Wednesday, December 16, 2009

An Interview with Hank Klibanoff on Civil Rights, the Press, and Recent History

Randall Stephens

Back in October, the renowned journalist and historian Hank Klibanoff came to my school to give a lecture and to speak with students about his work. Klibanoff is a masterful raconteur and his knowledge of what was once called the "race beat" by journalists is remarkable. He sparked my students' interest in reporting, race, and modern American history.

Klibanoff served as managing editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution until 2008 and was the Deputy Managing Editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 20 years. He was also a reporter for the Boston Globe. His book, The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, co-authored with Gene Roberts, won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for History.

Klibanoff summarizes his recent work as follows:

Today in the American South, scores of civil rights murders remain unsolved, uninvestigated, unprosecuted, untold. Those two legacies of violence and silence still haunt the region and continue to damage race relations in the United States.

Many histories have been written about the struggle for civil rights; many documentaries have been made about the movement and the resistance that rose up against it. But the history of the South and of the United States still has huge, important holes where myths and mysteries reside, threatening to undermine the nation’s goal of putting racial conflict behind.

The Cold Case Truth and Justice Project is an unprecedented collaboration bringing together the power of investigative reporting, narrative writing, documentary filmmaking and multimedia development to reveal the long-neglected truth behind unsolved civil rights murders, and to facilitate reconciliation and healing.

Our reporters have produced extraordinary information in high-profile cases that prosecutors have used to build criminal cases against killers and conspirators who had walked free for more than 40 years. To date, every civil rights murder case that has been reopened and successfully prosecuted was the direct result of an investigation initiated by a journalist.

That will continue. But the greater goal and ultimate hope of the project is that the stories we tell, even about cases that can no longer be prosecuted, will bring reconciliation for individuals, for communities and for the nation.

While Klibanoff was up in Quincy, MA, I sat down with him to ask a few questions about his research and writing. I also spoke with him about the challenges of writing recent history. And, I asked about his ongoing work on civil rights, race, and cold cases. The 30-minute interview can be listened to in full below.

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