Friday, March 6, 2009

The Race Beat, There Goes My Everything

The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation
Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff (2006, Alfred A. Knopf)

There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975
Jason Sokol (2006, Alfred A. Knopf)

It’s an age-old truth that comparisons are odious, but sometimes they are also instructive. Here are two books that cover the same period of American history, and the same transformation of attitudes and behavior that accompanied the death of state-sanctioned racial segregation. Both books are rich in anecdote, but The Race Beat is much more successful, because its anecdotes are telling additions to a clear narrative structure, which There Goes My Everything lacks altogether.
There Goes My Everything is an attempt to show how the advance of civil rights for Negroes affected white Southerners, but that turns out to be too broad a canvas to make a good story; Jason Sokol is frequently reduced to citing “Some..., while others...,” --especially considering the determination of so many white southerners to deny change, as well as to resist it. Sokol also ties his own hands by looking for the stories of the unsung middle, the white people we haven’t heard from: “Most white southerners identified neither with the civil rights movement nor with its violent resisters. They were fearful, silent, and often inert.” The more right he is about that, the less he’s going to have to tell us. Sokol actually does cover a broad spectrum of white opinion, from the axe-weilding Lester Maddox to the liberal Virginia Durr, but many others he quotes are simply less memorable.
The characters in The Race Beat, on the other hand, are themselves writers and storytellers, and we get to watch them doing their best work, on the most important story of their time. The reporters who covered race relations were a colorful brotherhood; they went into some tough places, and sometimes took physical risks, to get their stories. The editors who sent them illustrate both the wide range of opinion about race, and the way it evolved within individuals.
The Race Beat would make a fine introduction to the subject of civil rights history. At only 407 pages of text, it’s a little less daunting than the works of Taylor Branch, but its reach is similarly broad; the eighty-odd pages of notes and bibliography indicate how much deeper the authors have gone on our behalf. Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff have not simply piled fact upon fact, though: the wealth of information is handsomely shaped.
Watching events through the lens of news coverage and editorial response, they show us how the integration of Little Rock’s Central High differed from that of Ole Miss, and from George Wallace’s stand at Alabama. They show what the trial of Emmett Till’s killers looked like to readers of different publications, and why the people of Birmingham were so irate with CBS News. We see the calculations of black leaders about where they can provoke white violence; we see deranged mobs, lawless lawmen, and posturing politicians; and we see the fruition of Gunnar Myrdal’s 1948 prediction that the lot of America’s Negro population would only begin to improve when the rest of the population was forced to see clearly how bad it was.
It’s a story I never get tired of, not because it came out all right in the end, but because good and heroic people kept working, bending the arc of history toward justice. God willing, we’ll get there yet.

Feb 2008

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