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Where The Action Was 

Karl Fleming's Courageous Career

For some of us in the 1960s, afflicted with the desire to be a reporter, the person we wanted to be was Karl Fleming. We may not actually have known his name, but we understood his motivation and his style - the hard-living cynic with a heart of gold, drawn to the most powerful stories of his time.

In Fleming's case, that meant the Southern civil rights movement, a story he began to cover in 1961, when he took a job in the Atlanta bureau of

Newsweek. For the next several years, he crisscrossed the South, hopping from one trouble spot to another — Albany, Ga., Oxford, Miss., Selma, Ala.

I think I became aware of Fleming when a story about him appeared in his own magazine. He had moved by then to the Los Angeles bureau, in part to get away from the dramas of race. But he was quickly engulfed in the new urban riots — the burning ghettos that included, in 1965 and '66, the vast Los Angeles area known as Watts.

Fleming, as always, waded into the fray. He had known his share of danger in the past — the threats and insults, even the occasional stray bullet, sent his way by the Southern segregationists. These diehard defenders of the Southern status quo understood quite correctly that however objective Fleming might try to be, his sympathies, unmistakably, lay with the movement.

In Watts, nobody cared. And so when the rioting erupted in 1966, Fleming was attacked by a mob of young blacks. They hit him in the head with a four-by-four, cracking his skull, and began to kick him as he lay semi-conscious on an LA sidewalk.

Newsweek wrote about the irony of it, and Fleming was, as he admits in his new memoir, a little embarrassed by the wave of attention. A newsman shouldn't become part of his story.

But now the story is nearly 40 years old, and it is fitting that Fleming would write it all down, personally this time, sharing his memories and offering a window onto the history of the times. He tells the story with honesty and passion, just as he always did as a reporter, but this time he also writes about himself.

He begins with his days at a Methodist orphanage — in many ways a cold and desultory place on the coastal plain of North Carolina. His mother sent him there when his father died and she found herself overwhelmed by the hardscrabble life of the 1930s. The South was deep in the grip of Depression, and many people, including Fleming's mother, simply gave up hope.

She became a distant presence in his life, self-pitying and sad, and he quickly learned not to count on her much — not to count on anybody but himself. Such was the code of the orphanage boys: Pull your own weight, never tattle on your peers, and never let anybody see you cry.

It was a segregated institution, of course, and Fleming, like his friends, was caught in the casual racism of the times. He accepted as normal the everyday cruelties of white against black, but eventually he began to rethink all of that, as he left the orphanage for the Navy during World War II, and then took a job at a small-town paper.

There, he covered the story of a black man executed for breaking into a home and threatening to rape the woman who lived there. The woman was white, and Fleming realized that if she had been black, or if the race of the perpetrator had been different, nobody would have thought about using the gas chamber.

But this was the South at the height of segregation, and the idea of equality in the eyes of the law — though applauded as a concept — had nothing to do with the realities of life. As the struggle to change all of that gained momentum in the 60s, Fleming could identify with the protesters. For much of his life, he had felt the sting of his underdog status, and if it wasn't the same thing as being black, he could feel nevertheless a deep and personal sympathy with the cause.

At Newsweek, he covered the terror and tragedy of the civil rights era — the Birmingham church bombing, the civil rights murders in the Mississippi delta, the deadly rioting at Ole Miss — and those things often made him ashamed. But more than anything else, he says, he was struck by the heroism of the times, and the prospect of grudging redemption that it offered.

In this gritty and heartfelt memoir, Fleming writes about James Meredith, the small and wispy black man, almost eerie in his courage, who set out single-handedly to integrate Ole Miss. Meredith, says Fleming, accomplished something quite remarkable, for in the crisis he provoked, "The whole force of the United States — physical, legal and moral — had been brought to bear to protect the constitutional rights of one tiny black man. And that was something ... to be proud of."

For anyone interested in the history of those times, in the tumultuous transformation of the South, or in the memories of a day when journalists were deadly serious about their craft, Son of the Rough South is a riveting read. Fleming writes in a clear, direct style, with a gift for the telling use of detail. But it is the story itself — of a corner of America coming to terms with its past — that gives this particular memoir its power.

There is no doubt that our region was changed, and if there are problems that remain to be solved, there is inspiration in this history of hope. Fleming has captured it as well as anyone.

Frye Gaillard, a regular contributor to Creative Loafing, is the author of Cradle of Freedom: Alabama and the Movement That Changed America.

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