- Valentine: ‘Sending Black-White Teams to Blowouts Was an Important Journalistic Policy.’
- Levey: ‘I Couldn’t Have Looked More White, or More Establishment, if I Had Tried.’
- Smothers: ‘I Was Shocked’ When the FBI Showed a Photo They Took of Me
- Short Take
Two weeks ago, this column presented accounts from three African American reporters who covered the events of April 4, 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, prompting urban uprisings in Washington, D.C., and around the nation.
White journalists had a somewhat different experience, also affected by race.
Here are two accounts by Paul W. Valentine and Bob Levey, Washington Post reporters at the time. They are followed by a coda from Leon Dash, and a remembrance from Ronald Smothers, a black journalist also with the Post then.
Smothers recalls when the FBI interviewed him with an eye toward charging activist Stokely Carmichael with incitement to riot.
By Paul W. Valentine
The night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the Post sent Leon Dash and me to Memphis, so I was not in D.C. That evening, I had just gotten home from work when I got a call from the night city editor, Bill Brady, who said — and I remember his words to this day — “Pack your duds. You’re going to Memphis. King just got shot.” Brady didn’t even know if King was alive or dead.
I took a taxi to National [Airport] where I met Leon and Bill Burton from Post accounting, who gave us each a couple of hundred dollars in cash (no credit cards in those days), plus two tickets to Memphis on Trans-World Airlines (no more TWA today, either). The Post had a policy of sending a black-white team whenever there was a blowout in those days, each to cover his side of the street.
Leon had been recently hired by the Post with limited experience in the South (He was from New York). I had covered King (and knew some of his lieutenants) when I had worked for the Atlanta Journal in the early ‘60s before coming to the Post.
In Memphis, Leon and I stayed at the famous Peabody Hotel, one of the few integrated hotels in the city, and covered our respective aspects of events there, pooling our notes at the end of each day and phoning them into the national desk. Despite my acquaintanceship with some of King’s aides, tensions barred access for me, so Leon did most of the reporting on that front, and I spent much of my time covering the police and City Hall.
There was such an intense, if temporary, level of what I felt was distrust and anger, even alienation, with the white establishment among some of King’s lieutenants in the immediate aftermath of the assassination that they were not willing to deal with relatively minor guys like me.
My recollection was that Ralph Abernathy, King’s lieutenant, issued periodic statements to Big TV for general consumption, but the lesser aides whom I knew in Atlanta would not talk one-on-one with me. The King entourage was staying in a different hotel, and the one or two aides I got through to on the phone discouraged me from coming over to their hotel to talk. The King aides I knew in Atlanta were second-tier guys — logistics people, not policymakers, not Andrew Young or Abernathy. Two I remember were Hosea Williams and a preacher named James Orange. I knew them on an occasional basis when they would tell me about plans for marches, demonstrations, etc.
The Post practice of sending black-white teams to blowouts was an important journalistic policy. I assume (since I was not privy to the inner thinking about this) that it was a practical consideration, an effort to maximize information-gathering by putting the best-suited reporters where they could be most effective. It was not unlike sending a science reporter to a climate change conference or a religion writer to the Vatican — but in a volatile racial setting.
The rioting, such as it was, remained limited, with the cops and National Guard keeping the city tightly buttoned up.
Paul Valentine, 83, was a Washington Post reporter from 1965 to 1999.
After King’s assassination, later on April 4, “I was able to make it into a planning session led by Bayard Rustin and King’s aides.
“Rustin asked me to identify myself. When I told him I was a Washington Post reporter, I was genuinely surprised he did not throw me out. They were planning the march in Memphis that followed King’s assassination, which I think was a day or two before the funeral march in Atlanta.
“I don’t believe a white reporter would have been let into the hotel room. It was all black people in that room. I can only speculate that they felt that because I was black, I needed to be there. Bayard Rustin was clear that [on the march], they wanted to keep black youth away from any [objects] that they could pick up, such as rocks. (There had been rioting in Memphis the week before). He paid attention to those kind of details.”
