L. Alex Wilson
A reporter who refused to run
The sidewalks and streets surrounding the massive Central High School in Little Rock had become forbidding for blacks and foreboding for reporters in the edgy three weeks after Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus abruptly derailed school desegregation in September 1957.
Confident that the Negroes would be kept out by the cordon of Arkansas National Guardsmen surrounding the school, crowds of angry whites—many having no connection to the school or to Little Rock—arrived every morning to demonstrate their disapproval of integration. They watched white students enter the school and kept a watchful eye to make sure black students, though backed by a federal court order allowing them in, didn’t try to sneak in. White reporters and cameramen faced relentless heckling, physical taunts and spittle. Black reporters faced worse. The story had drawn many of the most experienced journalists in the black press, reporters who had braved the back roads of the South and pioneered civil rights coverage long before it caught on with the mainstream white press. But as they tried to penetrate the scene around the high school, they met scorn and stonewalling as National Guardsmen quickly moved them off the premises and away from the story.
On the warm Monday morning of Sept. 23, the integration stalemate broke and the story changed. The National Guard, following a federal court edict, had withdrawn. The white crowds stayed, however, leaving the school’s grounds and perimeter beyond the control of authorities. Black students on their way to the school in a station wagon were heading into an unpredictable mob scene.
At the same time, in a separate car, intent on witnessing and covering the moment firsthand, were four seasoned black newsmen. Their leader was the tall, dark-skinned and serious L. Alex Wilson, the editor and general manager of the Tri-State Defender of Memphis, Tennessee—the newspaper that was the southern outpost of the Chicago Defender, one of the foremost black newspapers in the United States.
Wilson, the most honored of the black journalists on the story and, at age 49, the senior member of the group, was behind the wheel. He was accompanied by Jimmy Hicks, editor of the Amsterdam News of New York City, Moses Newson, formerly of the Tri-State Defender and now on his first assignment for the Baltimore Afro-American, and Earl Davy, a commercial photographer carrying a Graflex camera who was taking pictures that day for the local black newspaper, L.C. and Daisy Bates’ Arkansas State Press.
Wilson parked the car and led the way as the four newsmen started walking toward the school. His height, 6-foot-4, and darkness made it impossible for him to enter the scene unnoticed. He carried himself with dignity but without a hint of haughtiness. As tall as he was, he was not imposing. His shoulders were somewhat sloped and he carried himself slightly bent forward, in the manner not of a black man trying to make himself less intimidating to a white world, but of a tall man trying to negotiate a world of shorter people.
Wilson was dressed smartly, but not flamboyantly, in a dark, crisp suit. He kept his coat fastened at the middle button and wore a tan, wide-brimmed hat. As Wilson and the other newsmen walked, he could see they were approaching a crowd of white people that numbered in the hundreds and was growing, it seemed, with each step forward. Within moments, he could feel the angry presence of white men gathering behind him and gaining ground.
“Get out of here!”
“Go home, you son of a bitch nigger.”
Two men jumped in front of the newsmen and spread out their arms.
“You’ll not pass,” one said.
“We are newspapermen,” Wilson responded.
“We only want to do our jobs,” said Hicks.
“You’ll not pass.”
With anger and chaos seething all around him, with racist hatred running wildly out of control and with the possibility that he and his colleagues would die on the streets of Little Rock, Wilson would come face-to-face with a vow he had silently made to himself many years earlier: He would not, under any circumstances, show fear or run. The day would be as fateful for Wilson as it was for the nine Little Rock students and for the nation.
Civil rights was a series of disparate events not yet called a movement, and the honor roll of modern civil rights martyrs was still short, when John H. Sengstacke, the Chicago Defender publisher and editor, looked south in 1951 and saw opportunity.
In Memphis, pivotally positioned to cover Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama, Sengstacke saw a chance to gain a foothold with a black-owned, black-focused weekly newspaper that could cover the frontier of the emerging civil rights story more quickly, more aggressively and with greater impact than could his Chicago staff.
Success was not certain. Sengstacke would be going head-to-head with an equally prominent black newspaper family, the Scotts of Atlanta, whose World newspapers in Atlanta, Birmingham and Memphis were well established and traditional reading in black households in the South. The Memphis World, for example, had been publishing for two decades. The Scotts reflected the politics of the prewar black South: while they demanded the full rights of citizenship for all black Americans, they were gradualists. They were outspoken against agitation that went beyond their editorial pages, and they tended to give the white establishment the benefit of the doubt.
