Claude Sitton, who died Tuesday at the age of 89, served as editor of The News & Observer for more than 20 years, but his name is, literally, in the annals of history of American journalism for his courageous work in covering the civil rights movement for The New York Times.
Sitton’s death after a long illness came as a movie of one of the definitive events of the civil rights era, “Selma,” is being celebrated. Sitton covered such historic events in the 1950s and 1960s. But some of his most memorable stories came from interviews with Southern sheriffs and governors, and with leaders of that movement who were not as well-known as Martin Luther King Jr. but important to the advancement of the crusade for racial equality.
In “The Race Beat,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of civil rights journalism, authors Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff wrote, “Sitton's byline would be atop the stories that landed on the desks of three presidents. His phone number would be carried protectively in the wallets of the civil rights workers who saw him, and the power of his byline, as their best hope for survival.” (Roberts, one of the best editors of his era at The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Times, also worked for The News & Observer early in his career.)
Sitton came to The N&O in 1968 from The Times, and for two decades was a stern, forceful editor who made open government a priority and held public officials accountable for their performances, to the ire of some. Some of the stories in which he was involved stirred controversy, including one of the last ones, on the late Jim Valvano, basketball coach at N.C. State, and problems in that athletics program. To this day, many NCSU loyalists believe Sitton and The N&O were unfair in the coverage of that story.
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But Sitton’s career, which included a Pulitzer Prize of his own, was defined mostly by his tenacious skills as a reporter on civil rights, and his aggressive coverage in the South (he was a Georgia native) often put his own life in danger. At The N&O, he directed news coverage and the editorial page with righteousness and without compromise. It is fair to say that as an editor he was demanding, but no more so, perhaps, than he had always been of himself.