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How The Civil Rights Movement Was Covered In Birmingham

A 17-year-old Civil Rights demonstrator is attacked by a police dog in Birmingham, Ala., on May 3, 1963. This image led the front page of the next day's <em>New York Times</em>.
Bill Hudson
A 17-year-old Civil Rights demonstrator is attacked by a police dog in Birmingham, Ala., on May 3, 1963. This image led the front page of the next day's New York Times.

As the Civil Rights Movement was unfolding across the US in 1963, the entire nation had its eyes on climactic events taking place in Southern cities like Birmingham, Ala., and Jackson, Miss. But there's a stark difference between how the national press covered the events in Birmingham and how Birmingham's papers covered their own city.

As part of NPR's series on that pivotal summer of 1963, Audie Cornish traveled to Birmingham, Ala., to revisit some of the stories that shaped the city and the nation at the time. She spoke with Hank Klibanoff, co-author of The Race Beat, about coverage of the Civil Rights movement 50 years ago.

AUDIE CORNISH: So you're originally from Alabama, and I read that you actually grew up delivering newspapers. Talk about where you were at this time and what this was like.

HANK KLIBANOFF: Well, I was raised in a nice town in north Alabama, called Florence, and was a newspaper reader from the very beginning. ... As I hit my teenaged years, I had a paper route. ... I would have liked to have delivered the Birmingham Post Herald, but my cousin had that locked up, so I got the afternoon paper, The Birmingham News.

We're about two and a half hours north of Birmingham, and the Birmingham papers nonetheless circulated statewide. And the afternoon paper, the Birmingham News, owned by the Newhouse company, was the dominant newspaper in Birmingham — it had the greatest circulation and it had the greater impact. And so as a teenager I'm reading the paper that I'm delivering, I'd see the stack of newspapers I had there, I'd take off the string, roll the newspapers up, stick them on my bicycle, and wheel around the neighborhood throwing papers on people's lawns. ...

From a teen newspaper delivery boy, you end up becoming a reporter yourself, obviously. Becoming an editor at the Atlanta Journal Constitution and the Philadelphia Inquirer. We actually asked you to study a few papers, specifically the Birmingham News and look at some of the headlines we found from that period. Now, flipping through them, if you want to point out any in particular, what stands out to you about what the average person is seeing when they open paper in 1963?

The <em>New York Times'</em> front page on May 4, 1963.
/ Proquest Historical Newspapers Archive
Proquest Historical Newspapers Archive
The New York Times' front page on May 4, 1963.

What stands out for me now is something that stood out for me — but less dramatically — in 1963 as a 14-year-old looking at those papers every day. And that is a newspaper that was either afraid of the civil rights story or paralyzed by it. You had a temptation that they succumbed to, to put the news stories on the inside, the most dramatic stories about civil rights on the inside of the paper.

So ... in May of 1963, when police commissioner Bull Connor has pulled out the dogs and hoses against the children's crusade and Dr. King's and Rev. Shuttlesworth's teams of demonstrators, the Birmingham Post Herald and the Birmingham News both committed to not putting those stories on page one.

The <em>Birmingham News' </em>front page<em> </em>on May 4, 1963.
The Birmingham News' front page on May 4, 1963.

When you look at the front page of the Birmingham News that day, it says: "Governor Wallace Deplores Mixed Demonstration." Then when you turn the page, you do see coverage of protest on the inside. What's going on there?

They decided it would be civically irresponsible to put something as explosive as the civil rights confrontation on page one, even though it happened just a few blocks from the newspaper. ... If you look at [the May 4 cover of theBirmingham News], you'll see a story about 'Carol Burnett to marry her producer,' 'Sophia Lauren in bed with a virus infection' — things like that. ...

But you turn to page two and sometimes it spilled to page three, and you see very stenographic reporting about what went on at Kelly Ingram Park there when the dogs and the hoses were brought out against the demonstrators.

The story in the Birmingham News, the headline says: "Fire Hoses, Police Dogs Used To Hunt Down Negro Demonstrations." But the first paragraph is very stenographic. It says, "About 100 negro demonstrators singing and strutting were dispersed with fire hoses and police dogs this afternoon as new marches were attempted on the area near Kelly Ingram Park."

