Monday, August 08, 2005

Her name was Leontine something. . .

I wish I could remember her name -- Leontine something. She tried to gain admitance to a White Citizens Council rally in the heat of the racial turmoil of the early 1960s. They wouldn't let her in. She didn't get rejected because she was a woman. She didn't want to join the White Citizens. She was a black woman. The White Citizens had another name for black people -- male, female, all black people. We called it the "n" word.

She wanted to get into the Pasadena Civic Auditorium that night for the same reason I did. We were both newspaper reporters.

I had met Leontine from previous assignments we had covered. She worked for The Sentinel, a weekly aimed at Los Angeles' black population. It had grown rapidly after World War II. She knew me because I had the recently picked for the "civil rights" beat on the Los Angeles Times.

Only one man seemed to know that we needed such a beat. "Paul," Managing Editor Frank McCulloch said, "we've done a pretty good job covering Mississippi and Alabama. But what have we done about our own back yard?"

He put out the prize. I grabbed it. Neither the blacks nor the whites were ready for it. Blacks weren't covered unless they committed a crime against a white person. One guy on the sheriff's beat used to say about murder in Watts, "No story in this one -- just a misdemeanor." Chuckle.

Outside the meeting at the Auditorium that night, pickets from C.O.R.E., a new group of civil rights activists, marched and chanted and taunted the rednecks moving inside. TV cameras churned.Flashbulbs popped.

Without a nod to the doorkeeper I walked in. Took a seat on the front row. I couldn't believe the Council's invasion of Californiawould be productive.It might raise a ruckus outside worthy of a story.

Another reporter ran up the aisle to me. "Paul," he said, "a reporter from the Sentinel just tried to get in and they wouldn't let her past the door. She asked me to tell you."

OK. First, determine whether the report was accurate. I went outside and found Leontine. She told me she had gone to the door and was told she wasn't to go inside.

"They told me I didn't have an invitation."

I remembered that I had an invitation. It hadn't occurred to me to show it at the door. "I tell you what, Leontine.I'll go back in again and you come along right behind. We'll walk through."

She agreed. I walked through without a nod. She walked up. An arm dropped in front of her, blocking her way.

"I told you before," the gate keeper said, "YOU DON'T HAVE AN INVITATION."

"You just let Paul Weeks in . . . without an invitation."

"He HAS an invitation," the man said. He noticed I was watching.

"Do you intend to keep a reporter out because you didn't invite her? I didn't show you my invitation," I said.

"You have one," he said.

"I don't intend to use it," I said. "You let me in without it. If you won't let her in, it's going to be part of my story."

Stalemate. The gatekeeper called to a couple of other "members" to consult. Theydecided to let Leontine in -- with me, too.

All the rednecks turned around to gawk at us. I liked that. I walked her down the aisle, my eyes straight ahead, my hand on her elbow.There was a rustle in the crowd and some murmurs. Leontine looked away. I kept my cool.

The crowd was still coming in. I looked around and saw a familiar face or two. They probably were "white spies." There was another young white woman in the room that I didn't notice. But she told me about it later. I'll get back to her.

Themeeting not begun when I got another message. The gate was not permitting radio or television press in. They'd heard about my getting the Sentinel reporter a seat. They probably weren't wanted because the White Citizens boys wanted to spare the audience from seeing their pictures on the tube or in the press the next day.

I returned outside, prepared for Chapter Two. Whether we got to enlarge the press attendance, I don't remember. Because, when I re-entered, I found they were once more booting out Leontine.

"She doesn't have an invitation," they began again.

"Do I need an invitation? I'm not using it," I said. "I'm here as a reporter, not as your guest."

I wasn't abandoning the story as I left. We had another reporter, Dave Felton, sitting somewhere inside.

I didn't know what to expect, returning to the office, fully intending to report the incidents. Frank Osborne, on the night city desk, was so tickled he decided to tell editor Nick Williams the next day.

I got called into Nick's office, not exactly expecting to be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. As I remember it, he was silent at first. He was a gentle man and a good editor. He didn't like what I had done.

"It's not your job to take part in a story you're covering."

I guess I was enjoying the stroll down that aisle with all of the rednecks gawking at us, but maybe I was just exercising a little bit of what they call "investigative reporting" nowadays -- which, incidentally, that should be redundant, although, sad to say, it is not always looked upon that way.

I had remembered an incident that had preceded that earlier:

A young man was crying that he, a returning Marine veteran from war, was being unfairly treated by an attempt to take his property by governmental eminent domain for a projected museum in Hollywood.The press was presenting his side of the story. But there was one more angle:

Another reporter and I dug up information that the Marine had been dishonorably discharged from the Marines, and we wrote a story about that, too.

Humiliated, the young ex-Marine called a press conference to respond. I wasn't assigned to cover, but another L.A. Times reporter and photog got the job. As it was told to us later, the veteran called out as the press assembled:

"Anyone here from the L.A. Times?" A couple of hands went up.

"You're not wanted here. Get out."

Nobody moved. The rest of the media let it be known that if the L.A. Times was excluded, they would all go out with them. Everybody stayed.

Yes, we may fight each other like hell for a story, we news people. We use all sorts of angles to get there first, to go to press before anyone else. But when it comes to Freedom of the Press, you have to watch out for us, because we watch out for each other.

Forty years after the incident at the Pasadena Auditorium, I had lunch with a friend who was a retired executive from The Times. He told me I had been lucky I escaped being fired on that occasion. When managing editors changed, the successsor took me off the beat, saying politely, that I'd been "working too hard."

Frustrated, I told them that Watts was "going to blow up one of these days and apparently I haven't been able to get that across in my coverage." No, I wasn't fired. I took another job in the War on Poverty with the government. And Watts blew up about six months after I'd been taken off the beat.

And by the way, the "white lady" I mentioned up there who had seen me walking down the aisle with the black reporter, was in the audience getting the lowdown for the Episcopalion Diocese for which she was working at the time?

She walked down the aisle with me in marriage 30 years later.


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