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Karl Fleming dies at 84; Newsweek reporter chronicled civil rights struggle

Karl Fleming risked his life covering James Meredith's entry into the University of Mississippi and the deaths of three civil rights workers in 1964. He was badly beaten after the Watts riots in 1965.

August 12, 2012|By Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times
  • Karl Fleming, in a 1986 photo, covered some of the most dramatic clashes that churned the South in the 1960s as the fight over racial injustice escalated.
Karl Fleming, in a 1986 photo, covered some of the most dramatic clashes… (Los Angeles Times )

Karl Fleming, a former Newsweek reporter who helped draw national attention to the civil rights movement in the 1960s — and risked his life covering it with perceptive stories about its major figures and the inequalities that fueled it — died Saturday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 84.

The cause was related to a number of respiratory ailments, said his son Charles Fleming.

Born and bred in the Jim Crow South, Fleming worked his way through small North Carolina newspapers to become chief of Newsweek's Atlanta bureau in 1961. Over the next few years he covered some of the most dramatic clashes that churned the South as the fight over racial injustice escalated.

He was nearly shot in 1962 during riots at the University of Mississippi after James Meredith's admission as the first African American student. He portrayed the "fast-moving phantasmagoria of grief, terror and hysteria" that enveloped Birmingham after the church bombing that killed four African American girls in 1963. He was one of the first two reporters on the scene in 1964 when three civil rights workers taking part in the mobilization known as Freedom Summer disappeared near Philadelphia, Miss.; they were later found murdered.

Fleming also covered the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers and Gov. George Wallace's symbolic stand in the schoolhouse door to block the desegregation of the University of Alabama. The reporter brazenly took notes at Ku Klux Klan rallies, had his phones tapped and was tailed by segregationists.

He managed to escape serious harm in the South but was far less lucky when Newsweek assigned him to Los Angeles in 1965. At a tense rally after the Watts riots, he found himself the only white person in the room with Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael and a crowd of angry blacks. When Fleming fled to his car, he was attacked and severely beaten by a mob. A photograph of him lying in his own blood, his jaw broken and skull fractured, ran in newspapers across the country the next day.

"Karl was one of these reporters who would go anywhere, any time, no matter what the danger, if the story was good enough," said Gene Roberts, a former top editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Times, whose book "The Race Beat," co-written with Hank Klibanoff, examined the role of the press in the civil rights movement. "He was one of the great 20th century reporters — in the right place at the right time."

Fleming came to his profession from a background of dire poverty and upheaval. He was born Aug. 30, 1927, in Newport News, Va., the son of a traveling insurance salesman. Karl was only 6 months old when his father died of a heart attack.

Unable to support herself and her baby, his mother married her late husband's best friend, but the Great Depression dried up any hopes of better times. When Karl was 6, his stepfather grew sick and died. When he was 8, his mother sent him to an orphanage in Raleigh, N.C. He lived there until he was 17, when he was allowed to join the Navy as World War II was ending.

Life in the orphanage was dismal, and Karl, a quiet and serious boy, was an easy target for bullies. But he learned to fend for himself and developed a tough manner that proved useful later in life, when the bullies he met wielded clubs and burned crosses.

He attended North Carolina's Appalachian State University on the GI Bill, leaving after two years for a $30-a-week job at the Wilson Daily Times in Wilson, N.C. He worked at papers in Durham and Asheville before landing a job at the Atlanta Constitution's Sunday magazine in the late 1950s. He freelanced for Newsweek, which made him its Atlanta correspondent in 1961.

By then he was raising a family with his wife, Sandra Sisk, whom he had married in 1952.

In 1962, when theU.S. Supreme Courtordered the University of Mississippi to admit Meredith, Fleming headed to the campus in Oxford and watched white mobs overrun the school. As he surveyed the violence from behind a column, bullets whizzed inches from his head. When the riot — the first he had ever covered — was over, a French journalist was among the dead.

"I was ashamed as well as angry," he recalled in "Son of the Rough South," his 2005 memoir. "These were my fellow Southerners. We came from the same gene pool … and most of us from the same impoverished past. But I had identified not with them, but with Meredith, the black interloper."

As more flash points developed, Fleming teamed up with New York Times reporter Claude Sitton, who later became the paper's national editor. Since one wrote for a daily paper and the other for a weekly newsmagazine, they did not consider themselves competitors and found it useful and safer to work together. They developed some methods to protect themselves, including obscuring their stock-in-trade — their reporter's notebooks — by cutting them down to fit in their pockets.

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