David Halberstam: Newsweek remembers a journalist who changed history

It was the spring of 1955, a year after Brown vs. Board of Education, and David Halberstam wanted to be where the action was. Fresh from Harvard College, he set out for the Deep South, for a reporter’s job on the paper in tiny West Point, Miss. The South did not get any deeper, nor newspapers any tinier, than in West Point. But the story did not get any bigger, either. Halberstam, who had grown up in New York, understood that a war was under way in the streets of the South and in the hearts of Americans on the perennial question of race. He believed, he said later, that Mississippi “was the best place to apprentice as a journalist,” and the stories of that time, including the Emmett Till trial in Sumner, brought him face to face with the complexities of the American character-the violence and the passion, the rage and the grace, the cruelty and the kindness. Flush from victory in World War II, embarked on the cold war against Soviet totalitarianism, the nation was struggling to define itself, to understand its power, and the possibilities and limits of that power.

In a way, the education of David Halberstam began in a hot courtroom in Sumner, Miss., where two white men were tried for the brutal murder of young Till, who had committed the sin of whistling at a white woman. Till’s open casket, and the photographs of his beaten, bloated body, captured the moral crisis of the segregated South. Halberstam was young himself, but he already demonstrated a gift for sensing the nuances of influence. Watching the national reporters roll into Sumner to cover the trial, Halberstam later wrote, he knew something was afoot. “The editors of the nation’s most important newspapers were men in their fifties, who by and large held traditional views of race but who, because of the Brown decision, were going to pay more attention to the race issue,” Halberstam wrote. “Their reporters were different. They were younger men in their thirties, often Southern by birth, more often than not men who had fought in World War II and who thought segregation odious. Moreover, they thought World War II was, among other things, about changing America and the South, where things like this could happen. They had long been ready to cover the South. Now they had their chance. The educational process had begun: the murder of Emmett Till and the trial of the two men accused of murdering him became the first great media event of the civil-rights movement. The nation was ready; indeed, it wanted to read what happened.”...

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