“Claude was like a heat seeking missile!”
Following is a brief interview today with my father, a civil rights journalist for Newsweek when Claude Sitton was at the New York Times. After our interview, I read Hank Klibanoff’s obituary in USA today and found some striking consistencies in how journalists remember Claude. For example Klibanoff quoted Bill Emerson: “Some people pursued don’t travel as fast as Claude does when he walks” confirmed my father’s Bill Emerson quote “Claude is like a heat seeking missile”. There were so many details that confirmed what an iconic, important yet humble southern journalist Claude Sitton was.
WALTER: So daddy, where and when did you first meet Claude?
JOE: Well, I think it was a party at Bill Emerson’s in Ansley Park. See he was a little late on the civil rights scene (1958) but he hit the ground running. The New York crowd were a little bit put off by him , that he was a country boy.
WALTER: You mean he was kind of snubbed because he was a southerner?
JOE: Well, that’s not important.. don’t quote that. .See he should have gotten the Pulitzer for his civil rights coverage, but instead, and this reflects that indifference they had, they waited until he was at Raleigh years later and gave him te Pulitzer for general editing when he should have gotten it specifically for the civil rights coverage.
WALTER: Did you ever compete with him to out scoop him on a story?
JOE: Hell no. You could just see him early in the morning, like in Little Rock where they were integrating the schools, and he was buzzing around, talking to people before I had my second cup of coffee…
EMILY: Wasn’t Bill Emerson there? (Little Rock) and the two of you couldn’t keep up with Claude?
WALTER: Daddy, to you, what was Claude’s most important role that no other journalists of his time fulfilled?
JOE: Well, of course, I was always justifying my laggardness by saying I was in a weekly situation (with Newsweek) and I was sending my material up to writers who would write it, and Claude was writing it on the scene. So we were at different tempos. But you couldn’t brush him off ’cause he was a born reporter.
EMILY: Walter, did Doug tell you about when he (Doug) was working for the News and Observer, that, at that time, he was courting that girl artist and Doug put up one of her large abstract paintings in the newsroom and Claude said “Get that thing out of here”.
JOE: I went hiking in the smokies with him and his son Clint, and he was a good companion. He has this great stride that he could get places faster!
Above is an early 1960s Newsweek poster of my dad (left)