Fearless Civil Rights Chronicler

By Kimber Williams

sitton

Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Claude Sitton 47OX 49C, an Emory graduate who earned national acclaim for his groundbreaking coverage of the some of the most turbulent years of the American civil rights movement, died Tuesday, March 10. He was eighty-nine.

Sitton was born at Emory University Hospital and raised in Rockdale County by a family deeply rooted in the American South. After attending Oxford College, he graduated from Emory in 1949 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He went on to work for the International News Service and United Press in Atlanta.

He was later hired by the New York Times, where he served as a copy editor. After less than a year, Sitton was sent back to Atlanta as the newspaper’s chief Southern correspondent, with a beat that would stretch across the Southeast.

It was in that role that Sitton began to report on the civil rights movement. From May 1958 through October 1964, his stories documented such landmark events as the desegregation of public schools and universities, the sit-in movement, voter registration drives, beatings and bombings, the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, and the tumult of the Freedom Summer of 1964, as college students from across the nation flooded Mississippi to help register black voters.

Witness to history

Trusted by sources—civil rights leaders were known to carry his phone number—and known for his direct, unflinching news writing, Sitton’s dogged coverage often made him a witness to history, even as it was unfolding before him.

During the height of the civil rights struggle, Sitton’s coverage would take him from one political hotspot to the next, often requiring weeks on the road. 

Over six and a half years, Sitton would file nearly nine hundred stories from across the region, according to the New York Times.

Inspiring future journalists

Sitton’s papers, including correspondence, articles, speeches, and more dating from 1958 to 2004, are archived in Emory’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library. Emory also holds portions of his personal library, with many volumes annotated by Sitton.

Emory alumni—who count themselves lucky to have taken his classes—recall a tough journalistic standard-bearer with a deep empathetic core. Even today, they remember the classroom experience with a measure of awe.

Morieka Johnson Upton 94C was among a group of about a dozen students who took Sitton’s class, Press Coverage of the Civil Rights Movement, in the early 1990s.

“He would talk, and we would listen,” she says. “I remember the gravity of his articles, which felt like a different time and place. Learning about the impact that a news article could have helped me grasp the fact that I wanted to be a journalist.”

Legacy of service

Following his work covering the civil rights movement, Sitton served as the New York Times national news director from 1964 to 1968. He went on to become editor of the News and Observer of Raleigh, North Carolina—where he won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1983—and vice president and editorial director of the News and Observer Publishing Company until his retirement in 1990.

Sitton was one of five Emory alumni to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize, and the only one to win for achievements in journalism, says Gary Hauk 91PhD, Emory vice president and deputy to the president.

“One of those other Emory Pulitzer winners was the great C. Vann Woodward,” Hauk recalls. “Like Woodward, Claude was a Southerner who had a different take on race and on the South’s narrative about itself. 

“Claude’s courage in telling that other side of the story earned him the respect of a generation of reporters and the lasting esteem and gratitude of his alma mater. He was a fearless teller of truth and afflicter of the comfortable.”

Among his many professional accolades, Sitton was inducted into the Atlanta Press Club Hall of Fame this past November. He also received the George Polk Career Award for journalism in 1991 and the John Chancellor Career Award for excellence in journalism in 2000.—Kimber Williams

 

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