Editor’s note: This story, which originally appeared at TampaBay.com, is being republished with the permission of the Tampa Bay Times.
When that Greyhound bus arrived in Montgomery, Alabama, more than 50 years ago, the protesters beat the journalists first, recalled U.S. Rep. John Lewis.
“It was very dangerous to be a reporter,” said the Georgia Democrat and civil rights leader. “If you had a pencil and a pad and if you had cameras, they would take the cameras and smash the cameras. And I saw reporters and photographers left lying in the street bleeding. And then they turned on us.”
It’s one of the many stories people will hear during his Thursday night keynote address celebrating the Pulitzer Centennial at the Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg.
The event, one of several nationwide, will be hosted by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which owns the Tampa Bay Times. It honors the 100th year of the Pulitzer Prizes awarded in journalism and the literary arts through Columbia University.
Lewis’ speech will kick off a series of events focused on social justice journalism — stories that shine a light on social inequalities. The events bring Pulitzer winners together to talk craft and the future of activist journalism.
Other names coming to town include prominent journalists Liz Balmaseda, Jacqui Banaszynski, Anne Hull, Clarence Williams, Diana Sugg, Tom Huang, Rob King, Gregory Favre, Leonard Pitts, Eugene Robinson, Cynthia Tucker and Stephen Henderson.
The event has a full roster of journalists who have reported and editorialized on significant social ills in the past 30 years. But few can say they’ve personally seen the American apartheid Lewis lived through.
Many of the journalists who documented his rise from a rural Alabama youth to a coordinator of the 1963 March on Washington won’t be there to hear him shower them with praise.
“There were some brave and courageous reporters who covered the South. I guess you would call it covering the Southern beat or the racial beat or the civil rights beat,” Lewis said in a phone interview with the Times. “The opposition didn’t want the story to be told what was happening and how it was happening.”
Journalists from mainstream and Black media converged on the South in the late 1950s and early 1960s to tell the stories of a burgeoning movement — one that would change the country.
Lewis said that in return, they often got vitriol and little support.
“It was lonely,” Lewis said. “There were sometimes only two or three here and two there. And there were very few women because it was so hard.”
Still, they pressed on, made friends of the civilly disobedient Blacks and shaped the narrative.
“If it hadn’t been for the media, for brave, courageous journalists, the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings,” Lewis explained. “I think the journalists of the period did attempt to make it plain to help educate and make it clear to the average reader.”
One such story is that of the 1961 Freedom Rides from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans aimed at making the government enforce desegregation of transportation passed by the U.S. Supreme Court. It was there, in a bus station in Montgomery, that Lewis and other members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee witnessed an angry mob turn their fists and weapons on a group of journalists documenting the event.
Nursing their own wounds, the journalists still told the story.
“I hope that people come away (from my speech) inspired, that the journalists that are still working will be inspired,” Lewis said. “I’m just going to tell the story as best I can tell it and thank them for all the great work that they have done, but there is still more work to be done. There are still too many people in America still suffering that have been left out and left behind.”
Poynter has invited the prize-winning journalists to move the conversation forward in two separate panels on Friday: “Social Justice Beyond Race” at the Poynter Institute and “The Future of Civil Rights and Social Justice Journalism” at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
Three of the four Pulitzer Centennial events have been sold out since last week. Only Poynter’s Great Pulitzer Prize Teach-In at 2:30 p.m. Friday still had spaces available on Tuesday. That panel will bring Pitts, Banaszynski, Sugg, and Henderson together with journalists Tom French, Ben Montgomery, Lane DeGregory, Alexandra Zayas (all previously or currently of the Tampa Bay Times), Keith Woods, Mario Garcia, Howell Raines and Roy Peter Clark to share their knowledge of the Pulitzer process and writing for the committee.