North Carolina

Claude Sitton, Pulitzer-winning journalist and former N&O editor, has died

News & Observer editor Claude Sitton during a daily news meeting in 1990.
News & Observer editor Claude Sitton during a daily news meeting in 1990. hlynch@newsobserver.com

Claude Sitton, a forceful editor who led The News & Observer from 1968 to 1990, won the Pulitzer Prize as a columnist for the paper, and as a fearless reporter for The New York Times set the standard for national coverage of the civil rights movement, died Tuesday in Atlanta. He was 89.

His years as Raleigh editor were marked by his aggressive direction of reporting and his determination to hold accountable those he thought were not acting in the public good.

Sitton was regarded as one of the best newsmen in American history for his work as a Times’ Southern correspondent from 1958 to 1964. He crisscrossed the region, often risking his life to cover nearly every major civil rights story in those years, writing about the lunch counter sit-ins that began in North Carolina, the riot as the University of Mississippi was desegregated, the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, the church bombing that killed four schoolgirls in Birmingham, Ala., and the murder of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss.

Sitton’s direct, evocative and sometimes harrowing stories were a pipeline of truth from the front lines of the civil rights movement to the kitchen tables and living rooms of the rest of the nation.

“Third-string television reporters would have higher name recognition than this Timesman, but nobody in the news business would have as much impact as he would – on the reporting of the civil rights movement, on the federal government’s response, or on the movement itself,” wrote Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, in “The Race Beat,” their Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the role that journalism played in the civil rights movement. “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 civil rights workers who saw him, and the power of his byline, as their best hope for survival.”

That is, if he survived himself. One hot summer night in 1962, Sitton was in a church in Sasser, Ga., where, he had heard, a group of white thugs might try to break up a black voter registration drive. A group of 13 white people, some of them local law officers, burst in.

Sitton started his story like this:

“ ‘We want our colored people to go on living like they have for the last hundred years,’ said Sheriff Z. T. Mathews of Terrell County. Then he turned and glanced disapprovingly at the thirty-eight Negroes and two whites gathered in the Mount Olive Baptist Church here last night for a voter-registration rally.

“ ‘I tell you, Cap’n, we’re a little fed up with this registration business,’ he went on.

“As the 70-year-old peace officer spoke, his nephew and chief deputy, M.E. Mathews, swaggered back and forth fingering a hand-tooled black leather cartridge belt and a .38-caliber revolver. Another deputy, R.M. Dunaway, slapped a five-cell flashlight against his left palm again and again.

“The three officers took turns badgering the participants and warning of what ‘disturbed white citizens’ might do if this and other rallies continued.”

When Sitton and two other reporters tried to leave, they found that someone had let the air out of their car tires and dumped sand in the gas tank.

The story found an attentive audience that included President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Within days, a swarm of FBI agents and Justice Department lawyers descended on the countyand the Justice Department quickly filed a voting rights complaint against the sheriff.

Less than a month later, four black churches in the county were burned to the ground, including Mount Olive Baptist. About that time, Sitton got a call from a 22-year-old civil rights worker named Ralph Allen. He was in Terrell County lying on the floor of a house that was under fire from a mob outside. Another worker had been wounded.

Allen hadn’t called local law officers, who were just as likely to be Klan members as not. Sitton, he figured, was his best bet for help.

Sitton hung up, then called Sheriff Mathews and said he was coming back. Left unspoken was something they both knew: If any civil rights workers were killed, it would be in The New York Times as quickly as Sitton could put it there.

A Southerner himself

Claude Fox Sitton was a Southerner, born in Atlanta on Dec. 4, 1925. He grew up on a farm near Conyers, Ga., just east of Atlanta. His father worked on railroads as a conductor and brakeman, and his mother was a schoolteacher.

