Excerpts from "L. Alex Wilson: A Reporter Who Refused to Run"

By Hank Klibanoff
Summer 2000

On the warm Monday morning of Sept. 23, the integration stalemate broke and the story changed. The National Guard, following a federal court edict, had withdrawn. The white crowds stayed, however, leaving the school’s grounds and perimeter beyond the control of authorities. Black students on their way to the school in a station wagon were heading into an unpredictable mob scene.

At the same time, in a separate car, intent on witnessing and covering the moment firsthand, were four seasoned black newsmen. Their leader was the tall, dark-skinned and serious L. Alex Wilson, the editor and general manager of the Tri-State Defender of Memphis, Tennessee—the newspaper that was the southern outpost of the Chicago Defender, one of the foremost black newspapers in the United States.

Wilson, the most honored of the black journalists on the story and, at age 49, the senior member of the group, was behind the wheel. He was accompanied by Jimmy Hicks, editor of the Amsterdam News of New York City, Moses Newson, formerly of the Tri-State Defender and now on his first assignment for the Baltimore Afro-American, and Earl Davy, a commercial photographer carrying a Graflex camera who was taking pictures that day for the local black newspaper, L.C. and Daisy Bates’ Arkansas State Press.

Wilson parked the car and led the way as the four newsmen started walking toward the school. His height, 6-foot-4, and darkness made it impossible for him to enter the scene unnoticed. He carried himself with dignity but without a hint of haughtiness. As tall as he was, he was not imposing. His shoulders were somewhat sloped and he carried himself slightly bent forward, in the manner not of a black man trying to make himself less intimidating to a white world, but of a tall man trying to negotiate a world of shorter people.

Wilson was dressed smartly, but not flamboyantly, in a dark, crisp suit. He kept his coat fastened at the middle button and wore a tan, wide-brimmed hat. As Wilson and the other newsmen walked, he could see they were approaching a crowd of white people that numbered in the hundreds and was growing, it seemed, with each step forward. Within moments, he could feel the angry presence of white men gathering behind him and gaining ground.

Get out of here! Go home, you son of a bitch nigger. Two men jumped in front of the newsmen and spread out their arms. You’ll not pass, one said. We are newspapermen, Wilson responded. We only want to do our jobs, said Hicks. You’ll not pass.

With anger and chaos seething all around him, with racist hatred running wildly out of control and with the possibility that he and his colleagues would die on the streets of Little Rock, Wilson would come face-to-face with a vow he had silently made to himself many years earlier: He would not, under any circumstances, show fear or run. The day would be as fateful for Wilson as it was for the nine Little Rock students and for the nation.


As the 1950s began, much of the black press was already onto stories of brutality that the white press was missing, ignoring or belittling. Few black leaders died as heroes in the white press, North or South. In much of the Southern white press, early leaders who were killed for their activism were portrayed as dying in freakish incidents or under mysterious circumstances or of self-inflicted wounds. It would be the black press that would seek and discover evidence of homicide where sheriffs found none. The 1955 death of Rev. George Lee, a pastor of four churches, a grocer and a leader of a voter registration drive in the Mississippi Delta, was treated as an odd accident in the Jackson, Mississippi, Clarion Ledger, leaving it to the black press to point out that his pierced vocal chords and the lead pellets embedded in the remains of his face suggested homicide. Similar differences in coverage came that year after the murders of Lamar Smith in Brookhaven, Mississippi, and Clinton Melton in Sumner, Mississippi.

But getting to the stories was difficult. The black press typically didn’t fly to assignments, and bus rides into the backwaters were fraught with danger and, of necessity, cloaked with deception. Black reporters dispatched from Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Chicago and Detroit to cover stories of lynchings, beatings and castrations would shed their suits and ties and put on dusty bib overalls and a low- headed shuffle in order to slip into a Southern town and start reporting.


