The Race Beat

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Roberts, Gene and Hank Klibanoff. The Race Beat: The Press, The Civil Rights Struggle, and The Awakening of a Nation. New York: Vintage Books, 2006.


Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff conclude their book, The Race Beat, with an interview with Georgia Congressman John Lewis, former civil rights leader and Freedom Rider. He is quoted as saying "If it hadn't been for the media--the print media and television--the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings, a choir without a song." The quotation summarizes the book, as Roberts and Klibanoff convincingly argue that the the established print media and burgeoning television media were key components in the success of the civil rights movement. Without the dedicated reporters and cameramen, readers and viewers would have been unable to bear witness to the torture and terror inflicted upon blacks in the segregationist South.

The Race Beat which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for History, is organized chronologically, focusing on the period between Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954 and the 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act. By focusing on this period, and exclusively on the civil rights movement in the former Confederate states, Roberts and Klibanoff are able to avoid having to discuss segregation in the North and the race riots of the late 1960s, though they are mentioned briefly in an afterward. In the beginning of the book, however, the authors explore the 1940s work of Gunnar Myrdal, who came to the United States to study the issue of race and wrote the study An American Dilemma, which was "both a portrait of segregation and a mirror in which an emerging generation of southerners would measure themselves" (6). It is Myrdal's observation (which he placed in italics for emphasis) that To get publicity is of the highest strategic importance to the Negro people (Myrdal, 48) which powers The Race Beat.

The journalists covering the "race beat" are heroes in this book, and rightfully so, as many of them were threatened, beaten, and even killed for covering the movement. Segregationists correctly realized that harassing blacks with vocal witnesses proved problematic. At one point, the Freedom Riders were secretly moved to a new jail and are taunted by the guards that there are no journalists here to protect them. Lewis, who was one of the Riders, reported that the journalists made him feel safe, and their absence was terrifying. Roberts and Klibanoff explore three different types of press--the Northern press, which was generally (and increasingly) sympathetic to the movement, the Southern press, which was either strongly segregationist or cautiously sympathetic (though that was dangerous financially--and sometimes physically), and the Negro press, which was sometimes in the inner circle of the movement (and could blend in with protesters) and other times marginalized--either because blacks weren't allowed in a certain location or because the movement leadership saw the power of the white press as more attractive. The authors use articles, editorials, correspondence, and interviews to give the history of the movement through the eyes of the journalists who covered it, each of whom are also profiled.

Roberts and Klibanoff, both journalists and editors themselves, have an obvious interest in the power of the print media, but note that the growing importance of television news in the early 1960s gave a new dimension to the civil rights struggle. For the first time, viewers could actually see the physical struggles and beatings, and this lent a great deal of sympathy for the cause, especially after the Selma voting riots (news of which coincidentally broke into a network showing of "Judgment at Nuremberg" on ABC, giving viewers a direct comparison between the two brands of racism).

The Race Beat, rather than a recitation of events of the civil rights movement, with an emphasis on the non-violent nature of the struggle, is intensely violent. Robert and Klibanoff capture the danger of the movement, both for the protesters and for the journalists who were spreading their message, and also their bravery and dedication.

Becky Erbelding, Spring 2010

The Race Beat is an excellent book. Roberts and Klibanoff, both professional journalists, have engaging writing styles and the book flows very easily. Even though I knew what was going to happen, I had forgotten the violent nature of the struggle, since we so often only hear about the movement's dedication to non-violence. The violence was not theirs, not yet; instead, segregationists were willing to kill to prevent integration and the granting of civil rights. In virtually every major civil rights struggle, reporters and protesters were killed or severely beaten. Roberts and Klibanoff tell the story through the eyes of witnesses, and tell it incredibly well. I found myself going online to find pictures, film footage, visual details about what they were describing. There are photographs in the book, but far too few. One gets to "know" the journalists they profile so well that profile photographs are a welcome addition to the book.

The book is so thorough and well-written that there is very little to critique. Omissions, such as the civil rights struggle in the North and events post-1965 are out of the scope of the book, though I would be very interested to read about them as written by Roberts and Klibanoff. Their thesis, that the press was a necessary component to the success of the civil rights movement is convincing, and was acknowledged by the leaders of the movement both at the time and in recent interviews. The Race Beat is a fascinating book, and is highly recommended for anyone either learning about the civil rights movement for the first time or who wants to read about it from a new angle.

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