Tribute: John Herbers 49C

John Herbers 49C, a distinguished reporter for the New York Times on national affairs who in covering the racial turmoil in the Deep South in the 1960s demonstrated a rare blend of the journalistic skills, ingenuity, and courage often associated with front-line war correspondents, died March 17 in Washington. He was ninety-three.

During four decades, including twenty-four years with the Times, Herbers covered antiwar protests, civil rights marches, the passage and enforcement of civil rights laws, the rising influence of Martin Luther King Jr., the plight of the poor and social unrest in the cities, as well as the 1968 presidential campaign and the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the Watergate scandal, and the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.

Hank Klibanoff, professor of practice at Emory College and director of the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project, and coauthor of The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, says Herbers appears frequently in the book “particularly for his courage in running the UPI bureau in Jackson in the early 1950s, and for taking, with great equanimity, a lot of racist invective from fellow reporters because he dared, simply, to cover black people.

“He was remarkable in his willingness to have dinner with Medgar and Myrlie Evers in the home of another white reporter at a time when they knew Evers was being closely watched by white supremacists and law enforcement, which often were one and the same,” Klibanoff says.

“But his career at the Times was remarkable for more than his coverage of the South in transition. From the Washington bureau, he specialized in writing about government policies and their human impact, and he took a drab beat as the census reporter at the Times and turned it into remarkable exploration of the soul of America.”

Herbers was the author of The Lost Priority (1970) on the decline of the civil rights movement; The Black Dilemma (1973), a study of the quest for black equality; No Thank You, Mr. President (1976) on White House journalism; and The New Heartland(1986), on demographic changes in America. His memoir, written with his daughter Anne Farris Rosen, is scheduled to be published by the University of Mississippi Press next year.

“On a personal note, John, in addition to being such a stalwart, ethical, and dogged reporter, was a gentle and gracious man, a sweet soul, and always, always, approached conversations about his remarkable career with an admirable modesty,” Klibanoff says. “He was deeply proud to have been associated with Emory.”

After serving as a combat infantryman in the Pacific in World War II, Herbers graduated from Emory with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and began his career as a reporter–city editor for the Morning Star of Greenwood, Miss., before moving on to work for the Jackson Daily News, then United Press. He was hired by the Times in 1963 to be an Atlanta-based correspondent, the third Southerner to cover the South for the paper in the modern era, after John N. Popham III and fellow Emory alumnus Claude Sitton 47Ox 49C, the Georgia-born, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who died March 10, 2015. All have been credited by historians with major roles in reporting the civil rights struggle, according to Herbers’s obituary in the Times. He retired from the Times in 1987.

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