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“If there is a South in the future, and if there is a civilization, it may be because we got soft enough and subtle enough and loving cunning enough to make do during the cyclone.”

That is one provocative thought in a classic essay by Reese Cleghorn, one of the nation’s most gifted writers in an epoch when journalists — ahead of politicians and preachers — led the nation’s conversion from the socio-religious idolatry of segregation.

Cleghorn, 78, who died suddenly last month at his home in Washington D.C., first rose to prominence as associate editor of The Atlanta Journal in the 1960s. He was a columnist who wrote with courage, empathy and wit to help the nation lift up its eyes.

At a memorial service in the University of Maryland chapel, former Philadelphia Inquirer Editor Gene Roberts said Cleghorn “was among a handful of liberal southern columnists and editorial writers, barely more than a dozen, who pushed for the South to accept racial change. He was pressured — by politicians and sometimes his own employers — to skirt the civil rights issue; but he did not. He was a leader, not a follower. He helped make the South and two of its leading cities better places.”

Hodding Carter III followed Roberts at the service, and observed that Cleghorn “never forgot his roots or repudiated his region, even as he strove from the beginning to change its course and purge its racist curse. And he never stopped believing that journalism was the indispensable tool for building and protecting a democratic society.”

Paying the price

Courage implies threat. In the 1960s, with an enlightening dawn on the horizon, racial fear was increasingly expressed in street violence. But like a disease, it quietly spread its perverse influence into higher places. The generation is quickly passing that remembers the dangers and the damage done.

Jack Nelson, who won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting before leaving The Atlanta Constitution in 1965 to open an Atlanta bureau for The Los Angeles Times, said his memory is that Cleghorn “got pushed out of the papers” by Jack Tarver, then president of Atlanta Newspapers.

Gene Patterson, who succeeded Ralph McGill as editor of the Constitution in 1960 (and won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1967), tells the story succinctly.

“Reese was a fairly liberal fellow on the race issue,” Patterson said. “The (afternoon) Journal was more conservative than the Constitution, where Ralph McGill and I were writing. Reese offset that conservative editorial policy with his own columns, which were quite advanced, extremely articulate and very progressive.

“When I blew up with Jack Tarver and resigned,” Patterson said, “Tarver called in Reese and offered him the job. Reese, knowing why I quit, declined the job, and that meant he had to leave … I owed the man a lot. He went to bat for me at his own expense. I was very proud (many years later) to have had a hand in getting him to the University of Maryland as dean of the journalism school.”

Patterson went on to be managing editor of The Washington Post. Cleghorn took a job as project manager at the Southern Regional Council, then moved on to The Charlotte Observer as editor of the editorial page, and then to The Detroit Free Press as associate editor.

The day after Cleghorn’s death on March 16, the Constitution published a few sentences from a wire story. Elsewhere, however — Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, Charlotte Observer — bylined obituaries chronicled Cleghorn’s career and impact, noting his accomplishments in two categories.

One: Writing with force

reese_cleghorn_ovshoulder2His forceful, artful writing put Cleghorn in a pantheon of courageous journalist-veterans of the World War II and Korean War eras who survive him: Pulitzer Prize-winners including Gene Roberts (New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer); Eugene Patterson (Atlanta Constitution, Washington Post, St. Petersburg Times; Poynter Institute); Claude Sitton (New York Times, Raleigh News & Observer); Jack Nelson (Atlanta Constitution and Los Angeles Times); and William Raspberry (Washington Post). Also, Walker Knight, of the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board, one of the first religious news editors to challenge the mindset of the South’s legion of crossroads congregations; and educator Hodding Carter III (Delta Democrat-Times; recipient of the Edward R. Murrow Award for Broadcast Journalism; and at the time, fresh off assignment as an Assistant Secretary of State, serving as the public face of the Iran hostage crisis during the Carter administration); and of course many others.

Two: Resurrecting a journalism school

The year before Cleghorn left the Free Press to become dean in 1981, the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism had been on accreditation probation. To rebuild, Cleghorn immediately set about to create a newsroom culture for students. First, he recruited a Board of Visitors that included Walter Cronkite, Claude Sitton, Gene Roberts, Jack Nelson, Hodding Carter, Washington Post columnist William Raspberry, Washington Post Chairman Donald Graham, then-Baltimore Sun Publisher Reg Murphy, (a former editor of The Atlanta Constitution); etc. … “The damndest advisory committee you could ever want,” said Hodding Carter.

