Você está na página 1de 3

Claude Sitton, 'Dean Of The Race Beat,' Dies At 89

Claude Sitton, then-editor of the News Observer, works in his office at the newspaper in Raleigh,
N.C., in 1990. Sitton, who was a leader among reporters covering the civil rights movement in the
South in the 1950s and '60s and later won a Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary, died
Tuesday, March 10, 2015. He was 89. Harry Lynch/The News Observer via AP hide caption
itoggle caption Harry Lynch/The News Observer via AP
Claude Sitton, then-editor of the News Observer, works in his office at the newspaper in Raleigh,
N.C., in 1990. Sitton, who was a leader among reporters covering the civil rights movement in the
South in the 1950s and '60s and later won a Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary, died
Tuesday, March 10, 2015. He was 89.
Harry Lynch/The News Observer via AP
It may be that Claude Fox Sitton so outraged the white Southern segregationists he reported on
throughout the civil rights movement because, by all appearances, he could have been standing
beside them instead of writing about them in the New York Times.
Known as "the dean of the race beat," Sitton, who died Tuesday, reported on many of the seminal
moments in the early stages of the civil rights movement. His careful, detailed, and descriptive
stories made the struggle for the nation's soul very real -- sometimes uncomfortably real -- for the
readers of the country's most prestigious newspaper. He covered everything from the integration of
Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., to the bombing of a Birmingham church that resulted in the
deaths of four little girls.
He was born in Atlanta in 1925 and grew up near Conyers, Ga., a small farming town just outside the
city. His background was modest. His father was a railroad brakeman and his mother was a teacher.
After serving in the Navy right out of high school, Sitton enrolled at Emory University in Atlanta,
planning to major in business. But he got a job working on the school paper, became its editor-i-chief, and changed his major to journalism.
It was a dangerous job. In those states at the time, white locals, cops and public officials saw
reporters -- even Southern-born ones like Sitton -- as the enemy.
Sitton cut his reporter's teeth the way many of his generation did, at then-flourishing news wire
services. Wanting some international experience, he lived in Ghana while working as a press attache
for the United States Information Agency, and in 1957 he covered the country's transition from
British colonial holding to independent sovereign nation.
He joined the New York Times as a copy editor the next year, and the paper soon asked him to cover
another independence movement: the push for civil rights in America.
As the chief Southern correspondent for the Times, Sitton moved with his wife, Eva, and their
children back to Atlanta. While his family lived in the city, Sitton spent most of his time on the road,
returning home infrequently, often just for one night between assignments. (He was surprised to

learn that his oldest son, Clint, had begun talking while he was away. "He's been doing that for a
month," Eva Sitton calmly told him.)
Sitton's work brought the intensity of the civil rights movement to the front steps of New York Times
subscribers every morning and painted the picture of ordinary black Southerners' daily struggles.
He covered the "Children's Crusade" in Birmingham, Ala., where he watched Police Chief Eugene
"Bull" Connor turn snarling dogs and high powered fire hoses on young people as they marched for
desegregation.
He covered Freedom Summer the next year, where the torching of buses filled with students and the
murder of three young organizers garnered worldwide attention.
Here's how he famously began a story out of Sasser, Ga., where police broke into a Baptist church in
an attempt to intimidate organizers:
"We want our colored people to go on living like they have for the last hundred years,' said sheriff
Z.T. Matthews of Terrell County. Then he turned and glanced disapprovingly at the thirty-eight
Negroes and two whites gathered in the Mount Olive Baptist Church here last night for a voterregistration rally. 'I tell you, cap'n, we're a little fed up with this registration business,' he went on."
That story was typical of Sitton's reporting: he let his subjects speak for themselves. And subjects
like Sheriff Matthews aroused national interest -- and, in some quarters, disgust.The nation's leaders
paid attention, too: After Sitton's story about his visit to Mount Olive Baptist Church, attorney
Robert Kennedy sued the sheriff for voter suppression. Local whites responded by burning four
churches to the ground, including Mount Olive Baptist.
It was a dangerous job. In those states at the time, white locals, cops and public officials saw
reporters -- even Southern-born ones like Sitton -- as the enemy, part of an outside group that little
understood or cared about a way of life that many white Southerners worried was fading away. The
movement's chroniclers were often threatened, sometimes injured and occasionally killed.
Organizers who had no faith in the local police often called Sitton when they were in trouble. When
things got too heated, Sitton sometimes promised hostile sheriffs that if they killed him, the Times
would only send 10 more reporters to take his place.
Such coverage didn't always win him or the paper friends, but, as Sitton liked to remind his
reporters, "It's not a newspaper's job to be popular."
After covering the race beat for more than six years, Sitton tried a brief stint as a Times editor, but
he decided the paper's internal politics were toxic. He decamped for the Raleigh-based News
Observer, a well-regarded regional paper, where he oversaw the paper's modernization. The
"women's pages" disappeared, new sections on features and business were born. They arrived at a
time when society was changing rapidly and the black power, women's movements and anti-war
protests were in full swing. The paper's coverage in general became less sleepy, more pointed. He
even dared take on the state's most sacred recreational cow -- college basketball. (He thought the
system was corrupt and unfair to the athletes even as it brought in millions for the universities.)
Such coverage didn't always win him or the paper friends, but, as Sitton liked to remind his
reporters, "It's not a newspaper's job to be popular."
He also wrote an editorial column, as per News Observer tradition back then, where he shared
strong opinions about issues such as cronyism in the public school system and how the rise of

intramural college athletics was hurting higher ed. He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for a collection
of his columns in 1983. (He was, in fact, the last editor to work in both the news and opinion
departments. Virtually all papers now separate the functions.)
Sitton retired after 22 years at the News Observer and returned to Atlanta. There, he taught press
coverage of the civil rights movement at his alma mater, Emory University, for three years.
He died in Atlanta on Tuesday, the result of congenital heart failure. He is survived by his wife, Eva,
two sons and two daughters, and nine grandchildren.
http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2015/03/11/392110307/claude-sitton-dean-of-the-race-beat-dies
-at-89?utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=law