This is the story of how America awakened to its race problem, of how a nation that longed for unity after World War II came instead to see, hear, and learn about the shocking indignities and injustices of racial segregation in the South—and the brutality used to enforce it.
It is the story of how the nation’s press, after decades of ignoring the problem, came to recognize the importance of the civil rights struggle and turn it into the most significant domestic news event of the twentieth century.
Drawing on private correspondence, notes from secret meetings, unpublished articles, and interviews, veteran journalists Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff go behind the headlines and datelines to show how a dedicated cadre of newsmen—first black reporters, then liberal southern editors, then reporters and photographers from the national press and the broadcast media—revealed to a nation its most shameful shortcomings and propelled its citizens to act.
We watch the black press move bravely into the front row of the confrontation, only to be attacked and kept away from the action. Following the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision striking down school segregation and the South’s mobilization against it, we see a growing number of white reporters venture South to cover the Emmett Till murder trial, the Montgomery bus boycott, and the integration of the University of Alabama.
We witness some southern editors joining the call for massive resistance and working with segregationist organizations to thwart compliance. But we also see a handful of other southern editors write forcefully and daringly for obedience to federal mandates, signaling to the nation that moderate forces were prepared to push the region into the mainstream.
The pace quickens in Little Rock, where reporters test the boundaries of journalistic integrity, then gain momentum as they cover shuttered schools in Virginia, sit-ins in North Carolina, mob-led riots in Mississippi, Freedom Ride buses being set afire, fire hoses and dogs in Birmingham, and long, tense marches through the rural South.
For many journalists, the conditions they found, the fear they felt, and the violence they saw were transforming. Their growing disgust matched the mounting countrywide outrage as The New York Times, Newsweek, NBC News, and other major news organizations, many of them headed by southerners, turned a regional story into a national drama.
Meticulously researched and vividly rendered, The Race Beat is an unprecedented account of one of the most volatile periods in our nation’s history, as told by those who covered it.
Faced with "a flying wedge of white toughs coming at him" as he interviewed a black woman after the 1955 Emmett Till lynching trial, NBC reporter John Chancellor thrust his microphone toward them, saying, "I don't care what you're going to do to me, but the whole world is going to know it." This gripping account of how America and the world found out about the Civil Rights movement is written by two veteran journalists of the "race beat" from 1954 to 1965. Building on an exhaustive base of interviews, oral histories and memoirs, news stories and editorials, they reveal how prescient Gunnar Myrdal was in asserting that "to get publicity is of the highest strategic importance to the Negro people." The New York Times and other major media take center stage, but the authors provide a fresh account of the black press's trajectory from a time when black reporters searched "for stories white reporters didn't even know about" through the loss of the black press's "eyewitness position on the story" in Little Rock to its recovery with the Freedom Rides. Although sometimes weighted by mundane detail and deadening statistics, the book is so enlivened with anecdotes that it remains a page-turner. (Nov. 21)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Before the civil rights movement, coverage of race was almost exclusively the purview of the black press, which reported on the plight of southern blacks facing brutality and Jim Crow laws and northern blacks facing a watered-down version of the same racism. Drawing on interviews, private correspondence and notes, and unpublished articles, Roberts, a journalism professor, and Klibanoff, managing editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, describe the personal and professional difficulties faced by southern-born white reporters as they took up the coverage, mostly for northern publications. They chronicle the coverage of the Emmett Till case, Selma march, Montgomery bus boycott, and bombings and sit-ins that constituted the civil rights movement. Roberts and Klibanoff also recall the hatred and threats of violence against white reporters as they dared to report on the turbulence in the South. By retelling the civil rights story from the perspective of the white reporters who covered it, Roberts and Klibanoff demonstrate the profound changes the movement wrought not only on U.S. social justice but also on American journalism. Vanessa Bush
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
"An important study of how journalists covered the civil rights movement. . . [An] impressively rich and critical book."
--David J. Garrow, The New York Times
" The Race Beat is a compelling reminder of the need for a vibrant and free press, with the resources and resourcefulness to shine a light on the nation's wrongs."
--Sarah Schweitzer, Boston Globe
"A masterpiece . . . The Race Beat is a riveting piece of social history that balances both its subjects brilliantly . . . There has never been a better study of the importance of a free press."
