It is Friday, March 31, and an especially dark, warm night has closed in on the Embassy Suites in Montgomery, Alabama. The hotel stands next to Union Station, the city’s railway stop turned swanky visitors’ center, stocked with promo maps that show tourists where to find the Rosa Parks Museum and Library or the house where Martin Luther King Jr. lived while preaching at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
The hotel bar is crowded, and receptionists and bell hops rush around the brightly lit entrance hall. Tucked in the back of the lobby, a small group of sixty-something men and women mull around a buffet table. They hug like they’re at a family reunion and grab margaritas from the bar, all the while swapping stories about what they’ve been up to for the past forty years.
They are the former staff of The Southern Courier, a civil rights newspaper started in 1965 by two Harvard juniors. Many of them haven’t been south of the Mason-Dixon since 1968, when the paper put out its last issue. Some recognize each other, while others give quizzical looks as they reintroduce themselves to old friends. They have returned to Montgomery, the paper’s old headquarters, for a weekend reunion.
Forty years earlier, the group, heavily comprised of Harvard graduates, arrived in Alabama to report stories that the local and national press wouldn’t touch. These children of the 60s didn’t hoist signs or register voters. They told stories, mostly about people who had never been interviewed, let alone asked to have their picture taken for the paper.
“It’s as though we came to some place where people had never been reported on, and where the whole idea is that this could be a dignified experience in which there is self expression and their political and community concerns could be registered in some way. That was new to them,” says former Courier reporter and former Crimson associate managing editor Mary Ellen Gale ’62.
The Courier offered Alabama’s disenfranchised black community a voice that any paper worth its salt ought to offer, but that only the Courier provided. Now, 41 years after their first issue, the staff is back in Montgomery, ready to talk about their accomplishments. But they’re also ready to talk about the unclear legacy they’ve left behind in Alabama, where the story of the civil rights movement has yet to conclude.
‘THERE WAS NO COVERAGE OF BLACKS’
During the summer of 1964, more than 1,000 student volunteers, mostly white northerners, headed to Mississippi to register black voters.
The Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, though, quickly took a turn for the worse. Two white volunteers from New York and one black Mississippian were shot and killed inside of their car near Philadelphia, Miss.
Ellen Lake ’66 and her boyfriend Peter Cummings ’66, both Crimson editors and reporters, were also volunteering in Mississippi that summer. While she says she was shaken by the news of the murders, Lake still felt that danger was distant. It was only when she and a few friends, both black and white, drove down to a civil rights advocacy conference in Atlanta, Ga. the following spring that she began to sense how hostile things had become in the south.
“We stopped at a gas station,” says Lake, “and were threatened and followed—pursued—by two white men in a truck who wouldn’t sell us gas, and that made everything seem a lot more real than the conference did.”
Back in Cambridge, Cummings and Lake decided that they would return to the Deep South and confront the situation head on. This time, they would return not as activists, but journalists.
“There was really no coverage of civil rights, and there was no coverage of blacks except if they did something criminal,” Lake says. Despite the danger, they came to report on the violent outbursts, as well as the day-to-day struggles, of Alabama in the 1960s.
Their initial plan was to start a multi-state newspaper, comprised of an integrated staff and based in Atlanta. With the help of a few generous donors and a handful of friends from The Crimson, the duo came to Atlanta in the summerof 1965, between their junior and senior years at Harvard, to start The Southern Courier.
The $30,000 of seed money they raised was enough to rent a small office and employ an Atlanta printing press to publish the paper every week, as well as offer a $20 weekly salary to the paper’s reporters. The first issues included a full page of photographs and six pages of news content served up by cub reporters working throughout Alabama, which, after the Selma marches earlier that year, had become a flash point of civil rights activity.
As the paper began to focus almost exclusively on Alabama, Lake and her colleagues decided that it made the most sense to move the paper’s central offices to the state capital, Montgomery, and scrapped plans to have separate issues in separate states.
From there, reporters fanned out in one-man bureaus across the state, typing up copy and sending it off on Grey-hound buses to be printed each week.