He served in the U.S. Navy and Merchant Marine during World War II, and after the war entered Emory University, where he intended to major in business. He switched to journalism and became editor in chief of the student newspaper. He graduated in 1949, though not before first taking a job with International News Service, where he worked at night for his final three months of college. The next year, he joined United Press, where he worked first in the South, then for five years in New York.

In 1955, looking for a little foreign adventure, he went to Africa for the United States Information Agency as information officer and press attache at the American Embassy in Ghana. He was there when Ghana received its independence from Great Britain.

Sitton found that he missed journalism. He returned to the United States and worked for nine months as a copy editor for The New York Times in New York, before the managing editor, Turner Catledge, summoned him one day to ask if he’d be interested in the job of Southern correspondent, based in Atlanta. The civil rights fight was heating up, and the Times wanted to replace its relatively staid reporter with a hard charger.

About the time he took the job, covering civil rights was becoming nearly as dangerous as reporting on war. Journalists typically were viewed by the local power structure as outside agitators who sympathized with the civil rights activists. Reporters were routinely threatened, sometimes beaten and occasionally killed.

Technically, Sitton lived in Atlanta with his wife, Eva, and their growing family, first two kids, then eventually four.

But mainly he was on the road or in the air, moving from one hot spot to another, sometimes living in hotels for weeks and trying not to get killed in the process.

In Mississippi, where he was one of the first two reporters to arrive after the murder of the three Freedom Riders, he and Karl Fleming of Newsweek interviewed a deputy on the courthouse lawn who later turned out to be one of the murderers. Sitton and Fleming began to draw crowds of white toughs wherever they went.

Sitton said he had to go to the manager of the motel where he and Fleming were staying and use the same tactic he employed to help the civil rights activists who would call him when they got in trouble.

“I told him, look, just pass the word that if they kill me, by God there will be 10 more just like me out of New York the next morning,” Sitton said. “I didn’t have any more trouble.”

Sitton was regarded by the other reporters covering civil rights stories then as their leader. Many even took to using the tiny, cut-down reporter’s notebooks he used to avoid attention in hostile white crowds. They called them “Claude Sitton notebooks,” but Sitton said he called them Mack Charles Parker memorial notebooks. Sitton covered the aftermath of the 1959 abduction and lynching by a white mob of Parker, who was black, in a particularly hostile town, Poplarville, Miss. Parker had been in jail, charged with raping a white woman.

No time for fear

In a 2014 interview Sitton said he couldn’t recall being afraid while covering a story.

“I didn’t have time to be scared,” he said. “Truth of the matter is, the fear came afterward. I remember driving out of McComb, Miss., down to New Orleans to catch a plane after one of those big showdowns about public transportation there in that little town; and thinking about it as I was driving along, I felt the hair rising on the back of my neck.”

Sitton said that he always felt lucky afterward to have gotten that role, at that time. “It was a key beat on The New York Times, and I considered it the best newspaper job in the world,” he said.

He was brought back to New York in 1964 and made national news director. It wasn’t long, though, before he was getting a full dose of the infighting among the Times’ famously political management ranks.

Sitton said simply that “all the dukes of The New York Times kingdom in New York had got to fighting, and there was blood on the floor every day, and some of it was mine.”

‘Strong opinions’

In 1968, the Daniels family, which owned The News & Observer, was looking for someone to replace Jonathan Daniels as editor, and asked Sitton down for an interview. The News & Observer, Sitton said, was one of the very few newspapers in the South whose news and editorial policies he liked, and it seemed like a good fit.

“We were looking for a strong news-oriented journalist, who had strong opinions, to be involved in both the news and the editorial process,” said Frank Daniels Jr., former president of The News and Observer Publishing Co.

And strong opinions they got.

Sitton immediately made it clear what tone he’d be taking. “Popularity is not a legitimate goal of a newspaper,” he told a group of business and political leaders just weeks after arriving.

