COLLEGE PARK (3/1/19) — The writer ripped the inked paper from his typewriter, balled it up and threw it away.
John N. Herbers, then a reporter for The New York Times, was writing about President Richard Nixon. When Herbers’ daughter, Anne, asked why he tossed away his work, the dutiful journalist said the words he wrote made the president sound crazy and creepy.
That was unacceptable. Herbers had to start over.
“He was a straight-down-the-middle journalist,” Anne Farris Rosen told a crowd gathered Wednesday in Knight Hall, where she spoke about the book she wrote with her father, “Deep South Dispatch: Memoir of a Civil Rights Journalist” — the story of his remarkable career.
Herbers, like the daughter he inspired to pursue a career in journalism, had a clear view of his role. As a journalist covering the United States civil rights movement in the deep south — where he was witness to a remarkable array of events, including the march from Selma and the church bombing in Birmingham — and later as a White House correspondent, Herbers had a deep-seated moral conviction that wouldn’t allow him to ignore the evil in some of what he covered.
But he was no activist.
“He believed to not be as objective as possible endangered his credibility,” said Rosen, a freelance journalist and lecturer at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism. “He would lose his power.”
Over the course of 90 minutes, Rosen and Merrill College Professor Kevin Blackistone discussed Herbers’ career and the 10-year collaboration between father and daughter that led to the publication of the memoir.
It started amid the recession. Rosen, by then a freelance journalist, was wanting for work. During a particularly slow four-month period, she dusted off the beginnings of a memoir Herbers wrote in 1997, when he was 73 years old. It was in the bottom of a filing cabinet.
She was already familiar with her father’s work — she was often an enthusiastic tag-a-long on Herbers’ assignments in the deep south. One such trip ended with her and the rest of her family evacuating from St. Augustine, Florida, after members of the Ku Klux Klan drove circles around their hotel one night, shooting guns in the air.
But Herbers, who had spent so many years covering the civil rights movement, hadn’t gone into enough detail as he wrote his memoir. A description of the trial in the murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year old African-American boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, lasted precious few lines. He’d already written about all of that, after all — every day, for years, as a United Press International wire correspondent and New York Times reporterelaborate with personal reflections on.
So, Rosen collected 600 of her father’s articles, up to 1965. She compiled them, and on Saturday afternoons he edited them. Herbers, then in his 80s, didn’t elaborate with personal reflections on what he saw in the south — but Rosen found that when she asked him to sit in front of his typewriter and tap out a few paragraphs, he could describe how some of it felt.
“He finally was able to express that on paper,” she said.
Blackistone said those feelings, and what Herbers covered, showed that in one way, Herbers was an activist — not in his reporting, but in what he insisted needed to be reported on.
Despite pushback from UPI clients — newspaper publishers and broadcasters who subscribed to the UPI wire, but didn’t care to publish the stories about the startling racial tension that permeated the south — Herbers continued to report.
“His role was to bare witness and be a public servant,” Rosen said.
And he was. U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights icon who was among the leaders in the Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, march that contributed to passage of the federal Voting Rights Act, had lofty praise for Herbers’ book as it neared publication.
“If it had not been for reporters like John, I do not know what would have happened to us as we fought for civil rights,” Lewis said in a review included among the book’s marketing material. “He was not afraid to get in the way, often risking his life to uncover the truth. He made a lasting contribution to the movement and to America.”
The book was finally finished in 2017, when Herbers was 93. He died shortly after his story was written and before it hit shelves.
The memoir remains, a monument to a career in which he interviewed Martin Luther King Jr. on numerous occasions and covered the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He was present at so many historic events, Rosen sometimes calls her father “the Forrest Gump of journalism.”
Many of the stories are more than 50 years old. Rosen and Blackistone noted they don’t necessarily read that way.
“This book has so much relevance to today,” Rosen said, “Not just about journalism, but about race relations.”