First Draft of History: Covering Civil Rights in the Sixties

As an aspiring reporter, the author wrote about race issues as they moved from idealism to disillusion to anger to violence.



The Voice and the Sixties were very loose. 

That combination made it possible for me to make an unprofessional debut at the paper. It made it easy for an unknown caller like me to get founding editor Dan Wolf on the phone. I’d never written anything before, but asked to cover the 1963 March on Washington. Regretfully, he said, “No. We have our own reporters going.”

“No” for me was always only the beginning of a conversation. At 2 a.m., I headed out to do the story anyway, and went to Harlem’s 125th Street, lined with the Congress of Racial Equality’s Washington-bound buses. Black and white integrationists were optimistic, exultant. 

Yet on my bus, there was a warning of the hostility between Blacks and whites in the movement that would intensify during the decade. In my dual role as reporter and white member of CORE, I heard a pale-faced liberal say, in patronizing tones, that he joined the Peace Corps and was going to Nigeria, “to help these people.” Wayne Kinsler, a piano-wire-tense Black member of my CORE chapter, shouted in response, “If this thing comes to violence, yours will be the first throat we cut.”

That signal of future hostility and violence was at the center of the story I wrote. I’d only half typed a clean copy when I had to rush to the Voice. Dan Wolf had told me that Friday was deadline day. But when I got there, he was at lunch. I asked to use a typewriter, was motioned to one closest to the front door, and continued retyping my article. 

A small middle-aged man with a timid air came through the front door and practically tripped over me. I guessed it was Dan Wolf when he gave me a stare that seemed to ask, “Who the hell is this person who plunked herself down at a Voice typewriter?” Answering his unspoken question, I reminded him that we had talked on the phone about the March on Washington, and I had the story with me. Probably more with curiosity about the strange creature before him than with enthusiasm, he told me to follow him upstairs to his office. As I sat there in high anxiety, he read my half-retyped, half-messy pages without making any comment. Finally, he said, “Get it here Monday. We’ll run it.” 

On the day my article appeared, I went back to Dan’s office and sputtered on about the Herald Tribune reporter on my bus. “I can’t believe he missed the whole violence angle. All he did was write the time we left New York and arrived in Washington.” 

“I’m sure he got the time right. He was a professional.” Professional sounded like a swear word in Dan’s mouth. He embroidered on his contempt: Professionals wrote to formula. Their work was interchangeable. They had no quirkiness or originality. We slipped into a rambling conversation about the country’s problems. Eventually, I asked him to give me another assignment. 

“That’s not my job. I orchestrate the obsessions of my writers,” he answered. My obsession, as a reporter and as a member of CORE, was to highlight the racial situation in the North. Dan knew I participated as an activist in the stories I wrote about. He was OK with that. He wanted subjective writing from inside the person and the event. He was often amused by my activities in CORE. Dan was a passive, shy man, who, I think, lived vicariously through the adventures of his writers.


Once, we believed all we had to do was reveal a wrong and the good people would fix it. The convention was so disillusioning that things were never the same. Bitterness replaced idealism, and trust in Johnson and the liberals died.


My participation as an activist was important when I witnessed history at the 1964 Democratic Convention, in Atlantic City. It gave me access to some places closed to journalists. It also gave me a unique perspective on a turning point for the civil rights movement. The main issue at the convention was whether the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, organized by the civil rights movement, would be given credentials as the state’s official delegation and replace the current, all-white Mississippi delegation. 

President Johnson failed the moral test and killed the Freedom Party challenge. The man who had passed the Civil Rights Act a month earlier had his supporters threaten members of the Credential Committee with a loss of judgeships, of loans, and of other local goodies, if they voted to give the Freedom Party the delegate credentials. The members of the Credential Committee offered the challengers only two non-voting delegate seats. When I slipped into a closed movement meeting, I saw muckety-muck liberals and some civil rights leaders pressure the Freedom Party to accept the worthless offer. The challengers refused. As the party’s co-founder Fannie Lou Hamer said, “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats when all of us is tired.”

My story stripped away the pretense that Johnson and the liberals had given the Freedom Party much of anything. It was permeated with the sense of betrayal felt by the delegates and the civil rights activists who came to the convention to fight for a Freedom Party win. Their naïve expectations and mine were buried in the sands of Atlantic City. Once, we believed all we had to do was reveal a wrong and the good people would fix it. The convention was so disillusioning that things were never the same. Bitterness replaced idealism, and trust in Johnson and the liberals died. 


“The editorial policy of the Voice is to have no editorial policy.”


Even before the convention, liberals had begun to abandon race issues. It happened at the Voice, too. Writer Jack Newfield was one of the deserting, despite having been part of the civil rights movement. He wrote an article riddled with fear of Blacks and a sense of threat. In it, he described Black artists on a discussion panel as “malevolent.” He also attacked Black writers who weren’t there as “cultural Mau Maus.” It sounded to me like another name for “nigger,” an insult that implied savagery. The Mau Maus were the Kenyans who led a bloody uprising against British rule in the Fifties. 

I was shocked by the article. Jack and I were friends, but every time I met him I yelled, “How could you do such a vicious attack?” Part of the answer I knew. He was a runty kid who grew up poor in a tough Black neighborhood. Fear must have been his constant companion. Understanding is not forgiving. Black playwright Lorraine Hansberry was also unforgiving. In a letter to the Voice, she criticized Jack’s reaction to Black anger, and said, “The spokesman for the oppressed at least have the right to scream.” 

