King’s crusade when objective journalists took sides

This ran as an op-ed in The Roanoke Times on Jan. 18, Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

On Dec. 22, 1961, Martin Luther King Jr. composed a two-page, single-spaced typed letter to my father, the Newsweek bureau chief in Atlanta at the time.

I recovered a copy of this letter going through some of Joe Cumming’s files after he died on Nov. 9, age 94, in an assisted living facility near Atlanta. King’s words in the letter were not a surprise to me. As my father wrote, the letter was “almost in a class with the Birmingham jail letter—clear, compassionate, logical, un-angry.”

Joe Cumming, right, with the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, center

It was, rather, my father’s letter about that King letter that caught my attention. What he said, essentially, is that everybody in the national news media in 1961, “any editor, reporter or really employee of Newsweek—liberal or conservative,” recognized the moral rightness of King’s crusade.

The journalists covering this great story had taken sides. And yet they considered their work to be professional, fact-based, “objective,” a word that still had currency then. As a media historian, I have studied this seeming paradox of a moral shift in the “objective” coverage of the Civil Rights movement, especially coverage by white Southern men like my father reporting for a national audience. Most white Southerners considered them traitors.

King recognized them as allies, but warily. In fact, the letter he wrote was a complaint about something in the political gossip page of Newsweek called “Periscope,” from Dec. 11, 1961. The item obviously wasn’t based on the fact-gathering and eye-witness files that my father’s Newsweek bureau teletyped to New York throughout the 1960s.

My father didn’t see the letter until 1988, when a researcher at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project at Stanford University sent him a copy and some questions.

Cumming said he certainly would have remembered getting such a letter. “It would have been a major landmark for me to have heard from this man who was emerging globally as the leader of the civil rights movement, a man with a new idea—non-violence—who had figured dramatically in the election of John Kennedy, etc.”

My father wondered if this researcher was aware of a far more important relationship between King and the press, especially Southern white reporters like himself. “We were all clear that our journalistic objectivity recognized the rightness of King’s goals,” he wrote. “It was a given to us covering the story that segregation by law and custom as practiced in the South and perpetuated by politicians who demagogued on the emotions of fear, was wrong, cruel, inhumane and unconstitutional.”

This was not revisionist history. Something happened in early 1960 that galvanized the Black struggle in the South, and changed the consciousness of reporters covering it.  By the end of 1961, this new energy was wearing King out. He was being pushed from behind by his fame, giving speeches and interviews from London to Seattle until hospital tests led to two days of rest.

But in front of him, he was chasing an uprising of Black students who were taking the Movement into new radiance. With fearless younger leadership inspired by King, Gandhi and a new understanding of Christian love, these Southern students were filling jails with their bodies and their freedom songs.

King had followed, not led, them into jail, in Georgia’s frightening Reidsville state prison in 1960 and then in December 1961 for 48 hours, into a jail in Americus, Ga. His quick release from that jail, in a negotiated deal that required him to leave town, was seen as King’s greatest failure at that point. He had groggily promised from behind bars that he would not accept bond, that he expected to spend Christmas in jail and hoped thousands would join him. Instead, he had left jail and the area by Dec. 18. The liberal New York Herald Tribune called it “a devastating loss of face” for King. The international press was annoyed to have arrived in Albany, Ga., only to find their story gone flat.

But reporters who had been on the story longer were experiencing a kind of awakening. Pat Watters, a reporter with the Atlanta Journal, was overwhelmed by the clapping, singing and spontaneous joy in the mass meetings of those early days in Albany, Ga. He would later describe that haunting energy of the movement as something that couldn’t be fully conveyed in newspapers because it was outside of the culture, an “extra-cultural” breakthrough.

The perspective of black reporters was missing, as my father’s letter to the King researcher acknowledges. But that slowly changed in the 1960s.

December 1961 was a low point for King. His letter to my father was never sent, or published, though a similar letter from King aimed at the Nashville Tennessean appears in Vol. VII of the King papers. But it was a high point for journalists covering the movement, that rare synthesis of “objectivity” with an epic moral quality that we could use today.

About Doug Cumming

journalism professor at W&L
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