By Bill Minor
JACKSON – Karl Fleming of Newsweek and Claude Sitton of The New York Times, the first national reporters to arrive in Philadelphia in June 1964 to cover disappearance of three young civil rights workers (four weeks later found buried deeply in a farm pond earthen dam) unwisely decided to spend the night in a tiny motel after checking around town for any scraps of information.
Fleming and Sitton were sons of the South and knew the ways and jargon of the region, unlike most reporters who came down to cover Mississippi’s widely-publicized 1964 Freedom Summer. Not being competitive, the two had found more safety in traveling together on explosive racial stories.
Outside their motel room in a mud-smeared sedan, sat a half-dozen Klan types toting shotguns and sipping moonshine from a jar. Fleming, ever the aggressor (direct opposite of the reserved Sitton) greeted the car’s occupants and accepted their offer to sample the ‘shine.
But when the men invited Fleming and Sitton to “take a ride with us in the country,” they quickly decided to decline, packed their bags and headed out of town, for then having had enough local hospitality. (How different the visiting newsmen would find Philadelphia today – a biracial model city with an African-American mayor.)
Last week, still bearing scars from his civil rights reporting days, Karl Fleming died at his home in Los Angeles from protracted respiratory ailments, days away from marking his 85th birthday.
The tall, good-looking Fleming came out of North Carolina rural poverty and at age 8 his widowed mother put him in a harsh local orphanage where he stayed until, at 17, he joined the Navy shortly before World War II ended. He started college under the G.I. Bill but quit to work for several small newspapers before being hired by Newsweek in its Atlanta bureau. NPR’s Karen Grigsby Bates, in a commentary, called Fleming “one of the last links in the chain of reporters who risked their lives to put the nation’s civil rights struggle on nation’s doorsteps and its living rooms.” From his Georgia home, Sitton simply praised his old sidekick as a “really good, sharp reporter.”
Often when Karl pursued some dangerous civil rights story in Mississippi for Newsweek, I worked the same story for my paper – The Times-Picayune – though never in his same daring style. I faced daily deadlines while his were weekly. Actually, I had been a longtime stringer (part time correspondent) for Newsweek, in its better days as a print publication.
Rarely, if ever in the 1960s when racial events made Mississippi a hot spot for national news was Karl not on the front line. His baptism of fire came in the “battle of Oxford” during the fall of 1962 when James Meredith, protected by dozens of federal officers and finally, the U.S. Army, was enrolled as the first known black student at Ole Miss. As gunfire rang out across the university campus during the long night of rioting, Fleming, targeted as were other newsmen, heard three bullets rip into a window frame above his head after he sought refuge in a campus building.
In a Newsweek opinion piece, Fleming later reflected “it was the first assignment I’ve had where I was actually afraid for my life,” as he lamented that the rioters were his fellow Southerners.
When, a year later, black civil rights pioneer Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson, Fleming was again on the scene, including the scorching hot day of June 19 after a huge funeral procession for Evers passed through a downtown street. A shirt-sleeved Justice Department attorney named John Doar saved dozens of angry black funeral marchers from likely slaughter at the hands of an army of 250 trigger-happy lawmen.
While building a reputation as one of the nation’s premier reporters in chronicling the historic civil rights revolution across the South, Fleming avoided physical injury from hostile whites in their last stand to preserve segregation. Fleming ironically was beaten almost to death by rampaging blacks in 1966 when he was reassigned by Newsweek to Los Angeles. Covering the city’s Watts riots, Fleming was clubbed with a heavy piece of lumber by a mob, his skull fractured and left bleeding and unconscious on the street until he was rescued by police.
On recovering from his grave injuries, Karl’s life spiraled downward on strong drink and he lost his job at Newsweek. Several years later, he made a comeback as a TV news director and in 2005 published a painful memoir “Son of the Rough South,” which gave insight to his coverage of the tumultuous civil rights period.
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.