--Thomas Lipscomb, The Philadelphia Inquirer
"Reading this history . . . takes me back to my youth in vivid and intensely personal ways . . . It was at once one of the most terrible times in the nation's history and one of the most enthralling . . . The stories of these men . . . are essential to the history of the civil rights movement."
--Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World
"A richly textured and balanced narrative that reveals the strengths and weaknesses of the news media."
--Raymond Arsenault, The New York Times Book Review
"A magnificent recounting of a tumultuous period in our history . . . Rich in detail, powerful and compelling . . . A reminder of the importance of the press to a democracy."
--Anthony Marro, Newsday
"Heroes of the civil rights movement . . . are brought to life through the eyes of journalists who covered them . . . Research for The Race Beat is meticulous, uncovering many facts that have gone unreported in other books about the movement."
--Jerry Mitchell, The Chicago Sun-Times
" The Race Beat has good characters, good yarns and good thinking. Just as important, though, it's got a good heart."
--David Gates, Newsweek
"Just when you think there's nothing left to say about the civil rights movement . . . A fascinating history of how the media handled that story."
--Jon Wiener, The Los Angeles Times Book Review
"A smart and serious book . . . The Race Beat reminds us of the potential of the press to serve as a powerful tool for democracy."
--Michael O'Donnell, Christian Science Monitor
" The Race Beat is one of those remarkable works of history that make you see your own times more clearly."
--Eric Alterman, The Nation
"Bracing . . . Roberts and Klibanoff . . . use the prism of the reporters' experience to enhance understanding of the main storyline."
--David Greenberg, The American Prospect
"A work that is certain to take its place on the top shelf of books about the civil rights movement."
--Ray Jenkins, The Baltimore Sun
"Excellent . . . The Race Beat is a reminder that the newgathering business, done right, is capable of honor."
--Bill Millsaps, Richmond Times-Dispatch
"Remarkable . . . A meticulously researched and nuanced account . . . Demonstrates how honest journalism . . . changed the American South."
--E. Culpepper Clark, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution
"Powerful, absorbing . . . sheds much-needed light on an important era in American history."--Myron A. Marty, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
" The Race Beat reminded me of the rejuvenating energy to be found on the right side of a great story."--Steve Duin, The Oregonian
"Superb . . . Its scope is ambitious, its research is impressive and its journalistic portraits are memorable."
--Craig Flournoy, Dallas Morning News
"Finally, this epic is pulled together, and the stories could be in no better hands."
--William McKeen, St. Petersburg Times
"Reminds us of the heroism of civil rights demonstrators and strategists and introduces us to the bravery of the storytellers."
--Claudia Smith Brinson, The State (Columbia, South Carolina)
"A heartening and illuminating book about a time when some journalists got the story right, and did so to the enormous benefit of this country."
--Linda B. Blackford, The Lexington Herald-Leader
"A fascinating history of how the media handled [the civil rights] story."
-- Birmingham Times
"Roberts and Klibanoff hit history's bull's-eye, providing the reader with a gripping insight into the dual engines of cultural change: activism and media exposure."
--Boaz Dvir, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
"The . . . authors make a compelling and well-documented case that the [civil rights] movement's success was made possible only by the dogged efforts of the reporters committed to its coverage."
--Adam Emerson, The Tampa Tribune
"Probing . . . Reverberates with large lessons in democracy and justice . . . Every gracefully written page . . . prompts big thoughts about the nature of America."
--David K. Shipler, Columbia Journalism Review
"The authors demonstrate the profound changes the movement wrought not only on U.S. social justice but also on American journalism."
"[A] gripping account of how America and the world found out about the Civil Rights movement."
-- Publishers Weekly
"A sweeping, often engrossing narrative of the role that print and broadcast reporters played in the [civil rights] movement."
-- Library Journal
“I can think of no better illustration of the indivisible relationship between democracy and a free press than this account of the journalists who chronicled the civil rights movement, particularly the editorialists whose powerful voices struggled to keep the South in the mainstream. Roberts and Klibanoff have produced not only a splendid anecdotal narrative about one of the greatest beats in history but also an humbling examination of the process by which truth reveals itself, often after society has exhausted all means of ignoring it.”
–Diane McWhorter, author of Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climatic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution
“Roberts and Klibanoff have succeeded in telling the dramatic story of the extraordinary courage of great reporters like Bill Minor, Claude Sitton, John Herbers and Karl Fleming–war correspondents on native soil–during one of American journalism’s finest hours.”