As the 1950s began, much of the black press was already onto stories of brutality that the white press was missing, ignoring or belittling. Few black leaders died as heroes in the white press, North or South. In much of the Southern white press, early leaders who were killed for their activism were portrayed as dying in freakish incidents or under mysterious circumstances or of self-inflicted wounds. It would be the black press that would seek and discover evidence of homicide where sheriffs found none. The 1955 death of Rev. George Lee, a pastor of four churches, a grocer and a leader of a voter registration drive in the Mississippi Delta, was treated as an “odd accident” in the Jackson, Mississippi, Clarion Ledger, leaving it to the black press to point out that his pierced vocal chords and the lead pellets embedded in the remains of his face suggested homicide. Similar differences in coverage came that year after the murders of Lamar Smith in Brookhaven, Mississippi, and Clinton Melton in Sumner, Mississippi.
But getting to the stories was difficult. The black press typically didn’t fly to assignments, and bus rides into the backwaters were fraught with danger and, of necessity, cloaked with deception. Black reporters dispatched from Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Chicago and Detroit to cover stories of lynchings, beatings and castrations would shed their suits and ties and put on dusty bib overalls and a low-headed shuffle in order to slip into a Southern town and start reporting.
To Sengstacke, the closer he could get his reporters to the action, the better. To raise the flag over his new paper and send the message that it was ready to take on the South, Sengstacke in 1952 sent one of his most trusted reporters and editors to Memphis to serve as general manager and to rally the newspaper—L. Alex Wilson.
Sengstacke got more than a good Memphis paper out of the deal. He got a newspaper perfectly positioned in time and geography to cover the dawn of the civil rights activities in the region, “as if cued to appear by some divine plan,” Wilson’s wife, Emogene, herself a newspaperwoman, would write later.
Wilson, born in Orlando, Florida, in 1908, had known as a child that he wanted to be a newspaperman. Most afternoons, he would come home from school and disappear into his bedroom, where his mother would find him writing, writing, writing. He got his bachelor’s degree at Florida A&M, studied in the highly regarded journalism program at Lincoln University in Missouri and did graduate work at the University of Wisconsin and Roosevelt College in Chicago before serving as a Marine in World War II.
Wilson turned first to teaching, becoming an assistant principal, then principal, of high schools in north central Florida. In racial temperament, north central Florida was historically only slightly less virulent than the worst parts of the South.
In the same way that Emmett Till would become the most defining event in the childhood lives of Negro children in Mississippi, the terrifying story of Claude Neal made an indelible impression on Negro residents in north and central Florida. Neal, accused in 1934 of killing a white woman, had been dragged by a mob from an Alabama jail. As Neal was being transported to Marianna, in the Florida panhandle, newspaper and radio stories gave advance notice of the lynching, giving about 4,000 people time to get to the scene. Neal was scalded repeatedly with a hot iron, castrated and dragged through the streets before being stretched and displayed in a tree. By some accounts, he was forced to eat his own genitals, and his fingers and toes were put on display in the town.
In Leesburg, Florida, where Wilson was teaching, the Ku Klux Klan periodically paraded through town to intimidate Negro residents, who needed little prompting to conjure the image of Claude Neal and other victims. The first time Wilson saw such a parade, he had an epiphany that would influence his behavior on the streets of Little Rock. As the Klan muscled its way through town, Negro residents scattered in fear. Wilson was among them. Forever after, Wilson hated himself for fleeing. He never forgot it, he never forgave himself, and he vowed never to run away again.
From teaching, Wilson turned to journalism to fulfill his childhood ambition to write, working for a number of newspapers before landing at the influential Norfolk Journal and Guide in Virginia. He won a reputation as a terrific reporter. As a correspondent covering the Korean War, he won black journalism’s highest honor, the Wendell Wilkie Award. His demeanor underscored that reputation. His clipped, professorial speech and his stern visage provoked uprightness and formality in others, so much that his colleagues—even in their most casual, shorthand conversations—frequently referred to him not as “Alex” or “Wilson” but as “L. Alex Wilson.” He could be so dour, his friends joked, that he didn’t smile much because it hurt when he did.
Still, Wilson’s colleagues marveled at his ability to work his way inside fortresses of white power and come out with something without seeming to compromise anything. Soon after signing up with Sengstacke and arriving in Memphis, Wilson moved quickly to establish the Tri-State Defender as authoritative, essential reading for anyone interested in politics there.
