Howell Raines: The Counter Revolution





[Howell Raines, a former executive editor of The New York Times, covered the civil rights movement in the 1960s and ’70s.]

In the pre-digital America of 1960, “viral” was still a medical term. So it was written in countless news articles that the student sit-in movement had “spread like wildfire” on black campuses across the South. On the morning of Feb. 1, 50 years ago today, four black freshmen at North Carolina A&T State University seated themselves at the all-white lunch counter in a Woolworth’s dime store in Greensboro. Within hours, news of this bold act by the Greensboro Four, as they would come to be called, had grapevined its way from A&T to the campuses of historically black colleges in Atlanta and Nashville....

It was always a fractious alliance. Not surprisingly, imposing black elders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. did not like being booed during church rallies for moving too slowly by militant students, many of whom cast themselves as radical Christian activists. But together, the team of preachers and students would show, within the space of three years, that the edifice of segregation was a lot like Georgia’s Stone Mountain, that imposing Confederate monument whose soft, exfoliating rock turns to dust under the hammer.

Now at the remove of 50 years, we can ask how it happened so fast — but not only that. We can also usefully ask how such an idealistic and altruistic movement might fare in today’s media environment. As Jack Bass, a Southern newspaperman turned historian, observed when we talked the other day, it was a time when everybody watched the three network news programs. It was also a time when hysterical jeremiads about the perils of change were not part of the mainstream news flow....

What seems remarkable in retrospect is the factual authority of network news in those days. Dixie’s politicians, of course, accused the national anchors of bias. But the pictures trumped the home-cooked propaganda, as when you put a spittle-spraying Southern governor up against a Greensboro Four leader like Franklin McCain, in his earnest Sunday clothes, offering a cogent critique of Woolworth’s Southern business strategy as it related to black shoppers nationwide. It took only one national telecast of Nashville students being assaulted at the lunch counters to demonstrate that segregation everywhere depended on the unconstitutional application of police brutality....

In retrospect, what seems most striking to me is how inaccurate I and many others in my generation of journalists could be when we looked away from the turbulent Southern streets and sought to predict the region’s future and the course of the civil rights movement....

As the sit-ins gave way to the Freedom Rides and then the mass marches, we were often wrong about how long it was going to take to destroy segregation in such bastions of discrimination as Birmingham and the Mississippi Delta. We thought in terms of decades, of finally reaching a new era of racial peace by the turn of the century. Instead, by 1969, the first black student was elected to the homecoming court at the University of Alabama. Symbolically, she was the daughter of the Greensboro Four. Generationally, she was their peer....

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