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Inez J. Baskin, 91; reporter during civil rights era in Montgomery, Ala.

July 08, 2007|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

In the 1950s, when female news reporters were rare -- and black female reporters rarer still -- Inez J. Baskin made a place for herself in the pages of the Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama. She covered cross burnings, sit-ins and the Montgomery bus boycott, an event that led to an end to segregation on city buses.

Through such coverage Baskin broke ground again, joining a prestigious sorority: those whose efforts during the civil rights movement are little known, but whose hands influenced the outcome nonetheless.

Baskin, who rose from a position as a typist to write stories that documented some of the most tumultuous moments in the nation's history, died of heart failure June 28 at a hospital in Montgomery, said her goddaughter, LaWanda Mason Goodwine. She was 91.

In later years, Baskin seemed in awe of her younger self, of the chutzpah displayed by a woman in her late 30s, who with pen and notepad thrust herself into the center of hostility, danger and unprecedented change.

"In the '50s I didn't have any sense," she told a Washington Post reporter in 1995. "I thought I could walk on water in those days."

She didn't perform any miracles, but on a historic day in 1956 when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sat on a Montgomery bus in seats that had once been reserved for white people, Baskin rode in the seat in front of him, reporting it all. That moment was made possible only by her persistent efforts to realize a dream of becoming a reporter.

After a stint as a teacher, Baskin sought work as a typist for the Advertiser's weekly "Negro News" section. When she asked if she could report the news herself, rather than simply type items submitted by the public, the section editor's answer was no, Goodwine recalled.

Unbeknown to her immediate editor, she made the pitch to a different editor. The answer then was yes.

Being allowed to report on the community was a victory, given the near absence of coverage of African Americans, Baskin said.

"There wasn't very much you could read about blacks at that time, unless they were really famous," she told a reporter for the Advertiser in 2005. "The rest of us only ended up on the front page if we stole a can of sardines and a box of crackers."

Her coverage of the life of the community was welcomed. As the push for equal rights intensified, Baskin's job gave her a front-row view of the biggest story of the day.

It also landed her an opportunity to work as a correspondent for Jet, a national magazine that covers African Americans, and the Associated Negro Press.

Though as a reporter she was bound by the standards of objectivity, Baskin was also affected by the events of the civil rights movement. Once, while she was on a bus covering Freedom Riders, the Ku Klux Klan began a late-night chase of the group. She witnessed a burning cross, set aflame by Klansmen bent on intimidating black people.

"And then I was trying hard not to hate the people who did it, because then that would color my writing, my actions and everything else. And I was trying hard not to do that," she told the Advertiser in 1995.

When leaders of the civil rights movement met to strategize and Baskin showed up to report, her presence in that male-dominated group was as obvious as it was when she was in the newsroom.

"Sometimes she'd be the only woman in the meeting," recalled Goodwine, who sometimes attended with her father, a minister involved in the movement.

Baskin, who married but was a widow for decades, had no children. In addition to Goodwine, she is survived by nieces, nephews and a surrogate son, daughter and grandson.

Baskin was born June 18, 1916, in Florala, Ala., the only child of parents who stressed the importance of education, Goodwine said. She earned a degree in education from what is now Alabama State University, became a licensed social worker and then earned a degree in divinity from Selma University.

She was a church pianist for several congregations over the years and also taught ministers at theological schools and conventions.

"I don't think she wanted to be a minister," Goodwine said. "I think she knew her ministry was working with people. She implemented the first Head Start program in Montgomery, and she also developed and implemented the first hot-lunch program serving low-income children."

With sterling diction and a blunt but sometimes humorous way of speaking, she shared stories of the past with audiences of young people. Earlier this year, she gave a keynote address at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania, where a scholarship was established in her honor.

Often she cautioned young listeners to be mindful of the past as a way to prevent a recurrence of the Holocaust and the injustices the civil rights movement sought to end. "History has repeated itself, and it can repeat itself again," she said.

Baskin continued to write until the end of her life, producing a newsletter called the Monitor. Her last issue was still in the typewriter at her home in Montgomery the day she died, Goodwine said.

Memorial donations may be made to the Inez J. Baskin Scholarship of Journalism, Edinboro University, P.O. Box 1404, Erie, PA 16512.


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