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What The Press Got Right — And Wrong — About MLK In His Lifetime


In February 1957, Martin Luther King made the cover of Time magazine for the first time. King was all of 28, and he'd just become a national figure. It was an admiring article that described his role in the Montgomery, Alabama, Bus Boycott, his bearing, his upbringing, his intellectual influences. One odd note stands out - in the lead, Time wrote that King, the man whose word black leaders sought as they've looked to achieve in reality the desegregation that the Supreme Court had given them in law, was - and this is a quote - "not a judge or a lawyer or a political strategist or a flaming orator." That last one may raise some eyebrows. How well did the mainstream press do in seeing the significance of Martin Luther King Jr.'s leadership? Joining us now is Hank Klibanoff who, with Gene Roberts, wrote the Pulitzer prize-winning book "Race Beat: The Press, The Civil Rights Struggle And The Awakening Of A Nation." Welcome to the program.

HANK KLIBANOFF: Well, thank you very much, Robert.

SIEGEL: Back in the mid-1950s, when King was in Montgomery, did reporters see him as a preeminent figure in the civil rights movement?

KLIBANOFF: They did eventually, but I would say it was slow-going at first. When the bus boycott began in December 1 of 1955, even the Montgomery newspaper did not know who he was. It wasn't until February that he starts to get any national press of significance beyond a few wire stories here and there.

SIEGEL: How would you describe King's relationship or what he wanted from the press that was covering the civil rights struggle?

KLIBANOFF: Well, the press, once they met him and got to know him, was welcomed by him. The reporters could sit in the pews and watch him, and beyond doubt, they were mesmerized by him.

SIEGEL: There's a story you relate about, I guess, to Life magazine photographer who was about to cease being a journalist and intervene at a moment that King disapproved of.

KLIBANOFF: Well, that was in Selma in 1965. And by this time, of course, Dr. King fully understands what it takes to attract the press. And Flip Schulke, shooting for Life magazine, is out on the streets one day, and he sees a sheriff's deputy on a horse with a gun and a billy club attacking some young African-American kid who has no gun, no horse, no club of any sort, no weapon. And Schulke lowers his camera and goes and stops the sheriff's deputy. And Dr. King hears about this. And he and Flip go way back to the early-50s. And he was mad at Flip more than the sheriff's deputy. He says, what are you doing? He says, I've been trying to stop these people for years from beating up our people, and I'm not having much success. What made you think you could do it right then and there? He said, there was one way you might've been able to stop him and that's to keep taking photographs.

SIEGEL: Were there lessons for you about journalism and studying the coverage of "The Race Beat"?

KLIBANOFF: Yes, there were many lessons, certainly in covering the stories of Dr. King. There was a lesson in how he and the press mutually benefited from each other. He understood that coverage of his nonviolent movement up against the violence that he would encounter in the South would get good play. And certainly reporters knew that they were on an enormously story that was capturing the attention of the nation and often provoking it to action.

SIEGEL: That's Hank Klibanoff, co-author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Race Beat" and professor of journalism at Emory University in Atlanta. Hank, thank you.

KLIBANOFF: Robert, it's always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.