“A great book, and it could not be more timely. Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff remind us of one of the proudest moments in our history: the way the U.S. press rose to its challenge in covering the civil rights movement that led to the ending of the shameful segregated society of our recent past. Theirs is a wise, and powerful, rendering of an epic achievement–one that, as Roberts and Klibanoff eloquently write, awakened the nation and summoned the best in the American character to right wrongs and uphold the proudest principles of our democracy.”
–Haynes Johnson, Pulitzer-Prize winner for his coverage of the Selma civil rights crisis
“This powerful, moving, well-researched account of the bravery and courage of the media at its finest hour is a must-read for every American, but especially for members of the press and for every student of journalism.”
–Congressman John Lewis
“A mountain of reporting, The Race Beat is about the courageous and unheralded black reporters who pioneered coverage of the historical insult of segregation, the white reporters who waded into the melee and forced America to pay attention, but it is also about southern journalists caught very publicly on the wrong side of history. With both sweep and a treasure of arresting detail, it is an important contribution to the history of 20th century America, and a vital portrait of the importance of journalism in our society.” –Mark Bowden, author of Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam
“ The Race Beat is a splendid, highly readable and thoroughly researched account of the complete spectrum of journalists, black and white, good and bad–including those whose commitment, courage and sheer talent gave the movement for social justice the ‘publicity’ it deserved.”
–Cynthia Tucker, editorial page editor, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Gene Roberts is a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. He was a reporter with the Goldsboro News-Argus and The Virginian-Pilot, and a reporter and editor with The News & Observer and the Detroit Free Press before joining The New York Times in 1965, where until 1972 he served as chief southern and civil rights correspondent, chief war correspondent in South Vietnam, and national editor. During his eighteen years as executive editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, his staff won seventeen Pulitzer Prizes. He later became the managing editor of the The New York Times.
A native of Alabama, Hank Klibanoff is the managing editor for news at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He is a former metro reporter, national correspondent based in Chicago, business editor, and deputy managing editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for twenty years. He was also a reporter for three years at The Boston Globe and six years in Mississippi for The Daily Herald, the South Mississippi Sun (now the Sun Herald) and the Delta Democrat-Times.
A good case can be made that the period from the mid- 1950s to the mid-1970s was the Golden Age of the American press -- a period bracketed, roughly, by Edward R. Murrow's exposure of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's mendacity in the anti-communist cause in 1954 and the resignation of Richard Nixon from the presidency two decades later following the disclosure, primarily in this newspaper, of the sordid details of the Watergate scandal. Between those signal events, the press covered the Vietnam War with a dogged insistence on uncovering the truth -- in sharp contrast to the tame acquiescence with which it reported the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 -- as well as the extraordinary social and cultural changes that swept through the country during those years.
Among those changes, none were more important than those initiated by the civil rights movement, and in no other story did the press distinguish itself so admirably and effectively. The reporters who fanned out through the South beginning in the mid-1950s were determined, resourceful and courageous. In print and on the air, they awakened the nation to the terrible conditions in which countless black Southerners lived and the daily denial of the most basic rights to which they were subjected. The best of their journalism -- and much of it was exceptionally good -- took no sides and preached no sermons but simply laid out the facts, which were all the country needed to begin the long, complicated and difficult task of fixing things.
No doubt I am prejudiced in this view of the press's performance in the civil rights era because I was an exceedingly minor participant in it, not as a reporter but as an editorial writer. During my junior and senior years at Chapel Hill, I was the editor of the student newspaper when the sit-ins began in 1960 in Greensboro, 55 miles to the west in the North Carolina Piedmont, and I wrote often about this and other forms of protest, including the student boycott of Chapel Hill's two segregated movie theaters. Then, in 1964, I moved to the Greensboro Daily News and spent a decade there writing editorials, often, again, on matters relating to civil rights ranging from protests to federal legislation.
In doing this work, I relied, daily, on facts and narratives supplied by the reporters out in the field. Their work provided the essential information on which the nation conducted its debate over how to assure the civil rights of African Americans. I say without embarrassment that these reporters were my heroes then, and that reading this history of their work by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff takes me back to my youth in vivid and intensely personal ways. It was at once one of the most terrible times in the nation's history and one of the most enthralling. On the one hand, ordinary American citizens were being jailed, beaten and even murdered for simply attempting to exercise their most basic rights as citizens; on the other hand, there was a pervasive, almost palpable sense of possibility, an understanding that the nation was at last beginning to live up to the promises in its Constitution and a hope that a better country might emerge at the end.