If you go through the entire story, it's straight reportage minus the voices of an entire segment of people and that is the blacks that were out there demonstrating.

Comparing this to national papers of the time, we have covers from the New York Times on that day with the headline: "Violence Explodes at Racial Protest in Alabama" with a picture of a police man gripping a black protester with one hand and basically ordering a dog to lunge at him with the other hand. And also this Los Angeles Times story: with huge font, the headline is, "New Alabama Riot: Police Dogs and Fire Hoses Halt March." Totally different.

How many times do you see New York Times then or now, using three photographs from a single incident on the front page? Newsrooms across the nation were doing that. Of course, it was the top story on the evening news, and of course we only had three news programs nationally at the time and they were all only 15 minutes long. But it was the top story. It was on the front page of the Washington Post, which is what landed in the seat of power, at the front door of everyone in government. And it was very dramatically played in the Washington papers. The only newspapers that I knew of that did not see this as a front page story were the Birmingham News and the Birmingham Post Herald.

So put us in the mind of an editor at a major Southern daily at the time. What is the reason they say that they're keep articles about this growing movement off the front page?

What they say is one thing and what they are, in fact, thinking may be another. Publicly they would say, "What do you want to do, blow the lid off this town? We can't have that! We can't be putting a lot of stories of ruffians on the street provoking violence." And they may not have always been talking about African-Americans, they could have been talking about white people. They knew the sentiments on the street pretty well.

What I think they also were trying to say and acknowledge without being able to say it is they really didn't know how to cover the story. They had no idea. Most news reporters at the time would not have had in their Rolodexes or address books the names of any African-Americans in town. They wouldn't know who to call, by and large. ...

You see a lot of officials and a lot of leaders being quoted, but you never see people, and certainly what you never see is a reflection of what it is like to be on the other side, to be an African-American in Alabama, someone who was being tired of being insulted every time you went to register to vote or every time they walked on the streets on a town. There's no sense of "let's live the lives of our readers."

At the same time, Birmingham at this time is getting completely hammered in the mainstream press, right? Birmingham is being described as the worst of the worst and fear and hatred rule the streets. The outside view of this city is really just becoming incredibly damaging. What was the reason for that? We understand all the images today seem ubiquitous to us, but was this this kind of supernova of all of these interests courting publicity but courting the press from outside the region?

You know it's interesting that it had been predicted by Gunnar Myrdal in 1944 when he wrote "An American Dilemma" that the degradation and dehumanization of blacks in the South would not gain any national attention until the outside press came in to cover the discrimination of the south. And that becomes the core thesis of our book, The Race Beat. And you'll find that it took new eyes to come in and see what was going on.

Myrdal predicted that once the nation outside the South saw what was going on they would be "shocked and shaken" — those were his words — by the events, and would demand change. Well, of course in the South, there was great shame, but also at the representation of the South in other media. You had George Wallace in 1963 saying that TIME magazine is for people who can't think, LIFE magazine is for people who can't read, and the Saturday Evening Post is for people who can't read or think. And phrases like that became rallying cries against the media.

And that led to enormous numbers of libel suits against the reporters covering this, and it was quite effective at holding them at bay. The New York Times was unable to get into Birmingham for close to two years because of libel suits against it. It had to cover Alabama from the outside.

One of the race criticisms from the Southern editors was that these Southern papers weren't covering the "race story" in their own states.

That was one of the criticisms, a drumbeat of criticism, and I think there was some truth to it. I think that you find when you get to 1965 and suddenly we're having riots in cities outside the South, within days of President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act I think there was a moment when inside the South they were saying, "See, we told you!" And I think probably there had to have been more than one or two editors who spent so much time focusing on the South at the expense of the more festering sores of urban America outside the South. It's not to say that they should have been covering one and not the other, but to ask the question, Why weren't they covering both?

When you look back at that summer of 1963 specifically, what strikes you about how transformative the coverage was, either from within the community or from outside of it?

