Claude Sitton (1925–2015)

Written By Will Schultz

Claude Sitton (1925–2015) was a journalist famous for covering the civil rights movement during the 1950s and ’60s. Sitton served for six years as the New York Times’ chief Southern correspondent and reported on the desegregation of schools, the assassination of Medgar Evers, and the 1964 Freedom Summer—to name only three events. His dedication led the editors of Newsweek to praise him in 1964 as “the best daily newspaperman on the Southern scene.”

Claude Fox Sitton was born December 4, 1925, in Atlanta, Georgia. The young Sitton had a nose for news. He often skipped school to sit in the press gallery at the Georgia legislature. After a stint in the merchant marines during World War II, Sitton attended Emory University and became managing editor of the school newspaper, the Emory Wheel. His experience with the Wheel earned him a job as a wire service reporter in Atlanta, Miami, and later in New York, where he befriended Beat icons Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Sitton then took a detour to the West African nation of Ghana. There, he served in the United States Information Agency. Sitton later landed back in New York as a copy editor with the New York Times.

When he learned that the Times’ Southern correspondent, John Popham, was leaving, Sitton remarked, “Gee, I’d give my right arm for that job.” His editors awarded him the position on the strength of his earlier wire service reporting. Sitton’s first assignment took him to Arkansas. He spent six straight weeks covering the desegregation of Little Rock’s public schools. Later stories brought him to North Carolina, where he covered the sit-in movement and watched crowds hurl eggs and ammonia at black students; to Mississippi, where he witnessed a white riot triggered by the desegregation of the University of Mississippi; and to Georgia, where a mob slashed his car’s tires. Through it all he remained a tireless worker, who traveled 100,000 travel miles in one year and retired several portable typewriters.

Colleagues regarded Sitton with an admiration verging on worship. Journalist Sander Vanocur said, “He was the dean, the leader of us all.” His stories reached as far as the White House. One vivid report, describing a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee meeting broken up by a racist Georgia sheriff, inspired President John F. Kennedy to send a team of FBI agents to Georgia. Civil rights workers recognized Sitton as a potential ally. Many carried his Atlanta phone number in their pockets. If they were in trouble, Sitton was the first person they called. All Sitton had to do was call local law enforcement and threaten them. In one instance, he told a sheriff that if anything happened to the civil rights workers in his county, “There will be hell to pay. You will have all the newspapers in the USA down there.”‘

Sitton’s tenure as Southern correspondent lasted from 1958 to 1964. He left the job after being promoted to national news editor of the Times; Gene Roberts followed him as Southern correspondent. Four years later he moved back to the South to become editorial director—and eventually editor—of the Raleigh News & Observer. His columns, published every Sunday, won him the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for commentary. But many conservatives criticized Sitton for allowing his liberalism to seep into the paper’s news coverage. Republican Governor James Martin accused Sitton and his paper of opposing every Republican since 1896. Sitton always stuck to the statement he had made on joining the News & Observer: “Popularity is not a legitimate goal of a newspaper.” After twenty-two years with the Raleigh newspaper, Sitton retired from journalism and lived in Oxford, Georgia. He died in Atlanta in 2015 at the age of 89.