Karl Fleming, a former Newsweek reporter who helped draw national attention to the civil rights movement in the 1960s — and risked his life covering it with perceptive stories about its major figures and the inequalities that fueled it — died Saturday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 84.
The cause was related to a number of respiratory ailments, said his son Charles Fleming.
Born and bred in the Jim Crow South, Fleming worked his way through small North Carolina newspapers to become chief of Newsweek’s Atlanta bureau in 1961. Over the next few years he covered some of the most dramatic clashes that churned the South as the fight over racial injustice escalated.
He was nearly shot in 1962 during riots at the University of Mississippi after James Meredith’s admission as the first African American student. He portrayed the “fast-moving phantasmagoria of grief, terror and hysteria” that enveloped Birmingham after the church bombing that killed four African American girls in 1963. He was one of the first two reporters on the scene in 1964 when three civil rights workers taking part in the mobilization known as Freedom Summer disappeared near Philadelphia, Miss.; they were later found murdered.
Fleming also covered the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers and Gov. George Wallace’s symbolic stand in the schoolhouse door to block the desegregation of the University of Alabama. The reporter brazenly took notes at Ku Klux Klan rallies, had his phones tapped and was tailed by segregationists.
He managed to escape serious harm in the South but was far less lucky when Newsweek assigned him to Los Angeles in 1965. At a tense rally after the Watts riots, he found himself the only white person in the room with Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael and a crowd of angry blacks. When Fleming fled to his car, he was attacked and severely beaten by a mob. A photograph of him lying in his own blood, his jaw broken and skull fractured, ran in newspapers across the country the next day.
“Karl was one of these reporters who would go anywhere, any time, no matter what the danger, if the story was good enough,” said Gene Roberts, a former top editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Times, whose book “The Race Beat,” co-written with Hank Klibanoff, examined the role of the press in the civil rights movement. “He was one of the great 20th century reporters — in the right place at the right time.”
Fleming came to his profession from a background of dire poverty and upheaval. He was born Aug. 30, 1927, in Newport News, Va., the son of a traveling insurance salesman. Karl was only 6 months old when his father died of a heart attack.
Unable to support herself and her baby, his mother married her late husband’s best friend, but the Great Depression dried up any hopes of better times. When Karl was 6, his stepfather grew sick and died. When he was 8, his mother sent him to an orphanage in Raleigh, N.C. He lived there until he was 17, when he was allowed to join the Navy as World War II was ending.
Life in the orphanage was dismal, and Karl, a quiet and serious boy, was an easy target for bullies. But he learned to fend for himself and developed a tough manner that proved useful later in life, when the bullies he met wielded clubs and burned crosses.
He attended North Carolina’s Appalachian State University on the GI Bill, leaving after two years for a $30-a-week job at the Wilson Daily Times in Wilson, N.C. He worked at papers in Durham and Asheville before landing a job at the Atlanta Constitution’s Sunday magazine in the late 1950s. He freelanced for Newsweek, which made him its Atlanta correspondent in 1961.
By then he was raising a family with his wife, Sandra Sisk, whom he had married in 1952.
In 1962, when theU.S. Supreme Courtordered the University of Mississippi to admit Meredith, Fleming headed to the campus in Oxford and watched white mobs overrun the school. As he surveyed the violence from behind a column, bullets whizzed inches from his head. When the riot — the first he had ever covered — was over, a French journalist was among the dead.
“I was ashamed as well as angry,” he recalled in “Son of the Rough South,” his 2005 memoir. “These were my fellow Southerners. We came from the same gene pool … and most of us from the same impoverished past. But I had identified not with them, but with Meredith, the black interloper.”
As more flash points developed, Fleming teamed up with New York Times reporter Claude Sitton, who later became the paper’s national editor. Since one wrote for a daily paper and the other for a weekly newsmagazine, they did not consider themselves competitors and found it useful and safer to work together. They developed some methods to protect themselves, including obscuring their stock-in-trade — their reporter’s notebooks — by cutting them down to fit in their pockets.
That trick did not help in Philadelphia, Miss., where they were the first reporters on the scene of the three civil rights workers’ disappearance. The sheriff told Fleming he was a traitor to “our precious Southern way of life” and ordered him and Sitton to leave town. A pack of white toughs pursued them, and back at their motel men with shotguns invited them to “take a ride with us out in the country.” Fleming and Sitton quickly packed their bags but returned later to continue reporting the story.
Fleming, Sitton said in a recent interview, “was a great reporter.... He knew news and knew what he had to ask to get a good story” and filled his notebooks with the rich detail “that he knew helped to serve as a freight train for the facts.”
The perilous conditions took a toll on Fleming. “I drank a lot of Jack Daniels, I smoked three packs of Camels a day and I drank a lot of Maalox,” he recalled in a Syracuse University oral history interview in 2006.
So, with some relief, he moved to Newsweek’s Los Angeles bureau as chief in 1965. He was astonished at the degree of segregation he observed in his new outpost. “Watts, when I was there first in 1965 and 1966, might have been some foreign African country for all the rest of L.A. knew about it,” he told National Public Radio several years ago.
His beating not only left him with a permanent limp but “jolted something loose in my heart,” he said. His first marriage collapsed. In 1972, he married an aspiring journalist, Anne Taylor, who was 22 to his 44. In addition to his wife and son Charles, an editor at The Times, he is survived by sons David, Russell and Mark; a sister, Ethel Gray; and eight grandchildren.
As the psychedelic era wound down, Fleming began to drink excessively and smoke marijuana. Newsweek removed him as bureau chief, and he quit the magazine in 1972.
His first major post-Newsweek venture was an alternative weekly newspaper named LA that he founded with the backing of Los Angeles philanthropist Max Palevsky. The publication ran aground when Fleming was duped into paying $30,000 to an impostor claiming to be the mysterious hijacker D.B. Cooper.
After treatment for depression, he found his way back to journalism as managing editor and political editor of Channel 2 News from 1978 to 1985. He later established a public relations consulting firm.
In his well-reviewed memoir, he did not shrink from chronicling his humiliations as well as his triumphs.
“He was a very honest and direct guy,” said civil rights leader Vernon Jordan, who was a field director for the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People in Georgia in 1961 when he and Fleming began a close friendship. “He was in the South at the right time, and he was by his coverage an agent of change, although that was not his assignment. He just told the story.”