In 1955, Wilson’s eloquent editorial support for mayoral candidate Edmund Orgill helped produce a record black turnout on Election Day and an Orgill victory. That same year, Wilson editorially censured the Peabody Hotel for allowing blacks only limited use of the hotel under demeaning conditions. Two years later, Wilson’s news and editorial pages strongly supported a boycott against the Memphis Commercial Appeal until it finally agreed to make significant changes in its coverage of blacks, including use of the same courtesy titles accorded whites mentioned in stories.
Under Wilson, the Tri-State Defender relentlessly pursued equal opportunity and maintained a healthy sense of outrage. When members of a U.S. Senate subcommittee asked Nobel Peace Prize-winner Ralph Bunche if he was a Communist, the Defender warned, “The Statue of Liberty will be next.”
In the fall of 1955, when word leaked out of the Delta that Emmett Till—a black, 14-year old Chicago boy—had been carried off from his uncle’s home at night by two white men, no newspaper, black or white, was better prepared than the Tri-State Defender. Even before Till’s naked, tortured, bloated and decomposing body emerged from the Tallahatchie River three days after he was abducted, Wilson was working the story with another Tri-State Defender reporter, Moses Newson, a fellow Floridian and Lincoln University journalism alum with whom he would walk the mean streets of Little Rock two years later, and with black photographer Ernest C. Withers. Over the next several weeks, their stories and photos, topped by giant, boldface headlines, would dominate the Defender papers in Chicago and Memphis.
The Till trial took place in Sumner, Mississippi, only three weeks after the abduction. From the first day, black reporters were subjected to a sheriff whose daily courtroom greeting was “ ‘Mawning, nigguhs.” Following an appeal by Wilson and some white reporters, including The New York Times’ Johnny Popham, the judge intervened with the sheriff and had a large table set up in the courtroom for about 10 black reporters and photographers.
Even the harshest critics of Jim Crow justice believed that the prosecutor was making an earnest effort to convict the defendants and that the judge was being fair-minded in his handling of the case. But the sheriff’s investigation was lackadaisical, and the prosecutor lacked witnesses that everyone in the black community knew existed: the field hands who had seen Till with the defendants in their truck, who had seen the truck drive into a barn, who had heard the beating and screaming, and who had seen the truck leave the barn and head for the river. Indeed, word was out that two of the field hands had been on the truck with Till, had been inside the barn during the beating and had been ordered to clean the blood from the barn floor.
Encouraged by prominent black leaders in the Delta, Wilson and a group of enterprising black journalists decided to seek out the witnesses themselves. A couple of white reporters were brought in to the hunt as well; their credibility with white law enforcement authorities would be needed in order to hand over the witnesses. Working deep into the night as the trial was in progress, Wilson and the others drove bravely across the dirt roads that spiderwebbed through the flat cotton fields and led to the doors of sharecropper homes. Eventually, the reporters pulled in three witnesses who reluctantly agreed to testify and who lent great weight to the prosecution’s case. But the two who were said to have been inside the barn eluded the searchers.
The jury took an hour to acquit the defendants. “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop,” said one juror, “it wouldn’t have taken that long.” The verdict was not unexpected but upset Wilson nonetheless. He decided to stay on the case, to drive deeper into the Delta seeking the other witnesses. “The smooth hum of the auto motor did not dispel the danger involved in the mission,” he later wrote in the Defender papers. “I was not shaken by fear. I had decided before leaving home, and after communing with God, that if I could in any way help to contribute anything to justice in this shameful case ... whatever the price, so be it.” After four days that he described as “harrowing, danger filled,” Wilson finally tracked down one of the supposed witnesses, Levy “Too Tight” Collins, and drove him to Chicago to be questioned for two days by the newspaper’s general counsel.
For days, the Chicago and Memphis papers made an enormous splash with Wilson’s coup and featured front-page photographs showing “Too Tight” sitting with Sengstacke. In the end, Collins denied knowing anything about the murder. Wilson’s articles made it clear he didn’t believe Collins: “Collins’ denial does not completely clear him of implication in our knowledge of the crime,” Wilson reported. “There remains a haunting suspicion that Collins knows more than the Defender was able to elicit from him.”
Two years later, trying to get into position to chronicle history on the streets of Little Rock, Wilson was facing an even more harrowing, danger-filled encounter. Feeling the heat of angry white men blocking him and his three colleagues from front and behind, Wilson turned to a policeman and showed his press card. “You better leave,” the policeman said. “Go on across the sidewalk.” Wilson and the others obeyed, only to realize that the officer had let the white thugs follow them and close in.
“Anyone got a rope?” one white man shouted. “We’ll hang ’em. I can get one awful quick.”
