Notebooks From an AP Civil Rights “Race Beat” Reporter

Newseum Houses Reporter’s Treasure Chest of Memories

“It Was Scary In Those Phone Booths”

Last updated Friday January 5th, 2007
Share Your Reporter’s Treasure Chest of Memories

By JIM PURKS

Yes, late last year I had my “15 minutes of fame.”

A photograph taken more than 40 years ago in Birmingham of me — an Associated Press newsman — interviewing Martin Luther King, Jr., with lieutenants Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth looking on — is the front cover of a new book, The Race Beat, co-authored by Eugene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff.

The photograph above shows this young, skinny newsman named Jim Purks interviewing Dr. King (right)while King’s top lieutenants, Shuttlesworth, (left) and Abernathy, next to Purks, look on. The photograph was taken one night in 1964 in Birmingham, Alabama after the three civil rights leaders emerged from a meeting with Birmingham mayor Albert Boutwell during a particularly tense time in the civil rights movement there. (To date, the person who took the photograph has not been identified.)

The book, by the way, is superb. It’s awesome. Every journalist, aspiring journalist, and former journalist would benefit from reading it. Sixteen years in preparation, it is meticulously researched and is not a quick scan.

My image on the front cover and so forth — that’s all very fine. I feel honored to somehow represent the front-line reporters who worked in the trenches in those days, often in perilous situations, reporting on events and personalities that combined to transform our nation. They seem distant now, and many are being lost to the casualties of old age. There are of course many records including in places like the BBC video reels which you can access online if you can watch British TV abroad.

But let’s focus on something far more important than what could be perceived as an ego trip. Let’s concentrate on a small item in that photograph: the reporter’s notebook I am holding at that moment. There’s possibly a message for you, my esteemed reporter colleagues. Yes, I loved the fleeting acclaim of being on the front cover of a book, but the most fulfilling and, yes, thrilling part of this whole thing has been what I did with that notebook and ten other notebooks I saved from that era. This past November, I met with Peggy Engel, Managing Editor of the Newseum, and donated those notebooks to the Newseum — to be seen by present and future generations. The Newseum will be a $400 million (or so) facility at the foot of the Capitol in Washington, D. C., dedicated to the news media of past, present and future.

Thoughts As I Walked Over The Ruins

For some reason I saved those notebooks for more than four decades. They contain quotes from Dr. King, Abernathy, Shuttlesworth, Andrew Young, James Orange, and many other civil rights leaders. Quotes from Dallas County Sheriff James Clark of Selma, and other authorities. One notebook contains some of the most hate-filled quotes you’ll ever read from a white supremacist. Another notebook has impressions and quotes I scribbled down as I walked over the ruins of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham — blown apart by a Klan-placed bomb, with four black girls killed in the blast. A couple of other notebooks have quotations taken from people I covered after the AP transferred me to the Tallahassee AP bureau — including a presidential candidate who campaigned in Florida. Why did I save those notebooks all those years through numerous moves? Now I know. They really didn’t belong to me; they belong to the ages. I donated them; I don’t really care if my name is seen or not at the Newseum.

No laptops, cell phones, small tape recorders

They testify to a journalism period now gone, in many respects. We didn’t have those small tape recorders in those days. We used Gregg shorthand or any kind of shorthand we could come up with to take down quotes and make notes on what we observed. We didn’t have cell phones. We didn’t have laptops. We had to make sure we had some nickels, dimes and quarters in our pockets when it became necessary to rush to a pay telephone (I once raced with a UPI reporter and got there first when he fell) and call in our stories. I still remember with a shudder standing in a lighted telephone booth, surrounded by darkness and angry local townspeople eager to clobber the “outside agitators” and “foreign” journalists who dared to report on civil rights marches, meetings, beatings and killings. It was scary in those phone booths. Holding those reporter notebooks in one hand, phone in the other, we did our jobs. May those who visit the Newseum get a feel for such moments of journalism history!

There’s more. And heed well fellow reporter — you should have seen Peggy Engel’s eyes light up when I pulled out a couple of other items from my “treasure chest.” She was thrilled to get the three pages of notes and sketches I did while a cub reporter on The News and Observer of Raleigh, NC back in 1958. I accompanied a veteran reporter to cover a gas chamber execution of a black man convicted of raping and slashing a white woman. I did some sketches, I jotted down notes on the pellet dropping into a solution underneath the prisoner’s chair. I had made notes of how his body reacted as the fumes arose. How many minutes before a doctor pronounced the prisoner as dead (a long darn time!)These were items from a reporter’s perspective, in his own writing and emotions — ideal for the Newseum. (And if you have a concern about social justice, as I do, it speaks volumes about the awfulness of capital punishment)

That wasn’t all. Mrs. Engel again was so pleased when I turned over for posterity a newspaper clipping going back more than four decades: a photograph, printed in The Tampa Tribune, showing reporter Jim Purks and the then-fire chief as they are in the direct path of a collapsing wall at a warehouse fire. The cutline said that “nimble footwork” by the reporter and fire chief enabled them to escape serious injury. Got that right! But it was just what the Newseum is seeking: yes, events and personalities covered by reporters, but also items showing events and personalities impacting on reporters at work.

So, in summary, a question: What notebooks, what memorabilia have you been carrying around for years that might be of value to future generations and be a tribute to a profession we love? Look in the attic, check out your own potential treasure chest. Share with others. You mattered then. You matter now. We all have things we can pass on.

Jim Purks reported the civil rights scene of the 1960s. He was also a reporter for the Raleigh News and Observer and The Tampa Tribune and later became a public information officer for the Florida secretary of state. He was a writer in the Carter White House and is now retired and an active vocational deacon in the Episcopal Church in Americus, Georgia.

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