Jour­nal­ist from the South re­ported on the front lines of civil rights move­ment

The Washington Post Sunday - - OBITUARIES - BY BART BARNES new­so­bits@wash­

John Herbers, a re­porter based in the South for a wire ser­vice and later the New York Times, who wrote with ur­gency about church burn­ings and bomb­ings dur­ing the civil rights strug­gle and who later cov­ered pol­i­tics and ur­ban af­fairs from Wash­ing­ton, died March 17 at a re­tire­ment com­mu­nity in the Dis­trict. He was 93.

The cause was de­gen­er­a­tive brain dis­ease, said a daugh­ter, Anne Rosen.

Mr. Herbers, born in Ten­nessee, came from a home where African Amer­i­cans were viewed as “in­fe­rior and were meant to be a serv­ing class to white peo­ple,” Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff wrote in “The Race Beat,” a Pulitzer Prize-win­ning book on the me­dia and civil rights. As a jour­nal­ism stu­dent at Emory Uni­ver­sity in At­lanta, Mr. Herbers en­coun­tered other in­flu­ences that caused him to re­ex­am­ine his par­ents’s value sys­tem.

He be­gan his jour­nal­ism ca­reer in 1949 in Green­wood, Miss., and within a few years was Mis­sis­sippi bureau chief for the United Press wire ser­vice. Based in the cap­i­tal city of Jack­son, Mr. Herbers of­ten re­ported on sto­ries about race re­la­tions ig­nored by ri­val the As­so­ci­ated Press — owned by mem­ber news­pa­pers who in many cases sup­ported the sta­tus quo, Klibanoff said in an in­ter­view.

He added that Mr. Herbers’s “low-key, low-pulse, slow-speak­ing” man­ner be­lied his courage in the face of com­mu­nity hos­til­ity — even threats — to­ward jour­nal­ists who wrote about black peo­ple in any dig­ni­fied way.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court is­sued its Brown v. Board of Ed­u­ca­tion de­ci­sion out­law­ing racial se­gre­ga­tion in pub­lic schools, and pock­ets of re­sis­tance to school de­seg­re­ga­tion and other civil rights mea­sures be­gan to sur­face across the South.

Mr. Herbers “had, per­haps, the ear­li­est story” on vi­o­lent ef­forts to defy the court rul­ing, re­port­ing “in early Septem­ber of 1954 that cells of vig­i­lantes were qui­etly form­ing in the Mis­sis­sippi Delta to op­pose school de­seg­re­ga­tion,” Roberts and Klibanoff wrote.

In 1955, 14-year-old black Chicagoan Emmett Till was lynched in Mis­sis­sippi for al­legedly whistling at a white wo­man, and Mr. Herbers cov­ered the all-white jury’s de­ci­sion to ac­quit the two white de­fen­dants.

He con­tin­ued as a cor­re­spon­dent for what be­came the United Press In­ter­na­tional wire ser­vice un­til join­ing the Times in 1963. From his base at the pa­per’s At­lanta bureau, he wrote about the 1963 bomb­ing of the 16th Street Bap­tist Church in Birm­ing­ham, Ala., that killed four black girls, the mur­der of three civil rights work­ers in Philadel­phia, Miss., in 1964 and the 1965 vot­ing rights march in Selma, Ala.

Even­tu­ally mov­ing to the Wash­ing­ton bureau, Mr. Herbers re­ported on en­force­ment of newly en­acted civil rights leg­is­la­tion; protests against the Viet­nam War; the as­sas­si­na­tion of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) in 1968; the Water­gate po­lit­i­cal scan­dal and the res­ig­na­tion of Pres­i­dent Richard M. Nixon in 1974; and the White House of Pres­i­dent Ger­ald R. Ford. He re­tired from the Times in 1987.

John Nor­ton Herbers was born in Mem­phis on Nov. 4, 1923. His fa­ther ran small coun­try stores in Ten­nessee and Mis­sis­sippi, and his mother was a part-time mu­sic teacher.

He served in the Army in the Pa­cific dur­ing World War II and grad­u­ated in 1949 from Emory. He was a Nie­man fel­low at Har­vard in the early 1960s.

After re­tir­ing from the Times, Mr. Herbers was a vis­it­ing in­struc­tor at Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity and the Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land.

He wrote four books, “The Lost Pri­or­ity: What Hap­pened to the Civil Rights Move­ment in Amer­ica?” (1970); “The Black Dilemma” (1973), about the civil rights move­ment; “No Thank You, Mr. Pres­i­dent” (1976), about his un­happy stint cov­er­ing the Ford White House; and “The New Heart­land: Amer­ica’s Flight Beyond the Sub­urbs and How It Is Chang­ing Our Fu­ture” (1986).

His wife of 64 years, the for­mer Mary El­iz­a­beth “Betty” Wood, died Feb. 5. Sur­vivors in­clude four daugh­ters, Clau­dia Slate of Lake­land, Fla., Mary Herbers of Der­wood, Md., Anne Rosen of Wash­ing­ton, and Jill Herbers of New York City; a sis­ter; six grand­chil­dren; and eight great-grand­chil­dren.


John Herbers, shown in 1982, joined the New York Times in 1963 and even­tu­ally moved to its Wash­ing­ton bureau. He wrote four books and was a vis­it­ing in­struc­tor at the Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land.

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