As he strengthened the curriculum and faculty, Cleghorn established a student-operated wire service called Capital News Service with bureaus in Washington and Annapolis, which today supplies news stories to Maryland newspapers and the McClatchy news service; persuaded the National Association of Black Journalists to relocate its headquarters to the school’s College Park campus; created the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism, the Richard Eaton Chair in Broadcast Journalism, and the Journalism Center on Children & Families; and brought the monthly American Journalism Review onto campus by becoming publisher.

“He was, I am convinced, the 20th Century’s most successful journalism dean,” said Roberts, who has been a member of the faculty since 1991, except for a three-year period as managing editor of The New York Times.

Hodding Carter, who is now professor of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of North Carolina, eventually answered Cleghorn’s call and joined the Merrill faculty as a fulltime professor and the first Knight Chair in Public Affairs Journalism. Haynes Johnson, a Pulitzer Prize-winner when reporting for the Washington Post, now fills that chair. The faculty also includes three other Pulitzer Prize-winners: Washington Post columnist David Broder; former Washington-based Los Angeles Times reporter Deborah Nelson; and literary journalist Jon Franklin.

Cleghorn had both clout and a vision. The Washington Post obit on March 17 reported on an interview with the New York Times in 1998 after Cleghorn had pushed for the unpopular removal of the public relations component of the journalism program. “A journalist’s mission is to tell the truth,” Cleghorn said. “It’s not to sell something, it’s not to sell people on something – it’s to find out and disseminate the truth in a responsible manner.”

Where have all the newspapers gone?

The loss of Reese Cleghorn underscores the tragic decline of newspaper journalism in America. As the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s demonstrated beyond measure, newspapers that invest in their newsrooms and assume leadership in their communities wield tremendous influence.

The leadership of Ralph McGill, Gene Patterson, Gene Roberts, Reese Cleghorn, Claude Sitton, Hodding Carter and others challenged the region’s stubborn-to-evolve Old South mentality and paved the way for economic and spiritual growth.

Reese Cleghorn’s last decades as an educator were devoted to developing that brand of talent, spirit and leadership for future newsrooms. Sadly, however, sorrow makes that a bittersweet hope for the older newsroom warriors.

Roberts lamented this week that the current anemic state of newspapers was a wreck 30 years in the making. “You could see the economic pile-up coming down the road,” he said. “Newspapers started acting as if they were a growth industry and could make endless profits year after year without investing in their newsrooms.

“Logic would tell you to keep your news staff strong, whichever delivery system you are forced to turn to. The only thing of value that newspapers are sitting on for the future is their news staffs.” But, he said, newspapers have cannibalized their newsrooms.

Good writing matters

Good people mean experience and strong writing. Reese Cleghorn wrote constantly, and not just for the newspapers. His long magazine pieces could be scripture today for preaching good writing. Here’s an excerpt from the New York Times Magazine, November 6, 1966:

Meet Lester Maddox of Georgia: ‘Mr. White Backlash’
By Reese Cleghorn
ATLANTA. Lester Maddox, his long, bald forehead, rimless glasses, wavering jaw line and amiable smile giving him the appearance of the man behind the prescription counter at the corner drugstore, made his way around the square in the old town of Madison, Ga., a few days ago. He definitely did not look like someone who would brandish a pistol or arm people with ax handles. Running for the governorship of Georgia, he was working hard to be just “Lester” on every Main Street of Georgia.

“Hi,” he said as he shook hands in a Madison restaurant. “I’m Lester Maddox. I hope you’re gonna vote as good as you eat.” Then he was on to a drugstore, handing a stack of brochures to the pharmacist and saying: “Doctor, I want to show you my prescription for Georgia.”

Moments later, he was facing some women on the sidewalk. “How are all you fine ladies today?” he asked, beaming, and adding “Ma’am” each time he introduced himself … Then he moved swiftly on around the square, his coat flaring out at the hips as he traveled on, accompanied by no entourage, helped by no hillbilly band, introduced by no leading politicians….

The Emory Connection

The post-war Emory University campus was a significant connecting point for the giants of journalism who later roamed the South during three decades of much emotional, spiritual and physical conflict.

