Claude Sitton dies at 89; journalist covered civil rights movement

Claude Sitton dies at 89; journalist covered civil rights movement
Claude Sitton, editor of he Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer, in 1990. (Harry Lynch / The News and Observer)

Journalist Claude Sitton, who set the pace for reporters covering the civil rights movement in the South in the 1950s and '60s and later won a Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary, has died. He was 89.

Sitton's son Clint said his father died Tuesday in Atlanta. He had been under hospice care with heart failure.


Sitton, a Georgia native, began crisscrossing the South for the New York Times in 1958 and became a leading figure among the reporters covering the civil rights struggle, said Hank Klibanoff, who co-wrote "The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle and the Awakening of a Nation."

"What made him the gold standard was that he went where other reporters didn't go, and once he got there they followed," said Klibanoff, former managing editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Sitton joined the New York Times after working as a wire service reporter and for the now-disbanded U.S. Information Agency, serving as a liaison between diplomats and the media. Klibanoff said Sitton felt determined to give an honest account of the racial struggle in his native South and catapulted the newspaper into a leading role in covering the movement.

"It was not that Claude was some flaming liberal or liberator," Klibanoff said. "He just liked a good story and liked to have it first. And frequently he was reporting on injustice — and they knew, on the civil rights side, that if the New York Times wrote about it, it would get attention from important people."

In a 1962 article, Sitton described a voting rights meeting at a church in Terrell County, Georgia, that was interrupted when the sheriff and his deputies entered, demanding information. One smacked his heavy flashlight into his palm while another ran his hand over his cartridge belt and revolver. Sitton opened his account with a direct quote from the sheriff: "We want our colored people to go on living like they have for the last 100 years."

After reading Sitton's front-page report in the New York Times, Klibanoff said, then-Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy dispatched a team to Terrell County. They sued the sheriff less than two weeks later.

Sitton "had both a physical and a mental toughness," Klibanoff said. "He was not going to be intimidated.... He felt that as a reporter — certainly as a reporter for the New York Times — it was essential for him to see with his own eyes and not to just be relaying what other people saw."

Veteran Georgia journalist Bill Shipp, who was with Sitton during that Terrell County meeting, said that when the sheriff asked Sitton to identify himself, Sitton replied, "I'm an American, Sheriff. Who are you?"

"I thought, by God, that's the end of us," Shipp said. "He did not flinch and he didn't back down. He was a brave man. But he was more than just brave. He was a first-rate journalist."

Sitton was regarded by the other reporters covering civil rights stories then as their leader. Many even took to using the tiny, cut-down reporter's notebooks he used to avoid attention in hostile white crowds. They called them "Claude Sitton notebooks."

Sitton later served as the New York Times' national news editor and went on to become editor of the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. In 1983, his commentary for that newspaper won the Pulitzer Prize.

Frank Daniels Jr. was general manager of the Raleigh paper when his father and uncle hired Sitton.

"I thought he had the push and aggressiveness and also the ability to listen," Daniels said. "He was aggressive, but he could also be thoughtful.... He wanted to listen to what people had to say, but he had no fear of people in power."

Claude Fox Sitton was born Dec. 4, 1925, in Atlanta and grew up on a farm near Conyers, Ga. His father worked on railroads as a conductor and brakeman, and his mother was a schoolteacher.


He served in the U.S. Navy and merchant marine during World War II, and after the war he entered Emory University. He graduated in 1949 and worked as a wire service reporter before taking a job in 1955 in Africa with the U.S. Information Agency as information officer and press attache at the U.S. Embassy in Ghana.

He returned to the United States and worked for nine months as a copy editor for the New York Times before being named Southern correspondent, based in Atlanta.

In Mississippi, where he was one of the first two reporters to arrive after the murder of three civil rights workers, he and Karl Fleming of Newsweek interviewed a deputy on the courthouse lawn who later turned out to be one of the murderers. Sitton and Fleming began to draw crowds of white toughs wherever they went.

Sitton said he had to go to the manager of the motel where he and Fleming were staying and use the same tactic he employed to help the civil rights activists who would call him when they got in trouble.

"I told him, look, just pass the word that if they kill me, by God there will be 10 more just like me out of New York the next morning," Sitton said. "I didn't have any more trouble."

In a 2014 interview Sitton said that he couldn't recall being afraid while covering a story.

"I didn't have time to be scared," he said. "Truth of the matter is, the fear came afterward. I remember driving out of McComb, Miss., down to New Orleans to catch a plane after one of those big showdowns about public transportation there in that little town; and thinking about it as I was driving along, I felt the hair rising on the back of my neck."

Sitton's survivors include his wife, Eva, four children and nine grandchildren.

Material from the Associated Press and the Raleigh News & Observer was used in compiling this report.