Thursday, August 16, 2012

Karl Fleming, reporter, began career in Wilson

I met Karl Fleming when he dropped by the newsroom at The Wilson Daily Times sometime back in the late 1980s or early 1990s. He was tall and handsome beneath a shock of silver hair and wore a gnarly, chiseled face that showed years of experience. He had flown into Wilson from Los Angeles to visit his mother and had dropped by the newspaper because that's where he got his start in the late 1940s. He introduced himself and talked journalism and old times with me, and I was warmed by the glow of his personality. Just for fun, he decided to accompany a young reporter to a town board meeting, and he gave her some coaching in the craft of reporting.

More than a decade later, Karl resumed his on-and-off correspondence with me to announce that he had written a memoir, and he sent me a pre-publication copy. "Son of the Rough South: An Uncivil Memoir" did not portray Wilson in the late 1940s and early 1950s in a positive light. There was plenty of racism and plenty of poverty, and the racism seeped into the newspaper, where he was told to never refer to black residents by their surname, only by their first name.

But Karl learned the ropes of reporting and honed his writing skills here before bouncing about to other papers in Durham, Asheville and, eventually, Atlanta, where he was picked to be the Newsweek civil rights reporter just as the protests, demonstrations, violence and murders were beginning in the early 1960s. He got to know many of the prime players in the movement and in the establishment white opposition, and there were times when he feared for his life. He was one of many outstanding young reporters, including Claude Sitton (later Raleigh N&O editor) and David Halberstam, who brought the civil rights struggle into the homes of Americans. (Read this eulogy by Susan Estrich.)

When his book came out, I wrote an extensive article for the paper about Karl and his book. I talked to a few people who knew him and knew the paper during the time he was a reporter here, and some facts were in dispute, but no one could doubt Karl's sincerity and compassion. The book also told his compelling story about being placed in an orphanage when his mother, the same one he was visiting 50 years later, decided she could no longer care for him and his sister. He and I arranged for him to give a talk and promote his book at Barton College. That Christmas, my gift to my staff members was a hardback copy (the paperback had not come out yet) of Karl's book for each of them. I hoped it would help them understand Wilson's history and inspire them to aspire to the journalistic heights Karl reached.

Karl's "rough" life ended last weekend, and I got the news belatedly from an NPR broadcast that called him one of the last of the great civil rights reporters. I would have thought that his passing would have warranted bigger play, a longer obituary, maybe some heartfelt eulogies. But despite his courageous and unselfish reporting about a seminal era in American history, Karl never won a Pulitzer and never became widely known outside journalistic circles. His highly readable and historically important book never became a bestseller, and that is the saddest thing of all.

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