July 1962. The South Georgia sheriff and his men had disrupted a voting rights rally at a local church, the sheriff remarking, "We want our colored people to go on living like they have for the past 100 years."
Claude Sitton, who covered the civil rights movement for The New York Times, led his story with that quote from Sheriff Z.T. Mathews.
As Mathews spoke, Sitton wrote, a deputy swaggered back and forth fingering his gun belt, while another "slapped a five-cell flashlight against his left palm again and again."
Eventually Mathews began questioning the reporters on the scene, recalled Bill Shipp, former political editor for The Atlanta Constitution, who covered that same church meeting.
But when the sheriff got to Sitton, he received a surprise, Shipp said.
“What are you?” Mathews asked Sitton.
“I’m an American, sheriff,” Sitton responded. “What are you?”
Claude Sitton, one of the leading journalists covering the civil rights era, died Tuesday at 89. His son, Clint Sitton, said the family plans a private service at graveside but no public memorial or funeral. Sitton will be buried at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers.
Sitton set the standard for reporting on the civil rights movement. His stories in the Times were reliable, scrupulously fair and detail-driven. They offered no quarter to the white supremacists who didn’t want their discrimination and violence exposed, but they didn’t romanticize the struggle for equal rights.
Newsweek praised him in 1964 as “the best daily newspaperman on the Southern scene.”
“He got where no one else was. It was hustle, and a determination to see it with his own eyes,” said Hank Klibanoff, who teaches journalism at Emory University and who co-authored “The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation.”
Complete obituary and interactive timeline at MyAJC.com.
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