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Covering the civil rights movement

CBS News Anchor Dan Rather addressed the Forum on Press Coverage of the American Civil Rights Movement at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library in Boston on March 24, 1998. The following are his remarks.
It is an honor to be here, and a pleasure to be afforded this opportunity to recall what remains one of the most important, if not the most important, story I have ever covered as a reporter and as an American.

Yet I'm determined - insofar as is possible - to keep my mouth shut. To this day, I am more interested in the story itself - in the participants, and what they thought and felt, what they hoped and believed.

I am less interested in the reporters, including myself, and less interested in what we thought and felt. Nevertheless, our purpose here isn't merely to examine the American civil rights movement - it's to examine press coverage of that movement. So I'd like to begin with a little background.

While I was still working for KHOU-TV in Houston, I covered Freedom Rides in Jackson, Mississippi; Charlotte, N.C.; and Columbia, S.C. And back home in Houston, I covered an offshoot of the Freedom Rides, conducted by students of a local college, which was all black at the time.

Between 1962 and 1964, as a correspondent just starting with CBS News, I was assigned to cover demonstrations in Albany, Georgia; Birmingham, Alabama; Savannah, Georgia; Jackson, and many other locales in Mississippi. I covered the lead - up to and the entry of James Meredith into the University of Mississippi, and covered the infamous Oxford riot and its aftermath.

I was assigned to cover Medgar Evers, and broke the news of his assassination. Later, I covered the death of Cheyney, Schwerner and Goodman in and around Meridian, Miss.; the march on Selma; and the Memphis garbage workers strike.

It was my privilege in many of these assignments to cover the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. I say it was my privilege although I covered him only as a reporter, never really got close to him as a person. It was never my purpose to befriend him or to take his side. As a human being, I might have liked to try to be his friend, might have liked to join him.

But as a reporter, all I could do was walk near him, not beside him. All (I) could do was listen, not agree. All I could do was question, not confirm.

I was constantly aware - and my employers constantly reminded me - that my real purpose was to throw open a window for the American people to see Dr. King and his work. And as a reporter, that's exactly what I strove to do.

But as an American - as a human being - I knew I was a witness to something special. When I went back to my hotel room in the evenings, when I went home at the end of the assignment, I wasn't the same person. I didn't see the world the same way.

It wasn't all that long ago when I'd heard another great man use only the power of his language, the sound of his voie, to defeat injustice and tyranny - Winston Churchill combatting the menace of fascism. Here in the same room with me was another hero, striving to do something very similar.

And in the years since I have known better, understood more clearly that Dr. King was special. I miss him, to tell you the truth. I miss the sound of his voice, and the things he said with that voice. I miss the choir that resounded with him when he lifted that voice: because Dr. King was a leader, not a soloist.

I haven't heard another voice quite like it. And I travel around the United States now, listening for another voice, and I don't hear it yet. His choir endures, but without its choirmaster. And so we may hear a phrase from the same song, yes, a peep here and a booming crescendo there, but we don't hear his voice.

And I know we are all the poorer - yes, and the more foolish - because we no longer hear that voice.

Knowing what I know today, knowing what would happen to Dr. King and what would happen to the country he loved, I sometimes wonder if it would have been possible to maintain my professional objectivity and decorum - to the degree that I was able to do so in those faraway times. Could I have kept my head when I heard his powerful music? I honestly don't know.

As a reporter, I would hope so: Again, it wasn't my reaction to his music that was important. What was important was to give other Americans the chance to hear him. But it has become impossible to separate my emotions.

Let me say this much: I am proud to have known him, whatever the circumstances. And I can tell you, that when a reporter has covered such a person as Dr. King - well, you can't blame me for finding Dr. King's story more interesting than the story of the coverage.

You can't blame me for thinking that John Lewis was more important than I - or Medgar and Myrlie Evers - or Charles Evers - or Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson and Julian Bond - or any of the brave Americans who were fighting to finish the work that had begun nearly two centuries before, with one simple phrase: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

This was the great unfinished business of the American experiment.

