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-in-chief, and changed his major to journalism.
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 voter-registration 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.
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.