Two years later, trying to get into position to chronicle history on the streets of Little Rock, Wilson was facing an even more harrowing, danger-filled encounter. Feeling the heat of angry white men blocking him and his three colleagues from front and behind, Wilson turned to a policeman and showed his press card.You better leave, the policeman said. Go on across the sidewalk. Wilson and the others obeyed, only to realize that the officer had let the white thugs follow them and close in. Anyone got a rope? one white man shouted. We’ll hang ’em. I can get one awful quick.

In a phone booth nearby, Associated Press’s top spot reporter, Relman (Pat) Morin, was just finishing a conversation with Little Rock bureau chief Keith Fuller. Not much to report, Morin told Fuller. He dictated some color and was wrapping it up when he heard the piercing yell of whites who saw Wilson, the photographer Earl Davy and the two other newsmen, Jimmy Hicks and Moses Newson, heading their way:The niggers are coming!

Morin saw everyone turn away from the school and move in a new direction. Hang on! Morin yelled into the phone, Hang on! There’s a helluva fight starting.

Roll it, Fuller told Morin calmly. Turning quickly to another editor at the office, Fuller blurted, Get ready for a bulletin.

Suddenly, two men, one wearing a crash helmet, assaulted Davy. They caught him, muscled him toward some high grass and slugged and kicked him. Others smashed his Graflex camera onto a concrete sidewalk, destroying his film. Another group of white men sputtered curses as they kicked and hit Newson and Hicks until the reporters broke free and ran away.

Morin, with a clear view inside the phone booth, held his position, opened the door to hear the commotion better and breathlessly dictated everything he saw and heard.

As the assault continued, the station wagon with the nine black students eased up to the south entrance of the school, and the students and two adults emerged. As they entered Central High, they examined the crowd with curiosity but little interest.

Meanwhile Wilson—taunted, pushed and slapped as he kept walking—was suddenly rushed from behind by a man who planted one foot, swung the other as hard as he could in the manner of a field goal kicker and slammed his shoe into the base of Wilson’s spine. Another man kicked Wilson so hard that the reporter’s lanky frame looked as if it would fold. Still, he lurched forward. Seeing that his hat had been knocked to the ground, Wilson stopped. Slowly, almost casually, as if to give them no credit for altering his course, he bent down to pick it up. In that moment, he had a chance to run, and he might well have been able to get away. But he had made that vow, long before, in Florida. I decided not to run, he wrote later. If I were to be beaten, I’d take it walking if I could—not running.

As the mob darted in and out at him, throwing punches and kicks, Wilson picked up his hat, stood erect and took some time to run his hand along the crease. His refusal to show fear infuriated the mob. Run, damn you, run, one man yelled. More punches came. Wilson, though surrounded, moved ahead.

As television cameramen and still photographers recorded the action, a man jumped onto Wilson’s back and wrapped his left arm around Wilson’s neck in a stranglehold. Two feet away, a burly man gripping a brick stared at the immobilized Wilson, ready to start swinging. But he couldn’t. A man standing beside him kept a tight grip on his arm, preventing him from swinging the brick. As the man on Wilson’s back drove him to the ground, the man with the brick got close enough to crack Wilson’s skull. Again he was pulled back. Finally the man with the brick settled for a hard kick into the center of Wilson’s chest. Wilson, hiding his anger, looked at the man and wished at that moment that he could meet him one-on-one.

Wilson, still holding his hat even as he fell to the ground, raised himself up, recreased his hat and kept walking. He looked straight ahead. Then he took one last powerful blow to the head—some witnesses later said it was the brick this time—before being pushed away by the crowd. The nine Negro students had quietly slipped into the high school.

As the mob went wild with the realization that the school had been integrated, Wilson walked to his car. He still had not unfastened the middle button of his suit coat.

Wilson was hurt in two ways that day. When he dictated his story, he noted that the attack on the journalists served as a decoy while the nine students entered Central High School. The story’s headline in the Tri-State Defender said the journalists participated in a ruse to help the students. Wilson had not meant to suggest that the decoy was purposeful; it had just turned out that way as the attack coincided with the arrival of the students.

Wilson was able to correct that misimpression in the next issue. What he couldn’t correct—what he didn’t even recognize initially—was the permanent physical damage he sustained that day.


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