In January 1983, I spent two or three hours reviewing the columns that Claude Sitton wrote over the previous year on the Sunday editorial pages of The News & Observer of Raleigh. Then I wrote a succinct letter to the Pulitzer Prize Board at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.
After Claude died last week, I asked the Pulitzer office for a copy of that letter. In it, I described him as “one of the nation’s and the South’s preeminent journalists.” I characterized him as one who “speaks out in a strong, progressive voice, unafraid to challenge the major public officials and institutions of our state.” His writing had upheld “the finest traditions of Southern journalism.”
Barely three months later, Columbia University awarded Claude the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. I’m under no illusion that my letter or the 10 columns that I selected proved convincing to the journalists who serve as Pulitzer jurors. Rather, it was a prize won for an extraordinary outpouring of journalism that not only documented a dynamic period of Southern history but also had a profound influence on the demise of the region’s legal structure of racial segregation known as Jim Crow.
Without a doubt, Claude’s body of work as the Southern correspondent of The New York Times from 1958 to 1964 was Pulitzer-worthy—though inexplicably he did not receive the award during that period. Claude, a native of Georgia, was chosen to report on the region by then-managing editor Turner Catledge, a native of Mississippi. Claude’s vivid reports and analysis of the civil rights movement and resistance to it showed up prominently in a newspaper read by America’s most influential citizens and officials—and they helped shape the way civil rights was covered by television and other newspapers.
I need don’t need to cover the high points of Claude’s journalism already so well recorded in splendid obituaries in The New York Times, The News & Observer, The Washington Post and elsewhere. I would also point to the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Race Beat, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, for its definitive account of Claude’s place in the field of civil rights journalism.
“Like many other reporters, Sitton felt more comfortable on the civil rights side, where there was an openness with the press that didn’t exist among the segregationists, who were defensive under the scrutiny of the national news scope,” Roberts and Klibanoff write. “Sitton was developing the simple view that the blacks of the South were claiming nothing more than their just entitlement to the fundamental freedoms guaranteed to all citizens of the nation. And even for a southerner who had grown up with the prototype of a segregationist, he was shocked again and again by the meanness that pervaded the resistance, particularly the diffident men in suits who did little to discourage the bullyboys who were willing to get their hands bloody.”
Such a sensibility and world-view carried over into his editorship of The News & Observer from 1968 to 1990. As Josephus Daniels and Jonathan Daniels had before him, Claude supervised both the newsroom and the editorial staff. “It was Claude’s paper, and his newsroom,” N&O veteran Steve Riley wrote in a remembrance, “with a palpable sense of right and wrong, with issues distilled in black and white, no gray allowed.”
Claude detested George Wallace and Jesse Helms for their segregationist views and for what he saw as their meanness in pursuit of their political objectives. When other voices seemed muffled in opposition to the powerful Helms, who served five terms as a Republican senator from North Carolina, The News & Observer reported extensively on what he said and did in campaigns and in office—and remained full-throated in opposition on the editorial page, where Helms was nicknamed “Senator No.”
When former North Carolina Gov. Terry Sanford, the model for the generation of New South governors of the 1970s and 80s, ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972 and 1976, The N&O treated his candidacy with seriousness and editorial support. Sanford lost to Wallace in the 1972 Democratic primary in North Carolina, and then Sanford dropped out of the race before facing Wallace in 1976.
Claude was genuinely thrilled with the victory of Jimmy Carter, a governor of his home state of Georgia, over Wallace in the 1976 North Carolina primary. And he saw in Carter’s rise to the White House the coming to national power of a product of biracial Southern politics borne out of movement for voting rights.
Under Daniels family ownership, which ended in the mid-1990s, The N&O reliably supported Democratic candidates and the basic Democratic agenda. It supported Democrats during Claude’s tenure—but he was not a knee-jerk partisan. The N&O’s editorial or investigative targets included not only Wallace and Helms but also an ill-fated attempt, with government funding, to develop a new rural town called Soul City, a state president of the AFL-CIO, a basketball coach at N.C. State University, a superintendent of Wake County public schools and a Democratic insurance commissioner.
Claude believed that North Carolina, which he still saw as a relatively poor state in the ’70s and ’80s, spent too much on higher education and not enough on K-12 public schools. The N&O threw its weight behind the 1970s merger of the Wake County and Raleigh City school systems, a successful effort that mitigated white flight and helped set the stage for Raleigh’s current robustness.
The N&O opposed building a medical school at East Carolina University—in retrospect a misjudgment, now that the ECU medical school has proved a substantial asset to Greenville, N.C., and the eastern region of the state. Later, The N&O sided with UNC President Bill Friday in resisting federal pressure, during the Carter administration, to adopt a desegregation plan that Friday considered an infringement on a university’s own academic standards.
Under Claude’s editorship, The N&O often had a hard-edge—but it also had rigorous reporting, a clear editorial voice, and a journalistic soul. Yes, Claude often preferred scolding people in power rather than employing sweet reason. Still, as both a correspondent for The New York Times and editor of The News & Observer, Claude produced journalism rooted in a vision of a less corrupt, more humane public life in his state and region. Even though it was a bit tardy, the Pulitzer Prize did right to recognize the work of Claude Sitton, a Southern journalist.
Editor’s Note: Ferrel Guillory spent more than 20 years at The News & Observer as a columnist and correspondent. During the 1980s, he served as associate editor for editorials, occupying for several years an office next door to Sitton’s office. Guillory is now a Senior Fellow at MDC, as well as a professor of the practice of journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.