Initially, his title was editorial director and vice president of The News and Observer Publishing Co. Later he also was named editor of the N&O. His job was overseeing editorial and news pages of the N&O and the news in its now-defunct afternoon sister paper, The Raleigh Times. This meant he was in charge of both the opinion pages of the paper and the parts that were supposed to be free of opinion. The news and opinion responsibilities are now split among different editors.

A catalyst for aggressive change

In his 22 years at the helm of the N&O, Sitton helped transform the paper, said Ferrel Guillory, who was a reporter and then editorial page editor of the paper for Sitton, and is now a journalism professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“I think it’s fair to say that Claude, along with Frank Daniels Jr., clearly brought The News & Observer into the modern era,” Guillory said.

“Yes, it was through that era still a newspaper that supported Democrats in campaigns, and pushed hard at what would be considered in today’s terms as a kind of a center-left agenda, but there was a clearer distinction than before between the news pages and the editorial pages, and the newspaper developed a business section, got rid of the old women’s section, developed a really good feature section, and it re-opened a Washington bureau.”

Sitton frequently urged journalists to look at news more thoroughly. A newspaper, he said, “must interpret change. Mere reporting of isolated events is not enough.”

Newspapers had a crucial role in making the world better, Sitton believed, and part of forging a better society in his view was scrutinizing public figures who stole, cheated, were ineffective or otherwise didn’t measure up. The paper’s coverage of such people often was relentless.

“Once he bit down, he didn’t let go,” said Pat Stith, a former investigative reporter at the N&O and himself part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for the paper. “People who he had decided were not good for this city or state, he simply latched on and would not let go.”

Among several Sitton targets who eventually left their posts were Wake school superintendent John Murphy – who the N&O found had a habit of exchanging consulting jobs with friends in other school systems – as well as N.C. State University Chancellor Bruce Poulton and popular NCSU basketball coach Jim Valvano.

Sitton’s passion for education included a general scorn for major college athletics, which he saw as corrosive. Essentially he didn’t believe universities should participate in intercollegiate sports.

“Were colleges created to give us education or entertainment?” he asked in one column, already knowing the answer he supplied a few paragraphs later. “College sports, in short, are corrupt and corrupting. The rot reaches far beyond the campus – to the kid on the corner who thinks sports opens the glory road, the high school teacher who gives a player a free pass, the television executive who manipulates universities for profit, sports writers who see, hear and speak no evil, and all who know that higher education has been turned into a sideshow by the commercial sports conglomerate and do nothing to end it.”

There was nothing unusual about Sitton’s two hats, running opinion and news pages. The Danielses had long done both themselves, as did the editors of many other newspapers in that era, Guillory said. But Sitton was the last editor at the N&O to have both roles, and that sacred separation between the two worlds was sometimes too flimsy to stand up to his vigorously held views.

The Valvano story

Perhaps the most prominent example of that was the newspaper’s unrelenting pressure on Jim Valvano, the colorful basketball coach and athletic director at N.C. State University, after allegations were leaked in 1989 from the dust cover of a then-unpublished expose book, “Personal Fouls” by Peter Golenbock.

An NCAA investigation found three violations: players selling tickets and basketball shoes, and lack of institutional control. The program was put on two years’ probation and barred from participating in the 1990 NCAA tournament.

Poulton stepped down, and Valvano was forced to resign as athletic director but remained the basketball coach. Later, though, under more pressure when allegations of point-shaving emerged and a former player admitted to another violation – taking $65,000 from would-be agents – Valvano took a buyout worth more than $600,000 and left NCSU.

The point-shaving and other serious allegations were never proven, but the NCAA violations were real and there were problems with players’ academics.

Valvano died in 1993. Poulton couldn’t be reached, but just after resigning he told a New York Times reporter there wasn’t really a scandal.

“I feel like part of the problem is a personal attack that has been directed at me, and I frankly feel like by taking myself out of that situation I might lessen the attacks on the university,” he said. “There are some very clear elements that suggest that at least the local newspaper would prefer that I not be here.”

