John Herbers was expecting something different when he turned to the Florida Highway patrolmen observing a civil rights protest. Protection, perhaps, from the white locals who were threatening to beat him up. They told me I had to get out of town, put me in a police car, and drove me away,” said Herbers, who was covering Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1964 visit for the New York Times. “They weren’t there to help me do my job, and that was the same in community after community.”

Herbers and other journalists on assignment in the South often found themselves plunged into an unfamiliar country where the rule of law no longer seemed to apply. Neither news reporting nor social protest would be the same after this intersection of media and movement, which is chronicled in the new two-volume anthology Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941-1973.

The first volume, culled mostly from small black papers close to the early flashpoints, documents a slowly festering anger ignored by the mainstream press. But by the 1960s, explosive events like race riots, the Montgomery bus boycott, and King’s Selma march had grabbed national attention. The writers who covered the movement present a wide array of viewpoints–from the immediacy of daily reports from Little Rock, Selma, and Birmingham to essays and magazine pieces by famous names like John Hersey, James Baldwin, Robert Penn Warren, Joan Didion, and even a remarkably sober piece on integration in Louisville by Hunter S. Thompson.

In the first years of the movement, getting the media’s attention was a struggle in itself. Discrimination and racism were dismissed as local problems by major news outlets. Sit-ins were considered pranks; no one knew about lynchings unless someone called the wire. Many Southern papers differentiated between blacks and whites in print. White women, for instance, were given the “Mrs.” Courtesy title, and black women were not.

Change came slowly. In the essay “Mrs. Means Married Woman,” Hodding Carter explains his decision to change his small Greenville, Mississippi, paper’s policy after a black reader’s entreaty in 1951. “Behind her request was the persistent, long-unanswered demand that we–not just we of Mississippi, or of the South, but the Western white people who are an amalgam of so many anciently blended bloods–recognize that what the darker peoples of the world require and must get from us is a recognition of their right to human dignity and self-respect,” Carter wrote. “I do not think that the incident was really small or that the decision that came from it was inconsequential.”

It took conflict and organized protest to bring the issues to mainstream America’s attention. “The movement was all about press,” says Stanford University professor Clayborne Carson, an editor of the anthology. “Southern blacks knew the only way they could call attention to the problem was to get the word out to the whole country.” The nonviolent protests in Birmingham and the riots that accompanied civil rights marches across the South riveted the nation. Civil rights activists organized to get press attention, from the early lunch counter sit-ins to the massive marches that brought national television into the struggle.

For journalists who witnessed the tumultuous events, reporting on civil rights reached beyond the story. If reporters took authority figures at their word in the years immediately after World War II, the civil rights movement forced a radical reassessment of their relationship to authority. “If McCarthy said he had a list, well, then, he had a list,” remembers anthology co-editor Bill Kovach, chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. “As reporters began to see people being jailed, beaten, murdered under the cover of law and authority, that changed the fundamental opinion of what law and government was all about.””

In The Fray is a nonprofit staffed by volunteers. If you liked this piece, could you please donate $10?