Lake and Cummings, who had to return for their senior year at the end of the summer, offered to turn the paper over to Michael S. Lottman ’61, a former Crimson managing editor whom they knew only by reputation. Lottman, who says he was becoming increasingly frustrated with his reporting job at the Chicago Daily News, welcomed the invitation.
“When I did night police,” he says, referring to his work at the Daily News, “somebody would get killed, and they’d ask you, ‘what address?’ You’d tell what address. They’d say, ‘forget it, it’s black.’”
Lottman says he jumped at the chance. It would give him a break from what he calls a “humdrum existence” at the Daily News, and more importantly, it would give him a chance to tell the stories of people that his own paper eschewed.
“MY APPROACH WAS TO BE FAIR, TO BE OBJECTIVE”
The first roundtable session for the reunion was supposed to start at 10:00 a.m., but at half past, the old reporters and staff are still milling about the conference room at Auburn University Montgomery (AUM), thumbing through old issues of the Courier and admiring staff photographer James H. Peppler’s black and white images of poor black farmers, young shopkeepers, and newly registered black voters.
The staff members take their seats at a donut shaped group of tables, and spectators fill in about twenty chairs to hear the discussion, informally titled “The Impact of the Courier Experience on our Lives and Careers.” Former Courier reporter Robin Reisig, now a lecturer at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, moderates the conversation.
The forum, though, moves quickly from formal, moderated discussion and closer to lyrical story telling—not a surprise from a group of old reporters.
Gale, who also left her job at a big city newspaper to come to the Courier, explains that she’d had a similar experience to Lottman’s before coming south. At her paper, the Philadelphia Bulletin, saying that a person had “maroon eyes” was code for “black sources,” which meant that the editors should bury the story.
A spirit of frustration brought Gale, who recently discovered she is the sixth-great-granddaughter of an abolitionist minister, to Alabama as the Courier’s one-woman Tuskegee bureau.
Although an experienced reporter, Gale says that she was shaken by the sheer scale of intimidation she felt during her first few weeks. “They had the county license plates,” she says of Alabama in the 1960s, “and when you were outside your county, and you were a white person driving around in black areas, they would find you.”
And by “they,” she means a lot of people, including police officers, Klan members, and civilians who worked in a coordinated campaign—using CB radios to track both civil rights workers and outside reporters—to make the South a dangerous place for those who meddled in their business.
Of course, they were interlopers only in the eyes of those who did not welcome outsiders. For local black families and activists, the presence of dedicated reporters brought a new sense of optimism to Alabama’s smallest towns and largest cities.
“There was no other paper that reported on black people,” says Montgomery native Rubye H. Braye, one of eight siblings whose family was active in the black civil rights community. She sold the Courier around Montgomery for a dime, keeping a nickel as a commission.
Indeed, local papers often had what black Courier distributor Arlam Carr called a “Negro page” which reported on local or social news in the black community but never reported stories related to the civil rights movement. So the Courier picked up the slack.
“My approach,” says Lottman, “was to be fair, to be objective, to get both sides and not assume somebody’s right because he’s black or wrong because he’s white.”
Joan C. Turnow shared Lottman’s dedication to comprehensive reporting. While working for the Courier in Birmingham, she says she had doubts about police reports that a young black man who had been shot and killed by the police was warned with a warning shot before being killed. So she attended the autopsy at the medical examiner’s office and saw the warning shot—lodged in the man’s back.
Such determination to get the full story was standard practice at the Courier. Gale, covering state and local politics from her bureau in Tuskegee, relied on a network of informants who were eventually willing to feed her vital tips. One of her informants revealed vote-tampering methods that white officials were using when black residents tried to vote.
“He was telling me things to look for to see if the vote had been rigged. He knew because he had been part of the rigging of the vote in the past,” she explains.
But it wasn’t just the major stories—like local murders or vote tampering—that caught the attention of the young crew. “Talking to people about their ordinary lives, you got this window into how hard it was, and how incredibly brave so many people were,” says Gale.