Voice writer Nat Hentoff, who was on my side of the paper’s radical/liberal divide, began a print debate with Jack that lasted all summer. When I talked to Dan about the Hentoff-Newfield combat, he gave me an enigmatic smile. It could mean that he was editorially pleased with it. He wanted a confetti of opinions in the paper, and once said, “The editorial policy of the Voice is to have no editorial policy.” His smile could also have meant that he agreed with Jack about the “malevolent” Blacks. My guess was he did. His wife had earlier told me that she was a leftie and Dan was more conservative. 

As I continued to track the negative impact liberal abandonment had on the civil rights movement and its finances, it seemed to me that some liberals, like Dan and Jack, couldn’t deal with Blacks who weren’t smiling and deferential. A Voice freelancer, Tom Diver, warned of the danger of doing that. “Moderates who can’t risk greater action when they are afraid of Negro rage will be made impotent by their fear and leave the vacuum to white racists and more Negro rage.” That rage came in the Sixties’ summers of riots. I covered the one in Newark in 1967. The white racists are still winning. 

At the weekly salons in Dan’s office, someone mentioned Malcolm X, the Black man whose anger and truths liberals were least able to handle. The freeform discussion went to the future direction of this man who had left the Nation of Islam and given up his blue-eyed devil rhetoric. He was a growing influence in CORE and its Black members’ shift toward nationalism and self-determination. It was important to witness this new development. 

We met in Malcolm’s office in Harlem, and with a half-smile, he said, “A lot of people have warned me about the Village Voice. It’s supposed to be a liberal paper, but they say it is very narrow.”

“Some people on the staff think you’re a con man.” 

He exploded out of his chair. “If I wanted to be just a con man, I wouldn’t be fool enough to try it on these streets where people are looking for my life, where I can’t walk around after dark. If I wanted power, I could have gone anywhere in the world. They offered me jobs in all the African countries. 

Eventually, things were cooled down between us by a general discussion of the media, and I asked. “Do you feel a distorted image of you was created by the press?” 

“It was created by them and me … It’s useful. The only person who can organize the man in the streets is the one who is unacceptable to the white community.”

Gradually, he dropped his scary-man mask, and we talked about his strategies for change. They included everything from running militant candidates on the local level to pooling resources in the Black community to buy housing. 

When I turned in the article, I told Dan he needed to run it fast because Malcolm X was going to be killed. We went through this routine for a couple of weeks. Dan was not eager to run a story about the angriest Black man, but I knew he would. A month after my interview, he published it posthumously. Malcolm X was shot down in the Audubon Ballroom, on February 21, 1965. 

As despairing Black and white activists became more radical in the following years and Dan Wolf became more conservative, our editing sessions took on increased value. He had always edited heads instead of copy. Before anything was written, we talked about the ideas in the story. His questions became more cynical as our conversations turned to potential articles about radicals. This forced me to sharpen the point being made in an attempt to persuade the Voice’s most conservative reader — Dan Wolf. Even if he didn’t agree with what the article said, if it was well written, he would run it. That was the rare freedom he gave the writers and their obsessions. 

He also indulged me when, over the years, I kept writing about Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell. By 1967, liberals in Congress had helped deny the flamboyant politician his seat in the legislature through actions of a House investigative committee. In his own defense, Powell purred, “I wish to state very emphatically that I will always do what every other Congressman and Committee Chairman has done, is doing, and will do.” That included Powell and many of the others taking beautiful women on Congressional junkets, missing votes, and tinkering with tax returns. 

My defense of him came from my fondness for rebels and rogues, my admiration for fighters for justice. Fourteen years before King’s Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, Powell organized one in Harlem. Before CORE, he led picketing for jobs at the 1939 World’s Fair and organized rent strikes. He was never deferential in Congress. Arrogance with style was the way he carried himself. It was his attitude, as much as his actions, that raised the ire of his colleagues when he became the powerful — some thought too powerful — chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. 

After his failure to regain his House seat, he wasn’t seen in New York much. I was there in 1970 when he made his comeback. Powell, wearing a black silk suit, white turtleneck, and medallion, came into the ballroom of the Americana Hotel. The applause mounted in affection, and relief at not being burdened with pity. It was still the same old Adam. The incandescent smile. The walk that said he owned the world. 

Across the room full of tables covered with pink damask cloths, a friend recalled, with a fast exhale and a look of reflected pain, the years since they excluded Powell from Congress. “The man was a giant. And they cut him down. After 22 years. No seniority. No Chairmanship. No seat. No title. Nothing! Nothing! You have no idea what that can do to a man with an ego like Adam’s. For a while we were afraid that he was losing his mind.” 

Although I never stopped writing about race issues, I added women’s rights to my print and personal causes. In 1966, I interviewed an illegal abortionist, and did future articles on the subject. Voice writer and feminist Susan Brownmiller said, “We’re the only ones at the paper who care about abortion.” 

Looking back on the civil rights movement, things haven’t turned out as well as we innocents expected when we first became part of it. The 1964 Civil Rights Act mainly desegregated public accommodations and benefited the South. The 1965 Voting Rights Act gave Blacks some power and some more politicians, but its provisions have since been gutted by the Supreme Court. The suppression of Black votes is prevalent again. The Northern ghettoes are the same as they were when I walked them years ago. It’s too easy to blame that situation on the backlash of the right. There is always a backlash to Black progress. The key variable is the reaction to that backlash by liberals and leftists, whether they withdraw to their private lives or fight harder. 

As Freedom Party leader Aaron Henry told me at the 1964 Democratic Convention, the response to the situation of Blacks is a “moral test.” Like he said, I’m waiting for an end to “the thundering silence of the good people.”   ❖

Marlene Nadle is a former Village Voice writer currently working on a book on the Sixties, with the working title “Fragments of the Sixties.” She can be reached at  [email protected] 





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