Dr. Jim Clotfelter joined UNCG as a professor of political science in 1977. You may know that for nearly two decades, he has been vice chancellor for information technology services and chief information officer. You may not know that he began his career as a “very young” reporter for the Atlanta newspapers and Time Magazine. In the 1960s, he covered the civil rights movement in Southern states from Texas to North Carolina. “One of the formative experiences of my life,” he says, “as it was for everyone there.” The reporters could shine a light on the protests and the often violent reaction of Southern law enforcement and citizens. “Out-of-state reporters were sometimes a lifeline for civil rights workers in dangerous circumstances,” he explains. “They [local authorities] appropriately regarded the national press as an enemy.” He speaks about the “bravery of the black and some white civil rights workers who put their lives on the line.” Some were killed working for the civil rights cause. He says he still tears up at “We Shall Overcome” and the other civil rights anthems he heard in many small churches. But change did come. The movement of that era is “important for what it did – along with the power of the federal government – to change the incredibly unjust practices that had been in place” for so long. Clotfelter was asked about some stories he covered. He prefaced some by simply saying “it’s way too complicated [to describe for a short piece like this],” but he did share some examples.
Some memorable news stories covered on civil rights beat
- Riot at Ole Miss the night James Meredith first entered campus, 1962 [Meredith was the first African-American to attend a historically white Mississippi university] At the end of a night where two people were killed and hundreds injured by a mob of thousands – and where the campus had been under a thick cloud of tear gas fired by US marshals protecting Meredith, 16,000 US Army troops had to be brought in to take control of the campus and town … Essentially, a battle broke out at 8 p.m. and was over by 2 a.m. [To deal with tear gas] you have a handkerchief, wet it, keep close to the ground…I was editor of the [UNC-CH] Daily Tar Heel at the time – we’d driven all night to cover the story. Truckloads of people who wanted to stop Meredith had arrived in Oxford, some with weapons. A couple of older reporters got beaten up, but I looked like a student, apparently passed as a member of the mob.
- Americus, Ga., trial of civil rights protestors on charges of “insurrection,” 1963 Because the local police had lookouts outside town – and license tags showed if a car came from Atlanta – the police had someone to greet me by the time I opened the car door on main street … someone assigned to follow me around and keep the police informed … An illustration of how pervasive controls were …
- Tuscaloosa, Ala, civil rights protests, 1964 After being picked up by the police for being “in the wrong place” – one of two times I was picked up by police – the police chief told me he knew half of his officers were Ku Klux Klan members, but he didn’t know which half …
- Murder of three civil rights workers during “Freedom Summer” in Philadelphia, Miss., 1964 [depicted in movie Mississippi Burning] Sixteen to eighteen guys beat, then killed three civil rights workers. They then buried the bodies. Six weeks later, the feds found the bodies in an earthen dam – someone had squealed to get [reward] money … The deputy sheriff told me he was horrified that the FBI would pay money to someone to tell them where the bodies were – he thought the FBI was above that … He was later convicted of civil rights violations.
- First legal test (in Atlanta) of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed segregation of public accommodations To prove to the federal court that a restaurant that had barred African-Americans was engaged in inter-state commerce – and thus subject to federal law – you had two federal marshals haul into court a trolley with bottles of ketchup, mustard, pickles that came from out-of-state … It seemed ludicrous, but the court upheld the law and the conviction of restaurant owner Lester Maddox, later the governor of Georgia.
Clotfelter was asked to reflect on that era. He demurred. “I don’t have anything to say that’s not been said better by other people.” He said it is still an emotionally charged period for him. “But, it did show, eventually and belatedly and incompletely, that the American invention could work for African Americans – and for all of us.”
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