David Halberstam: Remembered by Bill Kovach

Historians in the News

Like a Tahitian pearl diver, the world of entry level newspaper jobs was his oyster when David Halberstam graduated from Harvard in 1955 after spending his senior year as managing editor of The Harvard Crimson.

But unlike many of his peers who quickly grabbed offers in New York and Washington, David went South, Deep South, to the smallest paper in Mississippi. It was the kind of decision that always set him apart from other journalists.

We all eventually came to recognize it, even envy it, as a particular characteristic of David’s: he didn’t just crave to report stories he hungered to figure out where stories were going and what they were doing to us; where they were taking us. While his peers were laying groundwork for careers at important organizations where someday they might cover a big story, he determined how America confronted race – the biggest story of our generation. He wanted to dive as deeply into that story as anyone.

As it turned out the paper he chose in West Point, Mississippi, was too wed to the social structure as it was and didn’t want anyone muddying the waters. So he left there and hitch-hiked to Nashville, Tennessee where Coleman Harwell, the editor of The Tennessean, put him to work on the story he craved.

By the time I met him his name was being heard even in the hills of East Tennessee. At one point he so angered Governor Buford Ellington with stories about mistreatment of state prisoners, including removing religious literature from the cells of black inmates, that the governor threw a Bible at him at a news conference called specifically to denounce David....

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