By Bob Levey
On the evening of April 4, 1968, I attended a performance of “The Pajama Game” at the National Theater. If anyone can tell me what happens in the second act, please do, because I never saw it.
During intermission, the news about Martin Luther King swept the crowd. I sprinted the 10 blocks back to the Post, assuming I’d be a backbencher on whatever the story turned out to be. I was only 22 years old, and had been at the paper only six months. I had never had a page one byline.
I was also sure at first that the story would be Memphis only. Yes, there might be some candlelight vigils in Washington, or some church services. I suspected I’d be covering some of them.
But after two hours of lounging around the city desk, as 14th and U burst into turmoil, followed by more of same on H Street NE and 7th Street NW, I was dispatched in a car equipped with a two-way radio. My assignment was to monitor what was going on in other parts of the city and relay notes to the city desk.
I decided to check out Seventh Street SE, near Pennsylvania Avenue. This neighborhood, just a few blocks from the Capitol and the Library of Congress, was as close to integrated as any in Washington at that time. So I thought I’d be able to take various kinds of temperatures.
I drove at 5 miles an hour north on Seventh, past a Safeway. It was being looted by dozens of people.
They were of all ages—kids, young men, even grandmothers. I parked across the street, watched through the front window (it had not been smashed out) and took notes.
All of a sudden, three police cars arrived, sirens screaming. Six cops darted into the store, guns drawn. The looters fled in every possible direction. One looked as if he had a gun (it was hard to tell because the light was so dim).
In any case, I decided to stay right where I was, hunched down in the driver’s seat of a plain-Jane, cream-colored Plymouth sedan. It couldn’t have looked more like a cop car if it had tried.
After about five minutes, the cops had scared all the looters out of the store. They made no arrests. They got back into their three cars and left.
Something made me stay there. I was soon glad I did.
One by one, the looters returned. They finished ransacking the store. One guy even tore apart one of the shelves and was carrying it down the street — long shards of metal banging against his thighs. Another looter passed right beside my Plymouth. He had torn open a sack of Wonder Bread and was stuffing huge wads of white fluff into his mouth, as fast as he could, as if he had never had a meal.
I waited another minute. Then I filed my notes to the city desk by radio. I had no idea that they’d appear on page one the next morning, under my byline. I suspect the editors liked the detail because it was so first-hand.
I never went to bed that night. The next afternoon, as the city tried to figure out what had just happened and what might happen next, I was assigned to the southern span of Seventh Street, just above New York Avenue.
Then and now, a police station sits just two blocks away. It was a bright spring day. I was wearing my press credentials around my neck on a lanyard and checking my notebook. Stupidly, I was still wearing the jacket and tie I had worn for “Pajama Game.” I couldn’t have looked more white, or more establishment, if I had tried.
In fact, the entire four days of the post-King riots were a lesson for me in how big the gulf was between the races. I must have tried to interview 50 African Americans during that time — some participants in the disturbances, some merely spectators. None would talk to me. It was if it was they were saying, “It’s our party, and you’re not invited because of your white skin.”
I’ve thought about white privilege for a long time, and I’ve experienced it all my life. But it had never been flipped around on me as it was then.
As I flipped through my notebook, a man walked up to me and asked if I wanted to buy some 45 RPM records. He had obviously just liberated them from a store nearby. I said no thanks.
He looked at my press tags and went into a rant about how much he hated the Washington Post. I was barely listening.
Then all of a sudden I was looking at a knife with about a five-inch blade.
Right on the front steps of a police station.
That’s how utterly mad the city was that day.
The man said he’d be glad to use the knife on me — that was how much he hated the newspaper. Somehow, I dredged up the presence of mind to tell the biggest lie I’ve ever told.
I said, “If you use that on me, you’ll be sorrier than I’ll be.” He grunted and walked away.
I’m still drawing breath.