The stories of these men -- and with the notable exception of Hazel Brannon Smith, who owned a few small-town papers in Mississippi and wrote bravely against the racist White Citizens' Council, they all were men -- may seem inside baseball for journalists, but they are essential to the history of the civil rights movement and thus of broad interest. The authors are well qualified for the task. Roberts, who now teaches at the University of Maryland, had a long and distinguished career during which he often reported from the civil rights front lines; so, too, did Klibanoff, now the managing editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who began his career working on three different small Mississippi papers. At times, their attention drifts away from the press and onto rehashes of familiar stories -- the murder of Emmett Till, the march in Selma, the mob violence at the University of Mississippi, the church bombing in Birmingham -- but these may be useful to younger readers for whom, alas, these events are ancient and perhaps unknown history.
The authors take their cue from Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish lawyer and political economist whose study of race in the United States, An American Dilemma, was the seminal book on its subject. Published in 1944, it painted a grim picture of the lives of black Americans and argued, passionately, as Roberts and Klibanoff put it, "that if the mainstream press told the southern racial story, the rest of the nation would be 'shocked and shaken' and demand sweeping changes." No one in the press deliberately or consciously set out to publicize the plight of African Americans, but events forced the media's hands, and ultimately exactly what Myrdal had urged came to pass.
It started slowly and uncertainly. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the South was terra incognita to the rest of the country. Newspapers did not cover events there -- the New York Times, usually the leader in such matters, did not appoint its first full-time Southern correspondent until 1947 -- and if white Americans thought about the South at all, they thought about "Gone With the Wind." Not until the murder of Till in Mississippi in August 1955 -- a 16-year-old visiting from Chicago, he was killed and thrown into a river by two white men for allegedly whistling at a white woman -- did the mainstream press begin to discover what was going on down South. The killing aroused intense interest in the Northern black press, and eventually the rest of the press caught on to the story as well. The acquittal of his killers was so obviously a perversion of justice that it called into question the entire judicial system of the South and left no doubt about the injustices to which it subjected blacks.
One of the white journalists who covered the trial was a white man from Alabama named William Bradford Huie, a freelance writer and occasional novelist of uncommon resourcefulness and guts. After the acquittal, he persuaded the killers to tell him their story -- what he persuaded them with was money -- then sold it to Look magazine, which published it in January 1956. It "was a detailed, narrative reenactment showing how [the killers] had beaten, tortured, killed, and submerged Till," and it shocked the nation. After this there was no turning back; the civil rights movement rose to the forefront and stayed there for years.
Some of the journalists who kept it there were Southern-born editors who defied local majority opinion among whites and wrote forthrightly, sometimes passionately, about the race question: Ralph McGill in Atlanta, Hodding Carter and P.D. East and Hazel Brannon Smith in Mississippi, Buford Boone in Alabama, Lenoir Chambers in Norfolk, Va., and, at the head of the class, Harry Ashmore in Little Rock. Few now remember their names except as they appear in histories of journalism. Ditto for the reporters: Claude Sitton and John Herbers of the New York Times, Robert E. Lee Baker of The Washington Post, John Chancellor and Sander Vanocur of NBC News, Joe Cumming of Newsweek, Simeon Booker of Ebony and Jet magazines, Carl Rowan of the Minneapolis Tribune, Howard K. Smith of CBS News, Ted Poston of the New York Post, Jack Nelson of the Los Angeles Times.
The most important of these was Sitton. He was 32 years old when, in 1958, the managing editor of the Times, a native of Mississippi named Turner Catledge, pulled him off the copy desk and sent him to Atlanta to cover the South: "The civil rights story needed a reporter who knew the region well, had the right accent, abided by all the rules, wouldn't get emotionally involved, wouldn't argue with anyone, wouldn't become the news, who would just write what he saw, wouldn't get beat, wouldn't get snookered, and was willing to give up his family, perhaps his life, for the story." Sitton was all that and more. He "set into motion a level of reporting that would establish the national standard for two decades." He was little known among readers, except those who remember bylines, but his fellow journalists were in awe of his tenacity, thoroughness and quiet, intense courage. For six years (he became national news director of the Times in 1964), he was the best reporter in the country; to me, in my early 20s, he was the exemplar nonpareil, the best that a journalist can hope to be.