Reese Cleghorn was born in the Northeast Georgia town of Lyerly, right on the Alabama line, and grew up in nearby Summerville. When he arrived at Emory as an undergraduate, a number of future award-winning journalists were there ahead of him, including:

John Herbers of Memphis, correspondent for UPI and later the New York Times, who wrote several books, including “The Lost Priority: What Happened to the Civil Rights Movement in America;” and Claude Sitton, UPI, the New York Times and Raleigh News & Observer, who came back to teach at Emory 1991-94, before retiring to Oxford, Georgia, where he continued to serve as a member of the Board of Counselors at Emory’s Oxford College until 2001. Also a contemporary was the late Pat Watters, who years later co-authored a book with Cleghorn, “Climbing Jacob’s Ladder: The Arrival of Negroes in Southern Politics” (1997).

Cleghorn served in the Air Force after graduating from Emory, then worked in Atlanta and New York for The Associated Press while earning a master’s degree in public law and government from Columbia University.

His legacy

reese_cleghorn_headshot“Reese, like Gene (Roberts) and me, was the son of the Depression-era South,” said Hodding Carter at Cleghorn’s memorial service. “His Georgia roots went back centuries. He grew up when white supremacy was king and education was a limited commodity for black and white alike. And like Gene and me, he grew up wanting to be a newspaperman – in his case, an editor of a smallish Georgia daily.

“With Reese, what you saw was what you got,” Carter said, “because Reese was a man of clearly stated principles, who walked the talk in everything he did, who cared deeply and thought no less deeply about his nation and world, who believed that the truth could make men free but that truth had to be constructed upon a solid base of fact and presented in a way that could be understood.”

He was also a man of great passion, Carter said, “often masked by a careful face, which felt deeply and reacted strongly. I said he was a great gent, and he was, but he was also as determined a man as you could want to meet – for understatement, call him a bulldog. Some against whom he battled had less flattering ways to describe that trait. He could tolerate fools up to a point, but he did not willingly abide them.

“His overlords at the Charlotte Observer learned to their dismay that he was unfazed by their outrage at the effronteries of Doug Marlette, his brilliant, occasionally brashly irresponsible young editorial cartoonist.”

Gene Roberts added another comment that drew nods of acknowledgement:

“Reese was a Presbyterian, but his religion extended beyond the church to journalism. He believed democracy could not flourish without reporters who sought out the truth and placed it in the public arena. He believed in robust editorial pages that led spirited debate on pivotal issues. His beliefs shaped his life.”

A character? Remember Mr. Magoo?

Roberts told a story: “In his 70s, Reese bought a fire engine-red convertible. He loved the car but was not into automotive maintenance. It didn’t fit into his system of priorities. The college and the university came first, then reading three newspapers a day and books galore.

“I rode with him from Washington to the campus on Tuesdays and for one six-week period, when he turned the car key the radio came on at high volume. It was stuck on one station – pop rock. You couldn’t turn it off. You couldn’t change stations. You couldn’t turn it down. ‘Look at it this way,’ Reese shouted to me one Tuesday over the din: ‘This is educational. We’re listening to what the students listen to. We’re getting into their minds’!”

John Cleghorn, a veteran journalist and speechwriter, now pastor of Caldwell Memorial Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, captured the abundance of fun in his father’s daily life:

“I don’t know if you noticed or not, but within a couple of days of dad’s passing the creators of both Bozo the Clown and Mr. Magoo passed on also. (That’s true.) I figure they knew they were losing a primary source of their material because dad was a bit of both….

“Dad had a special instinct for finding one-way streets … and then going the wrong way. One night in Detroit, we needed a bite to eat so he swung in a fast food restaurant and pulled around to the drive-thru lane in the back. He came to a stop next to the first chest-high apparatus he saw and ordered – Two burgers, two fries, two chocolate shakes. No response. So he ordered again. And then a third time. It is an unwelcome assignment when as an adolescent one has to tell his father that he is ordering into the trashcan. I count that as an early lesson for my later careers in how to speak truth to power.”

Hodding Carter described Cleghorn as “a man who dressed like the old-school guy he was – tie and coat, suits, pulled together. In fact, at times he looked downright stuffy. But he was also a man who fully appreciated the restorative powers of strong drink and the great joys of late-night conviviality, at least right up to the point that ill health required prohibition.”

He added, “Having known him since the 1960s in one guise or another, I would simply misappropriate Tom Wolfe’s title: Reese was a man in full and a great journalist in all respects. Friend, mentor, father, husband, rooted and far-seeing, his life was its own monument.”

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Dallas Lee

Dallas Lee, former writer and editor for The Associated Press and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, retired as a speechwriter from Bank of America. He is author of The Cotton Patch Evidence: The Story of Clarence Jordan and the Koinonia Farm Experiment (Harper & Row 1971).