Stith said that sometimes Sitton pressed too hard. An assistant managing editor would say, “We are going to have an N.C. State story today,” rather than simply urge the reporters to dig hard.

“What they would do is come up with one paragraph of new material and put it on top of 28 paragraphs of boilerplate,” Stith said. “And there could be no doubt that Claude was directing it.”

On the other hand, Sitton would not print something that wasn’t true, or prevent the publication of something that was, even if it didn’t coincide with his views.

Once, after a UNC football player died of heatstroke, Sitton made sure Stith was given all the time he needed to get to the bottom of what happened. When Stith came back with a story that didn’t find fault with the coach, Sitton said not a word, and had no problem publishing.

“I know that’s not what he expected, or what they were looking for when they sent me over there, but that’s what they got, and he didn’t utter a peep on it,” Stith said.

For his part, Sitton was unapologetic about the paper’s coverage of the NCSU scandal.

During an interview for the Southern Oral History Program Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2007, he said: “But you know looking back on it, and I’ve said this: Valvano just participated or initiated academic rape as far as basketball players were concerned at N.C. State, but I have said … that Valvano only came down and did what (Chancellor Bruce) Poulton wanted him to do, and that was win ball games no matter how, no matter how.”

Among the reporters and editors at the newspaper, Sitton was famous for a hot temper and for pushing mid-level editors to focus their reporters on stories and topics he felt needed more attention, but also for backing his people vigorously.

One story remains near-legend in the halls of the N&O. It was 1972 and Stith had written a story citing an unnamed source and saying the IRS was pushing for indictment of 13 Democrats who had been involved in raising money for Gov. Bob Scott’s election campaign.

On a Saturday night not long after that, Stith got a call at home from an IRS official from Atlanta, who had come to Raleigh and wanted to meet with him the next day. He, like many before and after him, had underestimated the veteran reporter or overestimated his own guile.

Stith said sure, he’d meet, figuring that, while there was no way he was going to tell who fed him the information, the agent’s questions could reveal something about what the IRS knew. When Stith let an editor know about the call, though, Sitton got out of bed, stopped at the N&O to pick up a reporter and photographer and headed for the hotel where the agent was staying.

When the agent answered his door, Sitton stood aside just long enough for the photographer to snap a picture of the agent, then the two started yelling at each other. Stith said he was told later that Sitton essentially told the agent never to call his reporters and be a man instead and walk through the front door of the newspaper.

“He viewed us as an extension of himself, and what that IRS guy had done, well, you just did not do that, because it was an insult,” Stith said. “He was a great man to have on your side, a man of tremendous personal courage and I was honored to work for him. And lucky to work for him.”

Pulitzer Prize

Sitton won the Pulitzer for commentary in 1983 for a selection of his weekly Sunday columns in the N&O. The entries scrutinized a range of topics, including the environment, public schools, the influence of athletic booster clubs on universities and the doings of Sen. Jesse Helms.

In its report the Pulitzer jury wrote: “Mr. Sitton shows an extraordinary understanding of issues, nationally and locally. He is clear, forceful and convincing. He shows a great sensitivity for his environment and society in general.”

Sitton was elected to the Pulitzer board himself in 1985 and inducted into the North Carolina Journalism Hall of Fame at UNC-Chapel Hill two years later. Among his other honors were the George Polk Career Award, which he was awarded in 1991, and the John Chancellor Award for excellence in journalism in 2000.

After retiring, he moved back to Georgia, and for three years taught a seminar on press coverage of civil rights at his alma mater, Emory University.

He is survived by his wife, Eva Whetstone Sitton; two sons, Claude (Mac) McLaurin Sitton of Decatur, Ga., and Clint Sitton of Atlanta; two daughters, Suzanna F. Greene of Raleigh and Lea Stanley of Philadelphia; and nine grandchildren.

Former News & Observer reporter Treva Jones contributed to this report.

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