Journalists uncover the facts. They’re instructed to seek the truth and report it.
But they’re also supposed to get in the way.
That’s the challenge U.S. Rep. John Lewis set before a crowd of more than 800 people Thursday night who gathered at The Palladium Theatre in St. Petersburg, Florida, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prizes.
“You must not give up,” an impassioned Lewis told the crowd. “You must hold on. Tell the truth. Report the truth. Disturb the order of things. Find a way to get in the way and make a little noise with your pens, your pencils, your cameras.”
Thursday’s event focused on journalists who did just that while covering the tumult of the civil rights movement, along with the stories, photos, music and poetry that shaped the fight for equality and social justice during some of the most turbulent decades in American history.
In a program that paid tribute to these award-winning works, special attention was given to a dozen editorial writers whose careers spanned the classic period of the civil rights movement, from 1946 to 1972.
“These Southern editorialists — 11 White men and one White woman — would risk life, limb, and livelihood to write what they believed,” said Kanika Jelks Tomalin, the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. “That the South must change, that legal barriers to equality must be torn down, that violence and hatred must give way to peace, tolerance, and justice.”
But the history of the prizes isn’t about “progressive White people rescuing Black people from racial violence,” said Roy Peter Clark, a vice president and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, which hosted the event.
“They are, instead, about White editorialists willing to be carried along upon a sea of change that was hard for them to imagine, a sea cresting with the courage and endurance and hard patriotism of African-Americans,” Clark said.
One of those patriots was Lewis, who built his life by “getting in the way” of injustice. A product of the civil rights era, he was born in 1940 in Troy, Alabama. As a young student, he met with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “The boy from Troy,” King called him.
His activism started with sit-ins and campus protests. By 1963, he was dubbed one of the “Big Six” leaders of the civil rights movement. He helped plan the March on Washington and was a keynote speaker there. He later helped spearhead the historic march from Selma to Montgomery.
He would be arrested, attacked or injured more than 40 times throughout his life. He would not back down. He refused to stay silent.
That same commitment to truth and willingness to take a stand was on display Thursday as the Poynter Institute honored the history of social justice journalism.
“I come here tonight to thank members of this great institution for finding a way to get in the way,” Lewis said. “Finding a way to get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble…
“We need the press to be a headlight and not a taillight.”
The program was one of four that will take place this year in celebration of 100 years of Pulitzer Prizes. Other events will take place at Harvard University, the Presidential Libraries in Texas, and the Annenberg School in Southern California.
The editorialists recognized at Thursday’s event came from storied institutions with rich journalistic histories and small-town papers, one of which had a circulation of only 1,700. They spoke out against the Ku Klux Klan, segregation and the brutal violence which marked their time.
They carried with them varying outlooks on the world shaped by distinct life experiences. But any differences in these journalists were overshadowed by three shared virtues.
“They had the moral courage to stand for what is right against a towering wave of opposition,” Clark said. “They had the physical courage that helped them resist threats of violence to their person, their loved ones, their property, and their businesses.
“And they had a devotion to craft, an understanding that, in the end, not only was the pen or typewriter or camera mightier than the sword, it was also mightier than the flaming cross.”
Their work was not without repercussions. Hazel Brannon Smith, who won the Pulitzer in 1964, accrued a debt of $80,000. As her family’s financial situation grew critical, she did not relent on her attacks against racists, corrupt local politicians and racketeers.
“But we have given it all we have, nearly 10 years of our lives, loss of financial security and a big mortgage,” Smith said when awarded the Pulitzer in 1964. “We would do the same thing over, if necessary…
“My interest has been to print the truth and protect and defend the freedom of all Mississippians. It will continue.’”
Others faced threats of great physical harm, not only to them but their families. Ira B. Harkey won the Pulitzer in 1963. He also had someone fire a bullet through his door. He had to sell his paper and move out of state.
But one journalist, perhaps more than any other honored Thursday night, embodied Lewis’ edict of getting in the way.
L. Alex Wilson was one of many journalists who had come to Arkansas to cover the integration of Little Rock Central High School, where nine African American students — known as the Little Rock Nine — had been blocked by the Arkansas National Guard on the order of Gov. Orval Faubus.
Unlike his White counterparts in the press, Wilson was berated, pushed and slapped. Then the taunts turned to blows. First came one kick, to the base of his spine. Then another to his stomach. One strike knocked his hat to the ground. He carefully, almost casually, bent to pick it up.
He slowly ran his hand along the crease as the mob threw punches and kicks. Another hard kick to the center of his chest was followed by one last, powerful blow to the head. Some witnesses later said it was a brick this time.
He kept walking. He did not run. As the mob beat him, the nine students slipped into the school uninhibited.
L. Alex Wilson got in the way.