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.