I believe Thomas Jefferson wrote those words with his conscience, although he never found the courage to follow through - to free his own slaves or anyone else's.

It was left to Abraham Lincoln to pick up the noble task. But then, for a century, the job had been left undone. In spite of untold suffering. In spite of heroic sacrifice along the way. Until Rosa Parks sat down on that bus, the United States was still waiting to fulfill its promise.

What mere reporter can rival a story as big as that, characters as epic as that? We can't - which is why so many of us keep writing about it years later. As a reporter, you dream of the big stories. You wish you could cover another Abraham Lincoln, another great struggle with heintention not to divide the country - but to unite it - in freedom and justice.

You wish that. I did it. I covered Martin Luther King, Jr. Can you blame me for thinking that's pretty interesting? (For that matter, I'm not sure you could blame me for thinking that characters such as Bull Connor, Leander Perez, and George Wallace were pretty interesting, too, in their vastly different ways.)

Now, it can't have escaped anybody's attention - not with my accent - that I was also a white Southern male. On the other hand, it can't have escaped anybody's attention that I had been sent into Alabama and Mississippi and Georgia by a big news organization with its headquarters in New York City.

So I was automatically provided with a lot of challenges. Based either on my personal origins, or my company's origins, people on both sides of the debate assumed they knew what I believed, and how I would cover this story, and they responded accordingly.

They tried to cozy up to me, to manipulate me - on both sides. In some cases they were openly hostile - on both sides.

The great concern of Dr. King and the other leaders of the movement was that their message wouldn't be heard. In this more cynical age, it may seem a little strange: Here was a political movement that actually wanted extensive press coverage, the kind of press coverage that sticks to its ideals and plays no favorites, pulls no punches, just acts as an honest broker of information, looks 'em in the eye and lets the people decide.

Dr. King was concerned, for example, that Southern affiliates would persuade the networks to tone down their coverage of the movement. At the time I didn't feel such concern was warranted: My bosses in New York were rock-ribbed when it came to reporting the news without fear or favor to anyone, including their own affiliates.

And yet, in retrospect, I can't ignore that the CBS affiliate at that time in Atlanta -Dr. King's hometown - didn't even carry the CBS Evening News in 1962, the very year that Dr. King took me aside and shared his concerns with me.

Much of white America supported desegregation but didn't support the demonstrations, the passive resistance and civil disobedience that Dr. King had learned from Thoreau and Gandhi - and from Mrs. Parks, for that matter. This was a kind of ambivalence on the part of white Americans, and it gave some unscrupulous figures in local, state, and federal government the opportunity to try to skew events - and press coverage - their way.

When J. Edgar Hoover was making it a point to whisper malicious gossip about Dr. King, any reporter trying to do right had to begin by questioning why his source was talking. What were this person s motives? Providing honest information? Or trying to spin me?

All of these issues - attempts at manipulation, outside pressure from advertisers and affiliates, improper sources - all of these issues were ones they taught us about in journalism class. It wasn'as if I was completely unprepared for this. And of course I had been reporting daily journalism for over a decade by the time I got to Albany, Ga., where I first met Dr. King.

The point is that, on such a story as this, everything you knew as a reporter, all your training and instinct, your standards and your ideals, became absolutely essential every minute of the day.

Your guard had to be up. You had to protect your reporting from the biases of others -and yourself - and you knew it, because you knew this was a truly important story.

Maybe, if you ever had time to pause for breath, you'd realize that all the stories are important, that all the stories demand that much from you as a reporter. But in the meantime, the fate of your country was being decided. You'd better act responsibly.

Now I don't want to bog down in old war stories at this point - plenty of time to do that later this evening, when we get into the discussion and my friends here have the necessary advantage of cutting me off when I go on too long.

Any minute now begins the portion of our program where I start keeping my mouth shut.

But I want to repeat my gratitude to you all for giving me this chance to recall a time when righteousness and honor found their strength in this country, when virtue overcame adversity, when justice had its day, when a king (Dr. King) triumphed over tyranny - and when I was lucky enough to see a big part of it.

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