Comment

Out of Raleigh to patrol the South

September 1, 2012 

The journalist Karl Fleming, whose obituary from The New York Times ran in the Aug. 22 N&O, began his vivid 2005 memoir with an account of the skull-busting, bashed-with-a-four-by-four beating he sustained while covering the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles for Newsweek.

The bitter irony. Fleming, who’d belonged to the small cadre of reporters brave and ingenious enough to report on black Americans’ struggle for civil rights – to report on that struggle from the violent Deep South.

Fleming, who’d seen bullets hit inches from his head while covering the mayhem when the University of Mississippi was integrated.

Fleming, who was one of the first two reporters on the scene when three civil rights volunteers, later found murdered, went missing in an evil-drenched Mississippi town called Philadelphia.

Those stories all are memorialized in “Son of the Rough South.” They certify Karl Fleming’s role in helping his country come to grips with a profound chapter in its history – black citizens’ shedding of the shackles of Jim Crow and their push, sometimes with peaceful protest, sometimes with lawless rage, for equal opportunity.

But after Fleming relates in the book how he, as a white interloper, became a target of that blind rage in the Los Angeles ghetto, he dramatically shifts gears. He tells us about his upbringing in North Carolina.

His desperately poor family – a father who died when Karl was an infant, a mother whose second husband also sickened and died, a younger half-sister – lived in Greenville and Fayetteville and in the country near Vanceboro.

Widowed for the second time and ailing herself, his mother sent his half-sister, Ethel (according to the obituary, Ethel Gray is among Fleming’s survivors) to the Oxford Orphanage.

The boy knew that for him, it was just a matter of time. He would take a different route:

“It was a cold, melancholy day, December 27, 1935, two days after Christmas, as quietly the old gray Plymouth went along through the bleak Carolina countryside, ... carrying me, my mother, and the Sunday School teacher who had volunteered to drive us to the Methodist Orphanage. Hardly a word had been spoken the whole trip.

“We made our way through Raleigh ... Finally we turned onto the orphanage campus off Glenwood Avenue and headed slowly up a winding red clay road cut through a grove of oak, hickory, and dogwood trees. The trees were black and shiny with rain.” He was eight years old.

The loneliness and fear eventually gave way to a measure of confidence and a pride shared by the orphanage kids in their toughness and resilience. As perpetual outsiders, they felt a natural empathy for underdogs. There was bullying and strict discipline, but also warmhearted care and lasting friendship.

This was a Raleigh boyhood in every respect (Fleming’s sister eventually relocated from Oxford, and they stayed in awkward touch with their mother, who settled in Wilson).

The kids roamed the campus between Glenwood and St. Mary’s Street, most of which is now Fred Fletcher Park. They attended their own school with its own sports teams. There was a hierarchy of chores. Older boys would be assigned to work at the orphanage’s Caraleigh Farm south of downtown. What they grew ended up on the menu (no meat other than fatback, except on Easter).

Fleming left the orphanage for Navy service as World War II was coming to a close. He read prodigiously. Afterward he attended Appalachian State for two years, lured by a football scholarship. But then via an acquaintance, he was offered a job in Wilson as a reporter for the Daily Times. He tried it, liked it and was good at it. His book splendidly evokes the little city with all its pride and foibles, shadowed by the racism of that era.

From the Wilson paper Fleming moved to the Durham Morning Herald as a sportswriter. Next were stops at the Asheville Citizen and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, always for a little more money. He joined Newsweek in Atlanta. That also was where he became lifelong friends with Claude Sitton, then The New York Times’ Atlanta bureau chief, later its national editor and until his 1990 retirement editor of The N&O.

Sitton and Fleming often worked in tandem as they patrolled the South in search of the next big civil rights story. It was they who were the first reporters to press for answers about the disappearance of the three young men in Philadelphia, Miss., in the summer of 1964 – putting their own lives at risk.

Once in a note to me, Fleming had this to say about Sitton: “He was the best reporter I ever knew, a relentlessly stubborn little son-of-a-bitch who would still be phoning in updates at 11 p.m. when the rest of us were getting drunk.” Tough-guy talk, maybe with echoes of the orphanage. But Karl Fleming, in a career that gave full rein to his empathy for the underdog, matched talk with deeds.

Editorial page editor Steve Ford can be reached at 919-829-4512 or at steve.ford@newsobserver.com.

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