1960s and 1970s – and then editing the major publications.  Lots has been written about the great Southern novelists, but less about the gifted daily journalists from the South.  Is it the lushness of the landscape or the tradition of story-telling that nurtures these writers?

We are often asked about coverage of racial conflict now. The litmus test is coverage of the story in 2007 about TV host Don Imus and the black members of the Rutgers University women’s basketball team. If coverage has changed, I would attribute it to the fact that it is not Southerners, but expatriate British journalists, who now dominate American print and electronic news media. They grew up in a tradition in which gossip and celebrities are valued in news reporting. They may have read about – or even experienced –  some race conflict, but they know very little of the special effect of “the peculiar institution” – slavery – upon America of today. And it shows. The main ingredient in press coverage and on talk shows, as in American life in general, is denial.

I came to believe that if racial equality was to come in the South, it would come because of the developing interstate highway system, the spread of Holiday Inns, and national TV (in that order). The Memphis-based Holiday Inn organization grew from 100 motels at the beginning of the decade to 1000 in 1968, most of them in the South, and many of them on brand new entrance ramps to the freeway system. Without them and their desegregated policies, blacks would have been severely limited in their ability to travel, to organize, to keep in touch with each other, and to find a decent place to meet.

I came to love the separateness of the U.S. South – separate language, cuisine, music, folkways, economy.  I also came to believe that with racial equality – not to mention interstate travel and network television –  this separateness would disappear.

Those of us who used our college educations to work in the civil rights movement were members of a transition generation in college, from the “silent generation” of the Fifties to the activism of the Sixties. Our generation never produced an elected President, but we were catalysts in a great social movement. Some of us were reporters in an epic transition in the civil rights movement, from the original church-based passive resistance growing out of Montgomery to the more assertive student-based movement generated around “black power.” That, too, originated in Alabama. And we were there.