There were un-Sittons, too. Thomas R. Waring Jr. of the Charleston News and Courier was "as forceful a spokesman for segregation as there was in the South"; Harry Ashmore said that "the News and Courier feels that what's wrong with this country is democracy." Both newspapers in Jackson, Miss., owned by the Hederman family, were "fervently segregationist." Grover Hall of the Montgomery Advertiser took a moderate tack at first but eventually aligned himself with George Wallace. In Richmond, James Jackson Kilpatrick of the News-Leader embraced the sham doctrine of interposition -- it held that the individual states could nullify federal laws they believed to be unconstitutional -- and egged Virginia on toward the "massive resistance" that left a lasting stain on the state.
Mostly, though, the journalists stuck to the facts, reporting and interpreting them thoroughly, fairly and honestly. As the years passed many of them became more and more sympathetic to the protesters whom they covered, but they kept their opinions and emotions to themselves unless they were commentators rather than reporters. They did us all -- their fellow journalists and their fellow Americans -- proud.
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
An American Dilemma:
“An Astonishing Ignorance . . .”
The winter of 1940 was a cruel one for Gunnar Myrdal, and spring was shaping up even worse. He was in the United States, finishing the research on the most comprehensive study yet of race relations and the condition of Negroes in America. But he was having trouble reaching conclusions, and he struggled to outline and conceptualize the writing. “The whole plan is now in danger of breaking down,” he wrote the Carnegie Foundation, which was underwriting his project.
What’s more, the gathering crisis in Europe had thrown him into a depression; he feared for the very existence of his native Sweden. In April, Nazi Germany had invaded Denmark and Norway. Myrdal believed Sweden would be next. He put aside more than two years of work by 125 researchers and began arranging passage home for himself, his wife, Alva, and their three children. He and Alva wanted to fight alongside their countrymen if the worst should come. The boat he found, the Mathilda Thorden, a Finnish freighter, was laden with explosives, and the captain tried to dissuade the Myrdals from boarding the dangerous ship. When this failed, the captain jokingly urged Myrdal to look on the bright side. He would not have to worry about his family freezing to death in icy waters. If German U-boats attacked, the resulting explosion would almost certainly kill everyone instantly.
The U-boats did not attack, and the Myrdals arrived in Sweden only to be appalled by what was happening there. Rather than preparing for war with Germany, the Swedish government was seeking an accommodation with the Nazis.
Knowing that Germany was monitoring the Swedish press for anti-German sentiment, the government first confiscated copies of anti-Nazi newspapers; then, emboldened, it interfered with the distribution of one of the nation’s most important dailies, Göteborgs Handelstidning. This, Myrdal believed, could not happen in America. He was outraged. “The press is strangled,” he wrote to a Swedish friend in the United States. “Nothing gets written about Germany. News is suppressed.”1
There and then, Myrdal’s understanding of America and its race relations became crystallized. In a book that quickly took precedence over his Carnegie project, then became its seed, Gunnar and Alva Myrdal wrote Kontakt med Amerika ( Contact with America), which was crafted largely to rally Swedish resistance against Hitler. In Kontakt, published in 1941, the Myrdals argued that Swedes had much to learn from America about democracy, dialogue, and self-criticism. “The secret,” they wrote, “is that America, ahead of every other country in the whole Western world, large or small, has a living system of expressed ideals for human cooperation which is unified, stable and clearly formulated.”2 The Carnegie project, they added, was evidence of America’s willingness to sanction a sweeping examination and discussion of a national problem.
Almost all of America’s citizens, the Myrdals said, believed in free speech and a free press. Americans respected other viewpoints even when they strongly disagreed. As a result, diverse ethnic groups were living with one another in peace while Europe was tearing itself apart.
Before writing Kontakt, Myrdal didn’t have the insight or context he needed for his weightier book on race in America. Nor did he have the words he felt would serve as the road map to change. Three years earlier, in 1938, he had reached the South, the dark side of the moon. There, he had found an enigmatic, sometimes exotic, always deeply divided and repressive society whose behavior was known to, but overlooked by, the world beyond. In pursuit of an understanding and insight that was still beyond his grasp, his immersion had been total, the details of his discoveries had been staggering, and he had come to a point where he was no longer horrified by the pathology of racism or stunned by the cruelty and pervasiveness of discrimination. He had found himself fascinated by the way an entire social order had been built, and rationalized, around race.
