John Drescher

N&O’s Claude Sitton was courageous, blunt and honest

After Medgar Evers, the 37-year-old NAACP field secretary for Mississippi, was shot and killed as he entered his house one night in June 1963, Claude Sitton of The New York Times described the path of the bullet.

… The sniper’s bullet struck him just below the right shoulder blade.

The slug crashed through a front window of the home, penetrated an interior wall, ricocheted off a refrigerator and struck a coffee pot.…

Mr. Evers staggered to the doorway, his keys in his hand, and collapsed near the steps. His wife, Myrlie, and three children rushed to the door.

The screaming of the children, “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” awoke a neighbor. …

Sitton, who died this week at age 89, knew Evers. That wasn’t surprising. From 1958 to 1964, the Georgian traveled the South covering the civil rights movement for the Times, often under dangerous conditions. He knew the civil rights leaders, and he knew many of the men who fought them.

He was determined and worked doggedly. Gene Roberts, a North Carolinian and himself a great journalist who covered the South for the Times, said recently that Sitton would “go into hell itself” to get the story.

The terrible truth

Sitton’s stories helped change how Americans viewed segregation. His reporting was relentless, his prose stark but descriptive.

Roy Peter Clark, a journalist who teaches writing, this week wrote about Sitton’s reporting after the 1963 dynamite bombing of a black church in Birmingham that killed four girls. “Notice the inventory of details that toll like a bell of justice,” Clark wrote. “This is how to tell the terrible truth.”

Of Sitton and the other top civil-rights era journalists, he wrote: “The foundation of their greatness was built telling the story of America at its absolute worst, a story that revealed American journalism at its absolute best.”

Sitton came to Raleigh in 1968 and was the editor of The N&O until he retired in 1990. I worked for him for three of those years.

Sitton’s grimly determined style was reflected in his paper, which remained gray long after most papers had embraced color photography and graphics. The N&O would hammer on an issue for weeks or longer. His critics said Sitton had an agenda that felt personal.

Sitton was the last editor of The N&O to supervise both the news and commentary pages. As The N&O’s Jay Price wrote in his fine obituary, “That sacred separation between the two worlds was sometimes too flimsy to stand up to his vigorously held views.”

No comment, bluntly

Sitton didn’t like attention. I learned this while working for another newspaper.

In 1990, Gov. Jim Martin, unhappy with coverage, went to The N&O office and hand-delivered a “Dear Claude” letter to Sitton saying he would not ever again run for office.

“From now on,” Martin wrote, “it can only be said that I am doing everything for the sole purpose of serving the people and the State of North Carolina. And that will make me your dedicated adversary.”

The N&O published the entire letter next to an accompanying, front-page news story.

I was assigned by The Charlotte Observer to write a story about Sitton and called him. You’re just trying to stir things up, Sitton barked. Bluntly, he said he wouldn’t be interviewed. I proceeded with the story.

Sitton called the day it was published. It might have been the shortest phone conversation I’ve ever had.

“This is Claude,” he said.

There was a brief silence.

“Fair enough,” he said.

“All right,” I said.

“All right,” he said.

He hung up. Total number of words spoken by Sitton in a conversation he initiated: Seven.

That was Claude Sitton: Tough, direct, honest.

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or jdrescher@newsobserver.com.

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