Five civil rights panelists – including current and former journalists and activists – talked Thursday morning in the Holliday Forum of the Journalism Building about the horrors of the segregated South and the courage to lead the civil rights movement amid the hate.
Moderator Hank Klibanoff, former journalist and editor and current professor of journalism at Emory University, said white supremacy at the time was not subliminal, but instead consisted of a brutality and terrorism in the South comparative to the terrorism today.
“Bombs, abductions, lynchings and castrations was the way life was,” Klibanoff said. “It was more than just water fountains.”
Moses Newson, journalist for African-American newspapers during the civil rights era, said he first understood how “far down on the totem pole” he was when a group of German war prisoners got to sit at the bottom of the movie theatre in the white section while he had to sit up in the balcony.
“It occurred to me that a few months earlier, these people were part of a regime killing Americans,” Newson said. “But they had more privilege than citizens who live and work here.”
Dorothy Cotton, civil rights activist who worked closely with Martin Luther King, Jr., said she was first inspired to be a part of the civil rights movement when she was a child and heard a white boy riding a bike down her street and singing a parody of “Deep in the Heart of Texas” that included racist slurs.
“I remember that moment, a feeling I couldn’t put words to,” Cotton said. “I knew there was something wrong; I remember the pain hearing that song. There was a churning inside of me. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I had and still have that feeling.”
John Seigenthaler, former reporter at The Tennessean in Nashville, who served as special assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy during the civil rights era, described being a child in segregated Nashville and seeing but not fully acknowledging the racism. He recalled being on the trolley car and bus watching black women pay their fare after a long day of working in a white woman’s home and then struggle to fight through the crowd to the back of the vehicle.
“I never heard from my parents and teachers, and I never heard once on the pulpit about the indecency and injustice of it all,” Seigenthaler said. “Where were our heads and hearts?”
The conversation shifted to whether the panelists think segregation will ever end, to which Gene Roberts, former editor of both The New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer, answered with a story of King and his impact on the poor African-American community in Durham, North Carolina.
He said he could not even get close to the door at a Durham church where King was speaking because it was packed. He was able to get a boost from a deacon, sit in the windowsill and watch the end of the speech, Roberts said.
“Money was so hard to come by that they tied loose change in a handkerchief and knotted it to make sure they didn’t lose it,” Roberts said. “King’s speech talked about brotherhood, non-violence and no hate. One of King’s staff members asked for money and everyone was unwrapping their coins. I left thinking there was going to be massive change because I had seen clear evidence of how strong the support was to change in black American – from the old to the students.”
When asked about the current state of civil rights, Cotton said there is always more to do.
“It isn’t over, but it will never be over,” Cotton said. “We are on a journey; you stop along the way on the journey. We must put some energy into what is not working and how to address it. When you finish working on that, there will be something else.”