By early 1940, Myrdal frequently found himself feeling oddly optimistic about attitudes he found despicable, and he was moving, somewhat unwittingly, toward the conclusion that would become the core definition of his landmark work, An American Dilemma: that Americans, for all their differences, for all their warring and rivalries, were bound by a distinct “American creed,” a common set of values that embodied such concepts as fair play and an equal chance for everyone. He was coming to that view in the unlikeliest of settings. He had been able to sit with the rapaciously racist U.S. senator from Mississippi Theodore Bilbo, listen to his proposal for shipping Negroes back to Africa, ask why he hadn’t proposed instead that they be sterilized, and come away uplifted by Bilbo’s answer. “American opinion would never allow it,” Bilbo had told him. “It goes against all our ideals and the sentiments of the people.”3
But for all his excitement, information, and knowledge, Myrdal remained mystified. How had the South’s certifiable, pathological inhumanity toward Negroes been allowed to exist for so long into the twentieth century? Why didn’t anyone outside the South know? If they did know, why didn’t they do something about it? Who could do something about it? Who would? Where would the leadership for change come from?
Myrdal returned to the United States and his racial study in 1941, brimming with the insights he would need for An American Dilemma to have an impact on the country.4 Seeing his homeland’s willingness to trade freedoms for security of another kind, Myrdal came to appreciate the vital role the American press could play in challenging the status quo of race relations.
In Sweden, newspapers wanted to report the news but were blocked by the government. In America, the First Amendment kept the government in check, but the press, other than black newspapers and a handful of liberal southern editors, simply didn’t recognize racism in America as a story. The segregation of the Negro in America, by law in the South and by neighborhood and social and economic stratification in the North, had engulfed the press as well as America’s citizens. The mainstream American press wrote about whites but seldom about Negro Americans or discrimination against them; that was left to the Negro press.
Myrdal had a clear understanding of the Negro press’s role in fostering positive discontent. He saw the essential leadership role that southern moderate and liberal white editors were playing by speaking out against institutionalized race discrimination, yet he was aware of the anguish they felt as the pressure to conform intensified. There was also the segregationist press in the South that dehumanized Negroes in print and suppressed the biggest story in their midst. And he came to see the northern press—and the national press, such as it was—as the best hope for force-feeding the rest of the nation a diet so loaded with stories about the cruelty of racism that it would have to rise up in protest.
“The Northerner does not have his social conscience and all his political thinking permeated with the Negro problem as the Southerner does,” Myrdal wrote in the second chapter of An American Dilemma. “Rather, he succeeds in forgetting about it most of the time. The Northern newspapers help him by minimizing all Negro news, except crime news. The Northerners want to hear as little as possible about the Negroes, both in the South and in the North, and they have, of course, good reasons for that.
“The result is an astonishing ignorance about the Negro on the part of the white public in the North. White Southerners, too, are ignorant of many phases of the Negro’s life, but their ignorance has not such a simple and unemotional character as that in the North. There are many educated Northerners who are well informed about foreign problems but almost absolutely ignorant about Negro conditions both in their own city and in the nation as a whole.”5
Left to their own devices, white people in America would want to keep it that way, Myrdal wrote. They’d prefer to be able to accept the stereotype that Negroes “are criminal and of disgustingly, but somewhat enticingly, loose sexual morals; that they are religious and have a gift for dancing and singing; and that they are the happy-go- lucky children of nature who get a kick out of life which white people are too civilized to get.”6
Myrdal concluded that there was one barrier between the white northerner’s ignorance and his sense of outrage that the creed was being poisoned. That barrier was knowledge, incontrovertible information that was strong enough, graphic enough, and constant enough to overcome “the opportunistic desire of the whites for ignorance.”
“A great many Northerners, perhaps the majority, get shocked and shaken in their conscience when they learn the facts,” Myrdal wrote. “The average Northerner does not understand the reality and the effects of such discriminations as those in which he himself is taking part in his routine of life.”
Then, underscoring his point in italics, Myrdal reached the conclusion that would prove to be uncannily prescient. Even before he got to the fiftieth page of his tome, he wrote, “To get public...