One of those stories came out of the village of Bogue Chitto, Ala., where a Courier reporter found that the residents, overwhelmingly black, had no telephones. The Southern Bell Telephone Company had guaranteed the ramshackle community phone service, but while white neighbors had been chatting on their phones for months, the black residents were left with no connection to the outside world.
The Courier was the only paper to pick up the story, which was later re-reported in The New York Times in January 1968.
“I COULDN’T KEEP ON WORKING...WITHOUT KNOWING HE WAS ALIVE”
Nelson and Dean Malden live off I-65, not too far from a thoroughfare now called Rosa Parks Avenue. Mr. Malden ran a barbershop where he sold the Courier in Montgomery in the 1960s. He was one of many black business owners whom the Courier relied upon to distribute the paper.
He and his wife are hosting a cocktail party after a full day of discussions and speeches at AUM. But this time, everyone is punctual, lured by the full spread of food and drink in the Malden’s backyard.
Local friends and old Courier staffers mingle among tiki torches. Peppler, now a staff photographer at Newsday, has assembled a white screen and portable projector, showing photos of the reporters during their younger days in Alabama. A few folks laugh when a picture of John C. Diamante ’66 pops up: in the photo, he nonchalantly looks to the side in what appears to be a trademark grimace. Some fall silent when the picture of a Courier reporter who has since passed away flickers on the screen.
Many of the Courier’s old reporters have settled into the last stages of their careers. Lake, Lottman, and Gale all attended law school. Gale is now a professor at Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa, Calif.; Lake and Lottman are in private practice. Geoff L. Cowan ’64, former director of the governmental broadcasting service Voice of America, now serves on the journalism and law faculties at the University of Southern California, and was named dean of USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism in 1996.
Cowan and Robert E. Smith ’62, a former Crimson president and current publisher of the acclaimed newsletter Privacy Journal, were the fundraising workhorses at the Courier. They helped the paper secure a series of Ford Foundation grants that kept the paper afloat during its three-year run.
“A lot of people thought we should’ve been more self-supporting,” says Lottman, including the Ford Foundation. But getting local advertisers to buy space in a paper distributed throughout the state was a tall order.
The paper kept chugging along, though, drawing no small number of reporters from The Crimson. Stephen E. Cotton ’68, a Crimson editor, traveled to Alabama to report on the Courier.
He and the Courier’s Selma reporter, while they were touring the area, ended up running into one of the biggest newsmakers of the time.
“We wound up in some little diner someplace for lunch, and while we were sitting there, this hole in the wall half the size of this room,” says Cotton, indicating the size of the 20 by 30 foot bar he’s sitting in. “Who should walk in but Wallace and his bodyguard.” Wallace, of course, is then-Alabama Governor George C. Wallace, a segregationist with a flair for defiance.
Wallace’s bodyguard approached the young men, and when Wallace discovered they were reporters, he invited them to his table. At one point during their conversation, Wallace leaned in to confide in the reporters. “I hope one of them niggers in Washington kills an ambassador—that’ll put an end to this civil rights talk.”
Astonished, Cotton took a year off from Harvard to become a full-time reporter at the Courier as the paper’s Birmingham bureau.
The paper’s strength, though, would soon be sapped by the impending war in Vietnam. Reporters would leave, but fewer would take their places.
“The attention of the nation was moving to [Vietnam] and away from civil rights,” says Lake. Young activists now flocked back to their campuses to protest the growing war in Southeast Asia.
Besides Vietnam, the paper suffered two other significant blows. First, the Courier lost funding from the Ford Foundation. “It was never their favorite project,” says Lottman, who scrambled to find new funding sources but by late 1968 knew that the paper’s days were numbered.
Second, and perhaps more symbolically, the Courier’s staff and the greater movement lost King in 1968. King had, in fact, contributed an editorial to the Courier in its coverage of the tenth anniversary of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. For some, his death represented the end of the idealistic, non-violent movement.
Says Peppler, “I couldn’t keep working on the Courier without knowing he was alive.”
