Reporter’s Notebook: What it was like to cover the Civil Rights movement
Curtis Wilkie’s memories of 1960s Mississippi
In the summer of 1963, Curtis Wilkie was a cub reporter for a tiny newspaper in the Mississippi Delta. He went on to have an extraordinary career, including covering eight presidential campaigns and writing several books. But his experience covering the Civil Rights movement for the Clarksdale Press Register stands out as exceptional. Condensed from my interview transcript with Wilkie, here’s what he remembers:
“I was in the Mississippi Delta in 1963. That was my first year as a reporter. I had graduated in January.
The atmosphere was already electric. The challenge from the black community had been thrown down and there was determination from the whites to resist. It was a real revolution that was going on. It was a great story to cover.
[Congressman and Civil Rights leader] John Lewis said that basically they planned their demonstrations to ensure they would get press coverage. They knew if they didn’t get press coverage it would be the proverbial tree falling in the forest. They relied on it.
By the spring of ‘63, the demonstrations against [Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner and segregationist] Bull Connor and the government in Birmingham got enormous coverage. Those dramatic pictures, a lot of them taken by Charles Moore, they were so powerful in gathering strength for the movement.
People in Nebraska, Oregon — places where maybe not a whole lot of blacks lived — see these pictures and say, ‘My God. Is this what’s going on in my country?’ And you began to have this reaction.
So much of this was not because of the print reporting but dramatic pictures of people beating up these helpless people who were just sitting at a lunch counter. And then that famous picture of the Greyhound bus being torched and burning in Anniston, Alabama. The pictures in the park in Birmingham where they turned fire hoses and police dogs on the children. This was high drama and people outside the South saw this and they recoiled in horror.
There was good coverage going on fairly early. The New York Times and the major papers were onto the story. The people who got it wrong were some of the Southern papers. There were some brave, good Southern papers, but by and large the local coverage was pretty terrible. They either ignored the story or slanted it as if it were a Communist uprising.
I never felt threatened. I have a Southern accent. I was on my own territory. But it was probably pretty scary for the reporters who were not from there. A lot of the very good reporters were Southern working for Northern papers. People like Jack Nelson and Claude Sitton.
I was working for a small paper in Clarksdale, one of the focal points of the movement. Clarksdale was one of the two or three major towns in the Mississippi Delta where so much went on. We were having waves of demonstrations, regularly people being thrown into jail.
We did not have a great deal of violence there. The white power structure was smart enough to know that violence of the type that the Klan would be responsible for was counterproductive. So they were more subtle but oppressive nonetheless.
As a result we didn’t have anything like the fire hoses and attack dogs that you had earlier that year in Birmingham but we did have, certainly by August, you had the murder of Medgar Evers, who — with [NAACP leader] Aaron Henry — they were the two leading Civil Rights figures in the state.
Aaron Henry became such a great source for me. We had so many people come into town. Martin King, Roy Wilkins, who was the national head of the NAACP, and some of the others like [Freedom Ride organizer] Jim Farmer. I met Martin King several times, and I interviewed him several times.
I remember traveling with him just a couple of weeks before his death when he was trying to mobilize support for the Poor People’s Campaign in the spring of 1968.
He truly was charismatic. Very smart and thoughtful. I don’t think there was anybody who commanded as much moral firepower as he did because of the cause he represented.
The politicians who are impressive and imposing are basically doing it for their own benefit, where King clearly was the leader of a movement, this incredible movement. He was operating in a situation where there was a great deal of danger to himself. Of course presidents are exposed to danger, too. But he endured a lot of danger.
I remember that there was a kind of foxy woman traveling with him. He had that reputation. I think she was alleged to be his aide or something. I suspected she was somebody he was shacking up with. Kind of like Bill Clinton or John Kennedy or something. They’re all up to it. So he was human but he was a great speaker.
The thing that was striking to me was that he gave time to talk to me. And he never had a big press following when we was doing all this stuff.
Today it’s unimaginable. But there in the Mississippi Delta — this was 1968 — there was nobody covering him. I was the only person who was covering him at several events in the Delta. I was driving around in my own car, following his car. It was a two-car caravan, including me.
I remember, five years after the March on Washington, there was a scene in a little town in the Delta where there was an incident in one of his speeches. This white man interrupted his speech. He came charging into the church. I thought the guy was going to attack him but it turned out he gave him $100 instead. He was drunk.
King was somewhat nonplussed by the whole thing. He finally said, ‘God bless you, brother… Anybody who gives $100 to the movement can say a few words.’ So [the man] got the microphone, started cursing the Kennedys, yelling that there was nobody hungry [for change] down in Mississippi. And the congregation, all black, began yelling back. It was a crazy incident.
I remember afterward I was talking to King outside. He was sitting in the car and I was standing by the car window talking to him.
I asked him, ‘Were you frightened back there?’ It was an unsettling incident. And he said, very quietly, ‘No. I can’t afford to be. Because if I were frightened, I’d be immobilized. I wouldn’t be able to move around the country.’ He said, ‘Besides, the climate of violence has been diminished so much in the South.’
Two weeks later, he’s dead.
That 1963 speech at the March on Washington is probably one of the great speeches of my lifetime.
I heard it on the radio in Mississippi. I remember being over in the black section of town and you could hear the speech coming from the shops, booming from every radio. Everybody was listening.
I remember whites in Washington all said, ‘Oh Lord, the vandals are coming. All these blacks are going to loot the city.’ But it was very peaceful and went off without any problems.
The thing everybody will remember will be the King speech, which really was magnificent.
Looking back on it, I think that I realized even as a 22-year-old kid that what I was seeing was historic. I realized how very lucky I was that I was covering, sometimes on a daily basis, the biggest story in America, albeit for this little daily with a circulation of 7,000 people.”