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John Herbers, journalist on front lines of civil rights reporting, dies at 93

John Herbers, a reporter based in the South for a wire service and later the New York Times who wrote with urgency about church burnings and bombings during the civil rights struggle and who later covered politics and urban affairs from Washington, died March 17 at a retirement community in the District. He was 93.

The cause was degenerative brain disease, said a daughter, Anne Rosen.

Herbers, born in Tennessee, came from a home where blacks were viewed as “inferior and were meant to be a serving class to white people,” Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff wrote in “The Race Beat,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the media and civil rights. As a journalism student at Emory University in Atlanta, Herbers encountered other influences that caused him to reexamine his parents’s value system.

He began his journalism career in 1949 in Greenwood, Miss., and within a few years was Mississippi bureau chief for the United Press wire service. Based in the capital city of Jackson, Herbers often reported on stories about race relations ignored by the rival Associated Press – owned by member newspapers who in many cases supported the status quo, Klibanoff said in an interview. He added that the journalist’s “low-key, low-pulse, slow-speaking” manner belied his courage in the face of community hostility – even threats – toward journalists who wrote about blacks in any dignified way.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision outlawing racial segregation in public schools, and pockets of resistance to school desegregation and other civil rights measures began to surface across the South.

Herbers “had, perhaps, the earliest story” on violent efforts to defy the court ruling, by chronicling “in early September of 1954 that cells of vigilantes were quietly forming in the Mississippi Delta to oppose school desegregation,” Roberts and Klibanoff wrote.

In 1955, 14-year-old black Chicagoan Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman, and Herbers covered the all-white jury’s decision to acquit the two white defendants.

He continued as a correspondent for what became the United Press International wire service until joining the Times in 1963. From his base at the paper’s Atlanta bureau, he wrote about the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four black girls, the murder of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss., in 1964 and the 1965 voting rights march in Selma, Ala.

Eventually moving to the Washington bureau, he reported on enforcement of newly enacted civil rights legislation; protests against the Vietnam War; the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) in 1968; the Watergate political scandal and the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon in 1974; and the Gerald Ford White House. He retired from the Times in 1987.

John Norton Herbers was born in Memphis on Nov. 4, 1923. His father ran small country stores in Tennessee and Mississippi, and his mother was a part-time music teacher.

He served in the Army in the Pacific during World War II and graduated in 1949 from Emory. He was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in the early 1960s.

After retiring from the Times, Herbers was a visiting instructor at Princeton University and the University of Maryland.

He wrote four books, “The Lost Priority: What Happened to the Civil Rights Movement in America?” (1970); “The Black Dilemma” (1973), about the civil rights movement; “No Thank You, Mr. President” (1976), about his unhappy stint covering the Ford White House; and “The New Heartland: America’s Flight Beyond the Suburbs and How It Is Changing Our Future” (1986).

His wife of 64 years, the former Mary Elizabeth “Betty” Wood, died on Feb. 5. Survivors include four daughters, Claudia Slate of Lakeland, Fla., Mary Herbers of Derwood, Md., Anne Rosen of Washington, and Jill Herbers of New York City; a sister; six grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

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