Claude Sitton, front-line civil rights reporter in the South, dies at 89

In this 1961 photo, journalist Claude Sitton, right, listens as a University of Georgia official announces that reporters will be banned from campus during the university’s desegregation crisis. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Claude Sitton, a Georgia native whose powerful reporting for the New York Times on church bombings and other episodes of wanton violence across the South, set a standard for other journalists and drew national attention to the civil rights struggle, died March 10 at a nursing facility in Atlanta. He was 89.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his son Clint Sitton.

In 1983, Mr. Sitton won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary as editor of the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., but his earlier experience as the Times’s Southern correspondent helped transform the nation’s debate on civil rights.
From 1958 to 1964, Mr. Sitton wrote about every aspect of the movement, from voting rights and school desegregation to the unsolved killings of civil rights workers. Many of his stories were featured on the Times’s front page, bringing a fresh urgency to the issue.

“Nobody in the news business would have as much impact as he would — on the reporting of the civil rights movement, on the federal government’s response, or on the movement itself,” Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff wrote in “The Race Beat” (2006), a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of journalism during the civil rights era. “Story by story, Sitton was showing himself to be the leading reporter of the civil rights movement, bringing attention to incidents that drew in other reporters and got action in Washington.”

Some of Mr. Sitton’s most evocative articles for the Times captured the pervasive sense of terror sowed by local police and white supremacist groups across the South.

“A group of thirteen law officers and roughly dressed whites clumped through the door” during a voter registration meeting at a black church in Georgia, Mr. Sitton wrote in 1962. “One pointed his arm at three newspaper reporters sitting at the front and said:

“ ‘There they are.’ ”

At the same time, a civil rights worker standing at the pulpit read a verse from the Bible: “We are counted as sheep for the slaughter.”

Mr. Sitton described a uniformed white deputy standing at the back of the church, slapping a large flashlight in his palm while smoking a cigarette.
“We want our colored people to go on living like they have the last hundred years,” the county sheriff said.
In 1961, Mr. Sitton rode the first bus in a convoy of Freedom Riders from Alabama to Mississippi. He was present in 1963 when Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace took his “stand in the schoolhouse door” in an effort to prevent African American students from enrolling at the University of Alabama.

The same year, Mr. Sitton wrote about deadly riots that accompanied the desegregation of the University of Mississippi; the killing of NAACP official Medgar Evers in Jackson, Miss.; and, the same year, about the Sunday morning bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Ala., that left four girls dead.

He noted the subject of the girls’ Sunday school lesson that day: “The Love That Forgives.”

Mr. Sitton, who spoke with a thick Georgia drawl, often worked for weeks at a time without a day off. Civil rights workers kept his phone number in their wallets, in case of emergency. During his six years covering the South, he wore out four portable Olivetti typewriters.

“There was a lot of danger,” Roberts, who succeeded Mr. Sitton as the Times’s correspondent in the South, said in an interview. “While he would go anywhere and do anything, he did it with deliberateness and caution.”

Mr. Sitton used public pay phones to file his stories, believing his hotel telephones might be bugged. He would not sit in a restaurant with his back to the door. On a single day, he later recalled, he had five cars rented and an airplane on standby to take him quickly out of a Mississippi hot spot.

He became known for cutting a standard 6-by-9-inch steno notebook down the middle and placing the two halves in the inside pockets of his dark suit.

“He would look like an FBI agent with a shoulder holster,” Roberts said.

Claude Fox Sitton was born Dec. 4, 1925, in Atlanta and grew up on a farm near Conyers, Ga. His father was a farmer and railroad worker, and his mother was a high school math teacher.

He grew up doing farmwork alongside African American field hands. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he graduated from Atlanta’s Emory University in 1949.

He had begun stringing for newspapers in college and went on to work for the old International News Service in Atlanta and in other cities throughout the South before joining another news service, the United Press.
He was transferred in 1952 to New York, where he became friends with several well-known writers of the Beat Generation.

He later joined the U.S. Information Agency and spent two years in Ghana before joining the copy desk of the New York Times in 1957. A year later, the paper’s managing editor, Mississippi-born Turner Catledge, named Mr. Sitton the paper’s Southern correspondent.

After serving as the paper’s national editor from 1964 to 1968, Mr. Sitton moved to Raleigh, where he edited the News & Observer for 22 years. In addition to his Pulitzer Prize, he was known for strengthening the paper’s coverage of politics and education — and for being unafraid to challenge North Carolina’s longtime Republican Sen. Jesse Helms.

“When a lot of public figures in North Carolina were cowed or disinclined to take on Jesse Helms,” the paper’s former editorial page editor, Ferrel Guillory said, “the News & Observer took him on and made sure there was a voice for progress and social justice. There was no doubt that Claude was the leading voice here.”

Mr. Sitton retired in 1990 and settled in Oxford, Ga.

Survivors include his wife of 61 years, Eva Whetstone Sitton of Atlanta; four children, Lea Stanley of Philadelphia, Suzanna Greene of Raleigh and Clint Sitton and Claude M. “Mac” Sitton, both of Atlanta; and nine grandchildren.

In his 1962 story about the black church in Georgia, Mr. Sitton noted how “the faces of the audience stiffened with fear” as the white officers threatened the people gathered within.

The people in the church “began humming a song of protest popularized during the sit-in demonstrations, ‘We Shall Overcome,’ ” Mr. Sitton wrote.

“And as the law officers withdrew to the outside, the song swelled to a crescendo.”
Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.

From The Washington Post Report by Matt Schudel. 10.03.13.


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