Brandeis Lecturers: Hank Klibanoff

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted a journalism related thang up in here, so I decided to put up a piece I wrote for class on a lecturer that came to Brandeis. Hank Klibanoff—who came to Brandeis on Oct. 8th—is the author of The Race Beat, a book that won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for History. The book primarily concerns the evolution of the press’ coverage of race-related news, and Klibanoff’s lecture had a similiar focus.

I’ve been trying to attend events like these as frequently as possible this year; I’ve come to realize that not everyone has the opportunities I do to hear such influential people speak, and also that after I graduate I’ll rarely have the opportunity to attend academic events like this. Anyway, here’s the article. I’m not so keen on the introduction, but I wanted a soft lead rather than a generic hard one.*

*A “soft lead” is generally an introduction to an article that takes a narrative or anecdotal approach, whereas a “hard lead” is composed of basic information like who, where, when and what; you’ll see it used in the vast majority of serious news pieces (i.e., those concerning tragedy)/breaking news.

The racially diverse group of students, community members and faculty packed into the seats and aisles of Pollack Auditorium last Thursday would not have been allowed to mingle during the era talked about by the evening’s lecturer, Hank Klibanoff; rather, the crowd’s attempt to convene would have led to heckling at the very least and possibly even an unfortunate part in one of the cold cases mentioned by Klibanoff during his talk.

Over the course of the evening, Klibanoff—author of The Race Beat, which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for History—discussed the unsolved murders of racial minorities during World War II and the 1960s, as it is these cases that have become the focus of Klibanoff’s new documentary: The Cold Case: The Truth and Justice Project.

The goal of project, said Klibanoff, is “not to win fresh prosecutions. … Our [the reporters’] goal is to get right with history, to fill in all the gaps,” and to bring to light those killers who escaped prosecution and the “judgment of history.”

These untried criminals number more than many would like to think; during the civil rights era, the federal presence in the South gathered evidence against many murderers and generated reports that were in turn given to local authorities for the purpose of prosecuting the aforementioned offenders. However, once this evidence was turned over, the authorities would claim that the evidence provided was insufficient. Essentially, people were rarely prosecuted for the death of an African-American.

“It is hard to overstate how dangerous a time it was for blacks,” said Klibanoff.

One such victim of the age was Wharlest Jackson, an African-American man killed for having received a promotion over two white men in 1967. The case remains unsolved, and in the four minute Cold Case clip shown by Klibanoff at the conclusion of his lecture, the need for resolution is made clear when Jackson’s son asks his interviewer, “Wouldn’t you want to know who killed your father?”

Klibanoff prefaced his introduction of the film with a brief history of significant moments in the civil rights movement and the coverage they received from the press. However, the “race beat,” said Klibanoff, began “far outside the outside the south, and nowhere near a newsroom;” an initial examination of race was launched by a board of white men employed at the Carnegie Corporation in New York who were intrigued by the way in which America was “beating back the devil of the Depression” but still struggling with the “Negro Problem.”

The group launched a “full scale, full tilt study of race” in the South, which was led by Swedish politician Gunnar Myrdal. And, it was Myrdal’s 1944 book on the subject, An American Dilemma, that later provided the inspiration for Klibanoff’s own investigation. On page 48 of his work, Myrdal states “to get publicity is of the highest strategic importance to the Negro people,” and it is this line that sparked Klibanoff’s own study.

It wasn’t until Rosa Parks refused to get off of a bus that the race beat began to even vaguely resemble the news coverage that many people associate with the civil rights movement. And while the press flocked to see Autherine Lucy ascend the steps of the University of Alabama, Martin Luther King, Jr., struggled to receive coverage by the press.

However, while it took some time for the press to widen its scope of the race beat, it did eventually cover those issues that would “shock and shake” the necessary figures. For instance, said Klibanoff, after Attorney General Robert Kennedy encountered a story detailing transgressions against African-Americans by a Southern sheriff, Kennedy ensured that the man was faced with charges of suppression and intimidation.

The story certainly reinforced the idea presented by Professor Maura Jane Farrelly (JOUR) at the beginning of the lecture, that journalism can play a key role in democracy and forces us to reconcile ideals with realities.”

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