Bob Levey, 72, was a Washington Post columnist from 1981 to 2004 and joined the paper in 1967.
By Ronald Smothers
On the night the riots started, I was sent to the scene around the area of 14th and U streets to report on the scene and phone my reports back to rewrite people back in the offices of the Washington Post. As a young black reporter with the Post, it was common practice in such situations to have black staff on the scene phoning in what they saw.
It was understandable chaos. Crowds were forming and they were angry at the news that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. I began to see people breaking windows of a men’s clothing store and, as I recorded what I was seeing in my notebook, I saw a large group of people heading north on 14th Street. At the front of the crowd was Stokely Carmichael, the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I quickly fell in with the group as they headed north and worked myself toward the front.
When the growing crowd was about one block north of 14th and U, I had reached the front and could clearly see Carmichael as they advanced. In the middle of the intersection a block north, a man emerged from the crowd toward Carmichael, thrusting a handgun in the air. Carmichael saw him and immediately reached up and yanked the gun from the man’s hand. As they stood there in the intersection, Carmichael raised the gun in the air and shouted to the group. “You don’t have these. Go home.”
He repeated that exhortation two or three times. The crowd did not disperse but appeared to follow him as he turned and crossed the street and started heading south on 14th street, shouting to people to go home. I followed along for a ways until I could get to a telephone booth, peel off and phone in what I saw. I recall being questioned by my editors several times during the night about that encounter. It was not until the next day that I realized why. The New York Times had reported a different version of that encounter that had Carmichael pulling out a gun and exhorting the crowd to more violence. The Post had stuck with what I had reported.
This became more significant in the waning days of the rioting when Justice Department and FBI investigators said that they were launching an investigation into whether Carmichael had incited people to riot in those early hours. Prominently cited in those reports of an investigation was the New York Times’ erroneous version of the very encounter I had witnessed.
Shortly after the rioting had ended, a Post editor came to me to tell me that the FBI wanted to talk to me about what I had reported that night about Carmichael’s actions and words. He made it clear that I could refuse to be interviewed by the investigators, who were apparently looking into the inciting-to-riot charges. The Post was not insisting that I submit to the interview. I concluded that it was important for me to talk with them, and so I called the agent whose name he had given me. At first they wanted to interview me at my home, but I said that I would come to their offices.
A day or two later, I went for the interview and was ushered into a bare interview room, where I waited until two agents came into the room. One was carrying a fairly thick file. At the start of the interview I made it clear that I was there to talk about and basically repeat to them what I reported to the Post that night.
I explained that I was aware of the inciting-to-riot investigation and felt a responsibility to reinforce what I had seen and reported that night. They didn’t respond, but instead one of them opened the manila file they had brought with them. It contained 8-by-10 inch black and white photographs of riot scenes, and they began asking me if I had seen this or that thing happen.
I repeated that I was there to talk specifically about the incident involving Carmichael, but they continued showing me picture after picture. At the bottom of the stack of pictures was one depicting me coming out of SNCC offices flanked by Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, who succeeded Carmichael as chairman of SNCC.
I figured that it had been taken on some other occasion when I had been with the two men in the city in the course of reporting on events and stories in which they were involved. I was shocked. I remembered many SNCC members I had encountered at the office jokingly saying “Smile” as we exited the office. I never understood those comments until that point. They had been referring to the FBI surveillance under which they operated.
I became nervous and agitated at the turn of events in the interview. I told them that I had nothing more to say, and I left.
Ronald Smothers, 71, worked at the Washington Post from June 1967 to June 1968 before going on to a 35-year career with the New York Times.
— Richard Prince (@princeeditor) March 16, 2018
Richard Prince’s Journal-isms originates from Washington. It began in print before most of us knew what the internet was, and it would like to be referred to as a “column.” Any views expressed in the column are those of the person or organization quoted and not those of any other entity.
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Journal-isms is originally published on journal-isms.com. Reprinted on The Root by permission.