Journalist Claude Sitton looks on as Regents Chairman Robert O. Arnold announces that reporters will be banned from certain buildings at the University of Georgia in 1961, during the unrest of the civil rights movement. (Special Photo)
At a time when it was unpopular and even dangerous to do so, Claude Sitton reported stories of the violence and intimidation exacted upon blacks in the South during the civil rights movement. The Rockdale County native worked for the New York Times as its chief Southern correspondent based in Atlanta, from 1958 to 1964.
Sitton had a reputation for not glossing over the ugliness of racism and managed to track down breaking stories that other reporters missed. Not one to write from his office, he’d leave home for weeks at a time to cover a story.
“Claude was sort of like this electric jolt in news coverage,” said Hank Klibanoff, who teaches journalism at Emory University and who co-authored the Pulitzer Prize winning “The Race Beat,” which chronicles the media’s role in the Civil Rights struggle, and which features Sitton as one of its subjects.
While his reporting remained objective, Sitton gained a reputation as the go-to person for Civil Rights activists, who knew that his presence could deter those who wished to harm them.
“There were people who carried his telephone number in their wallets because he was their insurance policy,” said Klibanoff.
His ability to be well-connected with sources on the front lines of fighting against the Jim Crow South is well illustrated in a story he filed in July 1962 from the south Georgia town of Sasser. With the headline “Sheriff Harasses Negroes At Voting Rally in Georgia,” the story starts off with a quote from the town’s sheriff, Zeke Mathews — “We want our colored people to go on living like they have for the last hundred years.”
Sitton continues on in the article to offer a highly descriptive account of how over a dozen local law enforcement officers forced their way into a church where 38 blacks and two whites, some from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, are holding a voter registration rally at night in a church.
The goal of the officers is to break up the rally. They interrogate the local blacks, asking them if they are “disturbed,” and if they need outsiders telling them what to do. Standing their ground, the blacks indicate they are afraid to vote and that they do need people from other places to come help them.
The law enforcement officers take their names, insult voting rally organizers, and prohibit the blacks from registering to vote over the next six months.
The sheriff then says he cannot guarantee the safety of the group, as angry voices from a mob outside the church drift into the sanctuary. The officers turn to leave and the group sings, “We Shall Overcome.”
Sitton goes on to report that the group conducted its business but upon leaving are cursed by the crowds outside as they get into their cars. One of the two cars has a flat tire (the air had been let out) and as the voting rally group fixes it, carloads of white people speed past, as well as a deputy who mocks the group.
Once the group is on the road, they are tailed by the intimidators and Sitton’s and the other two reporters’ attempts to get the license plate of the car are unsuccessful.
The story so alarmed Attorney General Bobby Kennedy and other officials in Washington, D.C., that they immediately sent representatives down to assist the blacks in Sasser, said Klibanoff.
“It was all because of the strong piece that Claude wrote,” said Klibanoff.
Sitton’s stories provided a much clearer picture and a frightening awareness of the Jim Crow South.
“As a Southerner, he didn’t draw any particular delight in revealing how brutal the South was but he certainly understood that that was his job,” said Klibanoff.
In November, the Atlanta Press Club will honor the 88-year-old Sitton by inducting him into the organization’s Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame is a lifetime achievement reserved for those journalists who show the highest standard of delivering the news.
“Our annual Hall of Fame awards is a way for us to honor journalists whose work is the best of what we want to be and try to be. That’s Claude Sitton,” said Jon Shirek, a reporter with WXIA-TV, 11 Alive News in Atlanta and committee chairman of the Hall of Fame, in an email interview.
“He gave us an extraordinary body of work. Just look at his reporting during the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s. He had the voice and keen eye of a Georgia native who had gone off and seen a bit of the world, and he comes back home to tell the world what’s going on in his beloved South,” Shirek said.
“He did it the hard way, digging out the facts, sorting through all of the conflicting information and terrible events and momentous changes calmly and accurately, and day after day he put together a powerful document of the times. He was leading the coverage, and his reporting helped the nation and the rest of the world understand and change with the South.”
Born at Emory Hospital in 1925, Sitton grew up on a 100-acre farm in Rockdale County where he and his family raised chicken, cattle and corn. He graduated Conyers High School in 1943 and joined the United States Maritime Service as a merchant seaman. He joined the Navy in 1944, traveling to the Philippines, among other locations, and served in World War II until 1946.
After attending Oxford College of Emory University in Newton County for one year, he transferred to the Emory University Atlanta campus and graduated in 1949 with a degree in journalism.
Sitton worked as a news agency reporter in New York City, Atlanta, Miami, Nashville and Birmingham.
In 1953, he married Eva McLaurin Whetstone and the couple went on to have four children — Lauren Lea, Clinton, Suzanna and McLaurin.
He then became an information officer for the U.S. Information Agency, assigned to Ghana, but moved back into journalism in 1957 when he took a job as a copyeditor with the New York Times.
Nine months later, he became the Times’ Southern correspondent, covering a territory from Richmond, Va., to Dallas, Texas, and from Louisville, Ky., to Miami. He spent most of his time covering the civil rights movement, including the desegregation of schools in Little Rock, Ark., and Atlanta, riots in Birmingham and Albany, Ga., and the lynching of two white and one black civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss.
He moved back to New York City as the national news director for the New York Times but resigned after four years and decided to take a post with the News and Observer and the Raleigh Times in North Carolina, where he served as editorial director, editor and vice president for “22 happy years,” said Sitton.
While at the News and Observer, Sitton earned the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 for his commentary, though Sitton said the honor was more for his body of work back during his New York Times days.
“Actually, it was because the people who made the choice were so proud of my work in covering civil rights, that they gave me the prize,” said Sitton, who also holds the George Polk Career Award and the John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism.
Sitton’s son Clint recalls that Conyers hosted a parade for Sitton when he won the Pulitzer. Clint Sitton said his father would share stories of his time on the road covering the civil rights struggle, and spoke to him about his younger days working side by side with blacks on the farm, and how they were mistreated.
“It really had a big impact on me. It shaped my worldview,” said Clint Sitton, who is now a 56-year-old attorney in Atlanta.
In 1990, Claude Sitton and his wife retired and moved to Oxford, where they bought the second oldest house in the city and refurbished it. Sitton began teaching at Emory University and proved instrumental in reviving the college’s journalism program.
Sitton now lives in Wesley Woods retirement community in the Druid Hills area of Atlanta and his wife, having suffered a bicycle accident two years ago, stays at the A.G. Rhodes Health and Rehab center across the street from her husband’s residence.
Sitton said he dedicated his career to journalism because he “found it so interesting.”
Shirek said Sitton is an example to future journalists.
“Sometimes we are just lucky that the right people emerge at the right time and right place in history. In journalism, that’s Claude Sitton,” he said.