Karl Fleming and Civil Rights
By Peter Goldman
I've got to seize this moment and this platform to do something the new Newsweek hasn't bothered to do: honor the memory of our departed colleague and my dear friend Karl Fleming.
A lot of truly great reporters passed through the Atlanta bureau during the civil-rights era. I think of Joe Cumming, who was the longtime bureau chief and a lyric poet of the changing South; I think of Bill Cook, Marv Kupfer, Marshall Frady, Andy Jaffe and others I've probably lost in my aging memory.
But Karl in his prime was widely regarded as The Man on what used to be called the "race beat" ̶ ̶a big, brush-cut, state-raised North Carolina guy with a keen sense of justice and a reckless disregard for danger. He risked his life and spilled his blood for the magazine that has not so much as mentioned his death three months ago.
Ole Miss: I'd worked with Karl's files, but I first met him live en route to Ole Miss, where a black Army veteran named James Meredith had had the audacity to try to enroll. It was to be my first of 120-some covers, and while it wasn't the usual thing for front-of-the-book writers to go into the field in those days, the Wallies [Newsweek’s three top editors were nicknamed The Wallendas] had decided I should go get a taste of reality before I sat down to write.
Karl met me at the Memphis airport and studied me with that appraising gaze correspondents reserved for the Bigfeet who periodically descended into their lives from the Home Office.
We drove the 80-odd miles to Oxford, Miss., mostly in silence. I praised his work, which maybe helped. My accent didn't. "When we get there," he said, "let me do the talking."
A state trooper halted us near the gate to the campus. Karl showed him his Newsweek ID. The trooper grinned, displaying almost as many gaps as teeth. "Gentlemen," he said, "you may proceed ̶ ̶at your own risk."
White Hot: It was riskier than I'd imagined. A white riot had begun on the large, grassy oval in front of the university's colonnaded administration, the Lyceum, which the U.S. Department of Justice had occupied as its command post. A thin line of U.S. marshals stood between them and the mob. Rocks, bricks and bottles were flying. Tear gas was thick and blinding. Karl led the way along the edge of the oval to the chemistry building, and we ducked inside for shelter from the storm.
We were barely inside when a two or three undergrads emerged from the lab, carrying armloads of bottles. Acid was my guess; Karl's, too, he told me later.
One of the undergrads glimpsed us. "Anybody but students in heah?" he demanded.
"Naw, we students," Karl said, thickening his drawl. Happily, I still looked pretty young--I had hair then--and Karl, though older than me, looked even younger.
Bombs Away: The bottle bombers turned away, and we ducked into a classroom. A marshal was standing nearby. We rapped on a window to get his attention. He beckoned us out. We slid out the window, jumped to the ground, and followed the marshal to what seemed to be the safety of the Lyceum.
It was safe, for a while. I went inside, where, thanks to the Washington bureau and its then
DOJ correspondent Jay Iselin, I had free run of the place; I interviewed Nick Katzenbach (deputy Attorney General] and John Doar [assistant attorney general for civil rights] and watched a very tough marshal from New Jersey questioning a very scared student from Mississippi State.
Incoming: When I rejoined Karl out front, he was standing on one side of a wooden replica Greek column, watching the fray. I stood on the other side. There was a sudden, distant bang-bang-bang of rifle fire. We looked at each other, then at the column between us. It was pocked with a zig-zag line of bullet holes, the top one at precisely the height of Karl's head. Karl examined it.
"You know," he said, "if I was James Meredith, I wouldn't go to school with these bastards."
I stole courage from that moment. I knew Karl had been in all kinds of high-risk situations, in a time and place in which being a reporter for the Yankee press was as much a capital crime as being a Freedom Rider. If he's not scared, I remember thinking, I'm not scared. I owe him for that to this day.
If you were a writer at Newsweek as long as I was, you work with a lot of amazing reporters. If I started naming just my favorites, the list would run into the hundreds; my career was built on their work. But Karl has a special place in my pantheon. He had some bad times after his run at Newsweek, then got himself straight and productive again. We stayed friends over the years, but it's the prime-time Karl I remember, and Newsweek forgot.
Peter Goldman was a senior editor and contributing editor at Newsweek from 1962 to 2008.