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Karl Fleming, Newsweek’s civil rights reporter

By Dennis Hevesi
New York Times / August 18, 2012
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NEW YORK — Karl Fleming, a former Newsweek reporter who dodged bullets and choked on tear gas while covering some momentous events of the civil rights era, died last Saturday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 84.

The cause was respiratory illness, his son Charles said.

A son of the South, Mr. Fleming was in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on June 11, 1963, when Governor George C. Wallace fulfilled his pledge to ‘‘stand in the schoolhouse door’’ and then stepped aside when handed a presidential order to allow two black students to enroll at the University of Alabama. Days later, Mr. Fleming was in Jackson, Miss., reporting on the slaying of the civil rights leader Medgar Evers.

He covered the Freedom Summer of 1964, when college students from around the country went to Mississippi to join in a voter registration drive. After three of those volunteers — Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman — were jailed, released, and, weeks later, found shot to death, Mr. Fleming was one of the first two reporters to arrive in Philadelphia, Miss.

The other was Claude Sitton of The New York Times, a Georgia native with whom Mr. Fleming worked closely.

‘‘Karl was a really good reporter, sharp, fast,’’ Sitton said on Monday. ‘‘When he and I got on a story that might be breaking in a couple of different places, Karl and I would exchange information.’’

Gene Roberts, coauthor of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book ‘‘The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation’’ (2006), said Mr. Fleming was ‘‘one of the nation’s top civil rights reporters, the point man on some of the hairiest of the civil rights stories.’’

‘‘And,’’ Roberts added, ‘‘he came close to getting fatally shot at Ole Miss.’’

Mr. Fleming was in Oxford, Miss., on Sept. 30, 1962, when James Meredith, a black Air Force veteran, was admitted to the University of Mississippi, touching off riots in which two people were killed, gasoline bombs were tossed, and cars were set on fire. Mr. Fleming was pushing open the door to a campus building when ‘‘four bullets stitched in a white wooden column 6 inches from my head,’’ he wrote in 2005 in ‘‘Son of the Rough South: An Uncivil Memoir.’’

Of his revulsion for racism, he wrote: ‘‘I had puked in shame and rage after seeing big-bellied white cops snatch American flags from children’s hands and club their parents as they marched in their Sunday best, in Jackson, Miss., to protest Medgar Evers’s assassination. I had been sickened as I watched Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor of Birmingham, Ala., loose dogs and fire hoses on children and mothers.’’

Being bullied as a small boy in an orphanage gave him some understanding of the plight of blacks, his son Charles said. ‘‘He was a sensitive kid’’ who ‘‘had to learn to fight for himself,’’ he added.

Karl Payne Fleming was born in Newport News, Va. His father died when he was a baby. His mother remarried and had a daughter. When he was 6, his stepfather died. After his mother developed tuberculosis, he and his half-sister were placed in an orphanage.

He attended college for two years before joining the US Navy in 1945. After military service, he worked at smaller newspapers before becoming a reporter for The Atlanta Constitution. Newsweek hired him in 1961, and he was soon covering Ku Klux Klan rallies, cross burnings, and church bombings.

Mr. Fleming’s first marriage, to Sandra Sisk, ended in divorce. She died in 2007.

Besides his son Charles, Mr. Fleming leaves his wife, the writer and television commentator Anne Taylor Fleming; three other sons, David, Russell and Mark; his half-sister, Ethel Gray; and eight grandchildren.

Newsweek appointed Mr. Fleming its Los Angeles bureau chief in 1965. In May 1966, while covering riots in the Watts neighborhood, he was surrounded and severely beaten, suffering two jaw fractures.

‘’That he was beaten by Negroes in the streets of Watts was a cruel irony,’’ Newsweek wrote.

But Mr. Fleming was not bitter. ‘‘If I was a young black man growing up on the streets of Watts,’’ he wrote in his book, ‘‘seeing what they had seen and going through what I know . . . they went through to survive, I might feel like hitting some white guy in the head, too.’’

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