Reporter: Covering Civil Rights…and Wrongs in Dixie
© 2006 Alvin Benn
When a young Alvin Benn left the Marine Corps to beome a civilian editor working with United Press International, he was asked by UPC’s vice president where he wanted to work, “Where the action is,” Benn replied, and so they sent him to Birmingham, Alabama, during the most violent years of the Civil Rights movement. Months after his arrival in the Deep South, Benn covered a Ku Klux Klan rally, where his tires were slashed and he and his fellow reporters tailed by a carload of Kluckers. Benn got the action he wante — and perhaps more than he bargained for, then and throughout his life as a journalist. Reporter is a part-biography and part-journalistic history of Benn’s decades of coverage as a reporter, editor, and one-time publisher; coverage for which he recently won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Alabama Press Association.
Although Benn wrote it to capture his memories for his family, this collection of yarns should be of interest of anyone from the Alabama area, especially those living in Selma. While Benn has moved all over the state — covered in a section called ‘Newspaper Nomads’ — the last few decades have been spent in the city where King and his marchers began their journey to Montgomery to fight for equal rights.The turbulent period of the Civil Rights movement still marks Selma, as many of its most prominent personalities (especially the colorful characters Benn delighted most in recovering) were shaped by those events and still count them as influences as they attempt to lead Selma into the 21st century — or keep it stuck in the 1960s, varying. Among the people Benn profiles is famed mayor “Joe T.” Smitherman, who ran Selma for 35 years, finally losing a mayoral election in 2000. Smitherman is remarkable in Benn’s eyes for rising from a working class background to effectively ruling a city, without a college background and armed only with an uncanny ability to get what he wanted done accomplished.
There’s no doubt that Benn knows how to tell a story, although the organization of this work was a bit questionable. He opens up with his introduction to journalism and then provides an overview of his career before returning to his childhood and his life in the Marines. After leading the reader back to his start as a reporter, Benn then shares the most memorable stories of his career; these constitute the bulk of the book. This format does have the benefit of leaping into the action and then giving readers context for the stories that follow, but I was left feeling that this is a book composed of three sections that don’t flow as well as they should. The liveliness of the writing more than makes up for this, though. Whoever chose the pictures for this volume did a great job; there’s an especially fun one of Benn — who is a Jewish reporter — standing behind a poster that exhorts people to beware the lies of the evil Jewish media. I’ve heard a few of these stories in person, and given his wicked sense of humor I wouldn’t be surprised if Benn set up that shot on purpose.