Without funding, without King, and without the reporting power that he and the paper once had, Lottman says that by 1968, it was time for the Courier to throw in the towel.
“For a while, if we were talking about a poverty program or something like that, sometimes the people from the federal regional office in Atlanta would get interested. You’d get a rise out of somebody, and I think it just got harder and harder to do that. People just weren’t as interested,” he says.
“WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN FOR THE LAST FORTY YEARS?”
The sun bears down on Pea Level, a country house in Wetumpka, Ala., so named because it sits on a plot of wooded land at the ideal height for growing peas. The yellow ranch house once belonged to the late Clifford J. and Virginia F. Durr, he a white civil rights attorney who bailed Rosa Parks out of jail, she one of the few white organizers of the subsequent bus boycott.
The two were often called the godparents of the Courier, inviting the young reporters into their house in Montgomery during their first days on the job. Those same reporters have now gathered at Pea Level on Sunday afternoon for a reception preceding the evening’s Durr Civil Rights Lecture at AUM, this year from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch, an expert on the civil rights movement.
Sporting more casual attire, the staffers nosh on ribs and biscuits, sipping sweet tea on the country house’s wraparound porch that overlooks the shaded creek below. The home’s current owner, a state mental health expert, snaps photos. The guests include local notables, including the civil rights era editor of the Montgomery Advertiser, Ray Jenkins.
The Advertiser quickly became the only game in town after Lottman closed the Courier in December 1968. He dutifully paid every last bill, selling the Courier’s fleet of cars for as little as $50 apiece to pay off debts to the printer.
Braye’s sister Barbara Howard, who started out as a typesetter at the Courier and rose to the position of associate editor, says she sorely missed the paper and its people. “After it became defunct, there was still a need for the Courier, the type of coverage that they gave,” she says.
But the Courier was gone, and so were most of the staffers. Lottman was one of the few who stayed in Alabama, where he attended law school, but he is still melancholic about the end of the Courier and the departure of its staff.
“It’s funny that people were so grateful for the Courier,” he says, “’cause I wouldn’t blame somebody for saying, so big deal, you were here for three and a half years. Where have you been for the last forty years?”
Indeed, despite great strides made in Montgomery since the 1960s, locals and old staff members said they wondered just how far things have actually come since then. Carr, who still lives in Montgomery, explains that the city continues to be segregated between the black west side and the white east side. Cotton says that when he went to the Civil Rights Center in Birmingham, he was disheartened to see two separate school classes there for a field trip: one all white, the other all black.
Many of the old reporters worry that their legacy is moot; that the risks they and their colleagues took were minor and perhaps futile in the face of an overwhelming system of segregation. “It’s going to take until some of them are in the ground for things to change,” says Carr of the old segregationists.
But perhaps these former reporters and staffers are verging on self-pity, overlooking the startlingly clear impact they made on young black people like Howard. She remembers how hard it was growing up in Montgomery in the 50s and 60s, and how the members of the Courier were her saving grace.
“I could see visible signs of love and caring, and whites wanting to, I guess, seek out freedom and equality and justice and to be color blind, but here I am, living in Montgomery, with people who are killing and shooting and calling me a nigger,” she says at the roundtable discussion on Saturday.
She recalls seeing some of these cruel faces on Sunday television, smiling as they left church. The contradiction made her furious.
“What God are they listening to that they could leave church and then come out and treat us with such inhumanity? And if it had not been for these folks that you see around the table giving evidence that God is love,” she says, “I truly don’t know if I could’ve come full circle—and in spite of my mother saying you have to love everybody.”
Lottman, too, believes that the paper’s legacy is most palpable among those whose lives it reached.
“People still have the paper forty years later, and not just ’cause their picture’s in it,” he says. “It kind of shows the kind of thing journalism can be; maybe it’s something journalism ought to get back to.”
He and the other members of The Southern Courier staff were just journalists doing their job by reporting objectively. But to people like Howard, stuck in a place and time mired in violence, those reporters were proof that alongside hatred there can also be hope.