Review of ‘Deep South Dispatches’

Herbers, John N., with Anne Farris Rosen. Deep South Dispatch: Memoir of a Civil Rights Journalist.Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2018. 260 pp. $28.

Look up John N. Herbers’s byline in the New York Times Historical database and you find 1,157 articles from 1963 to beyond his retirement twenty-four years later. Most of these trace the climax of the Civil Rights movement out the South and, after 1965 in Washington, the larger vectors of political and social change through Watergate (“Nixon Resigns” was Herbers’s story ) and the Reagan years.

Herbers is one of the heroes of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning history The Race Beat. Roberts and Klibanoff feature him, “low key in manner and speech,” as the first reporter to write about the formation of the white Citizens Council, the only United Press reporter to cover Emmet Till’s well-covered murder trial, and the head of UPI’s Jackson, Miss., bureau when its talented staff alone recognized the race story as highly newsworthy when most of Mississippi preferred that it disappear.

Deep South Dispatch, Herbers’s posthumous memoir, richly expands on those war stories from the perspective of this self-effacing man who was “present with his notebook at an astonishing array of journalistic hot spots,” as Gene Roberts writes in a Foreword. Indeed, he puts us in a hundred vivid places, historical but particular in his memory: the sloping porch of Fanny Lou Hamer, inside the homes of the girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing, Klan rallies, sidewalk marches in the in rain in Selma, and more.

This is a different kind of hero story. It covers in 33 shorter chapters most of what The Race Beat covers in 23, because Herbers was there for virtually every big battle. More than another history of the Movement and the press, this is also the kind of biography, or autobiography, our journalism students need for inspiration today. Perhaps I see in Herbers too much of my own still-living father, who as Newsweek’s Atlanta bureau chief covered the same territory at the same time. Herbers was apparently away a lot more.

Like most of the reporters who brought the movement to the nation, Herbers was a son of the white South. He was raised in “genteel poverty” in the Depression, with forebears whose Faulknerian roles in the Confederacy and in a lover’s murder-suicide in Arkansas start this memoir. He served in World War II after high school and began his career reporting for the Greenwood, Miss., daily. He had discovered college on the G.I. Bill and discovered journalism at Emory University. He wrote for the campus paper edited by Claude Sitton, who would later precede him covering the South for the Times.

Herbers’s daughter Anne Farris Rosen, like me a journalist and professor because of the lessons and inspiration from our fathers, ran across these early chapters in a desk drawer. Why did this narrative end with the Till trial, just when his career covering civil rights began? He told her he had already written the rest, in news stories. But that was with the “sterile eye” of the dispassionate observer, she writes in her Preface. Fortunately, she worked with him to continue this “sensitive and introspective narrative” in the same style.

The result is testament to a life fully lived within the high duties and discipline of journalism. Autobiographies by white southern journalists in the civil rights years speak in various voices. This one has an appealing directness in the way it strikes the common themes of the genre. Herbers reflects without bitterness on the conundrums and insanities of the Deep South, how it could be so polite and violent, so spiritual and earthy, so backward and boosterist, all at the same time. He describes white “moderates” who struggled with their conscience and even “thought their way out of the Mississippi orthodoxy.” But they remained silent, unwilling to offend social relations or good manners, as even Herbers saw in himself. He could tell his four daughters not to use the offensive language they heard visiting their Mississippi grandparents. But, “Why didn’t you tell Grandmother not to use those words?” one daughter asked. “She’s my mother,” he answered. “You always respect your mother.”

At Harvard, during his Nieman fellowship in 1960-61, he asked himself the questions put to Faulkner’s Quinton Compson up there: What’s the South like? Why do they live at all? “The only answers I had were family, heritage and familiarity.”

Those conservative values were sharply tested by the demands of Herbers’s beat, especially the merciless expectations of his New York editors at the Times when he alone could cover the latest skirmish for the nation’s leading newspaper. Herbers spent weeks away from home in battlegrounds like Selma, Birmingham and St. Augustine. Often the only time he could see his awesomely enabling wife and daughters was when a vacation or holiday promised a break – but then an editor would call to send him back to the battle instead. He extracted himself from one such assignment in time to reach his family by midnight before Christmas in Memphis. Summoned back to St. Augustine when he was ready to take his family to another coast of Florida, he took them to St. Augustine instead, covering the most violent clashes of the movement while his family stayed nearby at a beach.

Herbers was relentless in following the story into dangerous places, but he could usually blend in with his diffident manner, southern accent, short-sleeve shirt, and reporter’s notebook cut in half to keep hidden. At a wild night of clashes in Marion, Alabama, the target of white thugs was not only the non-violent protesters but also the news media, especially those with cameras that could be smashed. A man in a hat and overcoat suddenly clobbered NBC reporter Richard Valeriani bloody. Herbers, who was standing within range, guessed that the assailant picked Valeriani because of his curly black hair, Italian features and northern accent.

One theme of the genre is what the book But Now I See, by Fred Hobson, calls the white Southern racial conversion narrative. Herbers experiences his conversion gradually and reasonably. He was often running after Martin Luther King Jr. or getting tips from him, noting in a long interview on a screened porch with iced tea how King was so calm and measured, despite death threats everywhere he went. “I left feeling I had been schooled at the feet of the philosophers, historians, and theologians I had encountered during my Nieman year at Harvard.” But the deeper conversion came, as it did for so many white southern reporters on this beat, from the visceral experience of the mass meetings in black churches. “As I sat through hours of music and preaching,” he writes of one of the first of these, “I began to analyze my own identity and heritage. I felt ashamed about the injustices and cruelty my people had inflicted on blacks even though we shared a common religion.”

The book’s subtle revealing of Herbers’s inner life is uniquely effective precisely because it is so restrained. The discipline of a lifetime of careful observing, in the end, delivers not flamboyant self-discovery but a spiritual insight that brought me to tears. A southerner is more moved by the sense data of fragrance, touch and memory than by abstractions. So Herbers, on assignment far from home, cherishes the feel, smell and colorful borders of the cotton handkerchiefs he kept from his father’s store and bedroom. The smell of his father’s sweater he wore once somehow framed an epiphany he describes at the end, as he came upon a dirty drunk on a downtown street in Minneapolis. He was writing a story about urban poverty.

“I plunged my hands into my sweater pockets for a small bill to give him,” Herbers writes, as something wells up in my eyes. “Suddenly I felt surrounded by Pop’s love, assuring me of my well-being even as the man on the bench may have never known paternal affection. For one tied so closely as a mere observer to the physical world of communities and nations, I nevertheless became increasingly aware at that moment of the spiritual world around me and how its messages come to us in metaphors. The invisible, unspoken work of a spirit, seemingly unrelated to natural law, sustains humans and ties them together.”

Herbers died at 93 on March 17, 2017, six weeks after burying his wife and just before the publication of this life-rounding book.

–My Book Review for Journalism History, Summer 2019

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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