Essayist Roger Rosenblatt Discusses a New Book About the Civil Rights Movement

May 30, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Karl Fleming’s “Son of the Rough South,” a book he calls an “uncivil memoir,” is dedicated to all the reporters who did the right thing. Before doing the wrong thing myself, I should report that Karl is the husband of my colleague Anne Taylor Fleming, but that’s as far as the connection goes.

His memoir begins with his nearly being beaten to death by blacks in the Watts riots of 1966. Then it goes back to the time of whites beating blacks in the South, which he covered for Newsweek. He makes a kind of sense of the two seemingly irreconcilable events with a thought: What he was covering in both instances was the story of hatred, of the strong, who held down and beat up the weak. In a word: Bullies.

So, on the face of it, “Son of the Rough South” is about a moral conclusion. But in fact, it achieves its power — after a moving mid-section about his growing up in an orphanage — by suggesting how a moral conclusion is reached, for essentially, it is a book about reporting, about the art of reporting, which is both an expansive and minimalist art. The good reporter concentrates on what is happening. That’s all he does. And that practice is anti-moral conclusion, which is to say, it fends off reaching conclusions too readily.

Fleming covered the Civil Rights Movement, which was a story ready-built for moral conclusions. The wrong was out there, in your face: Hoses, clubs, epithets, mobs. Any reporter would be tempted to ride his high horse to a moral conclusion, and thus miss the details in which the devil resides. What made Fleming a good reporter was his attention to the detail.

An old Ku Klux Klan member complains to him that the young ones used iron pipes for the crosses instead of pine wood, which burns so much brighter. The young Klan members had no respect, he said, for tradition. Reporters are well advised to glom onto details for two main reasons: One obviously is that until you have gathered in all the details of a story, you don’t know how the story adds up. The second reason is more mysterious.

Among all the details of a story, one almost always rises to the mind’s surface. And that is where the story begins and ends. In that one small detail mysteriously settled upon, such as the difference between wood crosses and pipe crosses, lives a cosmos.

The better reporters have always known this. Tony Lewis, Frankie Fitzgerald, Nick Van Hoffman, David Halberstam, Gay Talese, Jack Nelson, Walter Pincus, and on and on. Bill Safire, recently retired columnist for the New York Times, based his columns on reporting as does Richard Cohen of the Washington Post, and John Leo of U.S. News and World Report and syndicated columnist Molly Ivins. Reporting is art of noticing what is there, everything that is there.

SPOKESMAN: Don’t you have some fear about being here.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Thence comes the story, hence the moral conclusion. Fleming reported what he saw in those civil rights years, everything he saw, and not what he thought about what he saw. And because of that, everyone would talk to him: Justice Department lawyers, southern sheriffs, young SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) volunteers, Ku Klux Klan traditionalists.

In a lifetime of watching, he noted how people stomp on one another, go wild and cause great harm. What he saw, he told, until the moral conclusion reached was as evident as any detail. That’s how it’s done. I’m Roger Rosenblatt.