In a phone booth nearby, Associated Press’s top spot reporter, Relman (Pat) Morin, was just finishing a conversation with Little Rock bureau chief Keith Fuller. “Not much to report,” Morin told Fuller. He dictated some color and was wrapping it up when he heard the piercing yell of whites who saw Wilson, the photographer Earl Davy and the two other newsmen, Jimmy Hicks and Moses Newson, heading their way: “The niggers are coming!”
Morin saw everyone turn away from the school and move in a new direction. “Hang on!” Morin yelled into the phone, “Hang on! There’s a helluva fight starting.”
“Roll it,” Fuller told Morin calmly. Turning quickly to another editor at the office, Fuller blurted, “Get ready for a bulletin.”
Suddenly, two men, one wearing a crash helmet, assaulted Davy. They caught him, muscled him toward some high grass and slugged and kicked him. Others smashed his Graflex camera onto a concrete sidewalk, destroying his film. Another group of white men sputtered curses as they kicked and hit Newson and Hicks until the reporters broke free and ran away.
Morin, with a clear view inside the phone booth, held his position, opened the door to hear the commotion better and breathlessly dictated everything he saw and heard.
As the assault continued, the station wagon with the nine black students eased up to the south entrance of the school, and the students and two adults emerged. As they entered Central High, they examined the crowd with curiosity but little interest.
Meanwhile Wilson—taunted, pushed and slapped as he kept walking—was suddenly rushed from behind by a man who planted one foot, swung the other as hard as he could in the manner of a field goal kicker and slammed his shoe into the base of Wilson’s spine. Another man kicked Wilson so hard that the reporter’s lanky frame looked as if it would fold. Still, he lurched forward. Seeing that his hat had been knocked to the ground, Wilson stopped. Slowly, almost casually, as if to give them no credit for altering his course, he bent down to pick it up. In that moment, he had a chance to run, and he might well have been able to get away. But he had made that vow, long before, in Florida. “I decided not to run,” he wrote later. “If I were to be beaten, I’d take it walking if I could—not running.”
As the mob darted in and out at him, throwing punches and kicks, Wilson picked up his hat, stood erect and took some time to run his hand along the crease. His refusal to show fear infuriated the mob. “Run, damn you, run,” one man yelled. More punches came. Wilson, though surrounded, moved ahead.
As television cameramen and still photographers recorded the action, a man jumped onto Wilson’s back and wrapped his left arm around Wilson’s neck in a stranglehold. Two feet away, a burly man gripping a brick stared at the immobilized Wilson, ready to start swinging. But he couldn’t. A man standing beside him kept a tight grip on his arm, preventing him from swinging the brick. As the man on Wilson’s back drove him to the ground, the man with the brick got close enough to crack Wilson’s skull. Again he was pulled back. Finally the man with the brick settled for a hard kick into the center of Wilson’s chest. Wilson, hiding his anger, looked at the man and wished at that moment that he could meet him one-on-one.
Wilson, still holding his hat even as he fell to the ground, raised himself up, recreased his hat and kept walking. He looked straight ahead. Then he took one last powerful blow to the head—some witnesses later said it was the brick this time—before being pushed away by the crowd. The nine Negro students had quietly slipped into the high school.
As the mob went wild with the realization that the school had been integrated, Wilson walked to his car. He still had not unfastened the middle button of his suit coat.
Wilson was hurt in two ways that day. When he dictated his story, he noted that the attack on the journalists served as a decoy while the nine students entered Central High School. The story’s headline in the Tri-State Defender said the journalists participated in a ruse to help the students. Wilson had not meant to suggest that the decoy was purposeful; it had just turned out that way as the attack coincided with the arrival of the students.
Wilson was able to correct that misimpression in the next issue. What he couldn’t correct—what he didn’t even recognize initially—was the permanent physical damage he sustained that day.
Wilson’s performance in Memphis earned him a promotion, to become editor of the larger and more influential Chicago Defender. Not long after he arrived in early 1959, he began experiencing what his wife called a “nervous ailment,” which seems likely to have been Parkinson’s Disease. As his situation worsened, Wilson’s wife and friends concluded that the condition had been brought on by the beating he took in Little Rock.
Wilson died on Oct. 11, 1960, at age 51. His body was returned to Memphis for burial. The Tri-State Defender ran a photograph across the top of its front page showing
Wilson lying in state. Above it was the headline: editor wilson back home—to stay.
Hank Klibanoff is Sunday editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is working on
a book with Gene Roberts about the news coverage of the civil rights movement in the South.