I think we see that by 1963, specifically, particularly as television came on with such force, and I say this both from having researched it but also from having lived at the time. The South cannot help over time but see itself in the coverage. And over time, that is a picture that the South was not comfortable with. No one likes to see themselves screaming and yelling and looking hideous and squaring off as a mob against one black person.

It was worse than unbecoming, and I'm not saying that everyone was ashamed of that. I think that many people were hardened by it, but I think many, many people felt ashamed of it, and there were enough voices of sanity and better angels in the South that one could find to mix and mingle with and to find common ground with. That over time, those who had a more progressive attitude could feel some sense of unity and solidarity with a larger group and give hope to those outside the South that it could change.

Given all the events of 1963 for Alabama in particular, how did the coverage change in the state, and in Birmingham specifically?

Certainly over time newspapers in the South, first of all they began to hire African-Americans. In 1963, there are no black reporters working for Birmingham News, Birmingham Post Herald. I'd be safe in saying that of any mainstream, white-owned newspaper in Alabama.

Right. Black reporters were working for the black press at the time, which was very vigorously covering it.

That's right. You had Birmingham World, edited by Emory Jackson, which was very aggressive in covering it. And he was covering it aggressively in spite of its owners. It was owned by the Scott family of Atlanta, and even though they were from the same hometown of Martin Luther King, Jr., they were strong critics of King. They thought he was going too fast and they struggled against it and tried to lean on Emory Jackson in Birmingham to come out against King, but he did not. He came out in favor of the demonstrations, in favor of integrating the University of Alabama, and that was the only place where you could see an African-American voice really being reflected in the news media.

Over time, the Birmingham newspapers certainly were hiring African-Americans. The Montgomery papers were: they had an African-American editor now for quite some years. That very much has changed. And people cover the things that they're familiar with and you see many more voices coming into the paper and not just on a single news page that is called "News From Our Colored Friends" or things like that, which was somewhat the standard of the time in the early 1960s. ...

At this time [in 1963], where are you getting your news from about this movement if you're not getting it from the local paper?

Well, you're not getting it from any national news source other than television. It's in this time that the famous landmark Times vs. Sullivan Supreme Court decision is being discussed, and I believe at the time part of the New York Times argument for why it shouldn't be tried in Alabama is that it wasn't doing business in Alabama and they point out that there were only 29 people in the state of Alabama who got the New York Times.

So there was no national newspaper circulating — not USA Today or the Wall Street Journal — except in small doses. So the most unifying national news outlet would have been NBC, ABC or CBS.

Since you grew up delivering this paper, what was it like for you? What was it like to watch this news on TV then deliver a paper that did not reflect that reality?

I'm looking at the paper everyday because I'm a newspaper reader and because I'm rolling it up, putting a rubber band on it, and reading what's in there. My main interest is in how the Crimson Tide football team is doing, and what kind of season will they have coming up. We had no national sports teams down in the South at the time so we were focused on college sports, and those who cared about Major League Baseball had to look outside the South.

I found my love in a team that had another fellow from Alabama whose name was Hank playing for them, and it was the Milwakee Braves and Hank Aaron, and like any other kid that is how I came to love newspapers, reading the sports pages and box scores.

But over time, you move to reading the front of the paper. And at age 14, the Civil Rights story was the story. It was important in my family. I grew up in a relatively progressive household in northern Alabama, and I had a cousin who was writing for the New York Times. So I was paying attention but not reading the New York Times. And I have to say that whatever reading I was doing at the time was not provoking outrage or anger in my mind. I heard that from my parents but couldn't help but be influenced by that.

But by the time I got to September of 1963 and the bomb explodes inside the Baptist church and kills the four little girls, that was a deeply, profoundly shocking experience for anyone my age, because three of the girls were my age. They were 14 years old, and it was just inconceivable that anyone could go into a church or a temple or whatever it would be and not come out alive because of some evil.

So as a 14-year-old, that had a strong, strong impact on me in ways that if I could go back in time, I would try to put words on. ... I cannot do that. And then, I should say, the Birmingham papers saw this unmistakably as a page one story. And they did put that on page one.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Audie Cornish
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.