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Walker Bristol | Notes from the underclass

The case for activist journalism

Published: Sunday, February 10, 2013

Updated: Sunday, February 10, 2013 15:02


"He redefined for me what my idea of what real courage was.” The “he” was Martin Luther King, Jr. The “me” was Newsweek reporter Karl Fleming, who penned some of the most substantial coverage of Civil Rights activism in the 1960s. Naturally, Rev. King had a similar effect on many: associating nonviolent solidarity, rather than violent aggression, with the concept of bravery.
But given this particular journalist’s experience, such reformation demanded something more profound. In 1965, shortly after being assigned to cover the Watts riots in Los Angeles, Fleming’s jaw was broken in an assault by a mob It was the most brutal attack he’d experienced in all his years infiltrating Ku Klux Klan rallies, covering church bombings, and standing at the fore of some of the most dramatic activism of the century. Just as society evolved in all his years reporting, Fleming evolved so that he wouldn’t cast blame onto an entire race—or onto an entire movement—purely from a singular moment of tragedy.
Reflecting in the Los Angeles Times in 2006, he explained that he no longer holds resentment from the violent episode. On the contrary: “What I feel most is pure admiration toward the 100 or so brave young people, led by King in the mid-1960s, who literally changed this country….Because of what they did, more people in this country have more rights. That’s what I remember.”
Although MLK’s inspiration certainly catalyzed and maintained this era’s social activism, it was the Civil Rights Movement at large to which we can attribute change. For Fleming, it was the movement that imbued in him the compassion and solidarity with which he could overcome his attackers, and see clearly the forces working for good that would one day suppress such violence. In his time spent telling the stories of those at the front lines of the social justice battlefield, Fleming reformed his own character just as he used his platform to reform society. It took being in the trenches, feeling the fires of both sides, but he emerged with inarguable integrity.
Social activism is a vessel for change. Sometimes it’s engaged directly, like when Occupy protestors held sit-ins in foreclosures to protect the violated poor from having their homes stolen by the banks that misled them. Sometimes it’s through policy, as ACT UP protested the Food and Drug Administration to demand that an AIDS vaccine be streamlined by the public health institutions. And even still, sometimes it’s subtle, where the loud voices of the often unheard create a national conversation around class, race or sexuality.
As loud as megaphones and mic checks can be, it falls upon the media to amplify their messages to the skies. But in the contemporary mainstream, journalism is a tit-for-tat: Let’s have an environmental scientist and global warming-denier sit across from one another and casually debate climate change policy. It’s this suspicious “objectivity,” where journalists are too distant and uncompelled by stories of the oppressed to tell them meaningfully.
Activism and journalism are sisters. They are both art forms, outlets of creativity and emotional expression. They exist to keep society “in check.” They tell stories. As such, to engage one often means to engage both. It’s not a shortcoming of integrity to side with the oppressed — it’s a commandment. Fleming took it to heart: Even after being beaten nearly to death, he continued to advocate in print for the underprivileged. This column comes in honor of journalists like him, hoping to be a faint reflection of such integrity. It tells the stories of change-makers — those who had a dream.
Walker Bristol is a junior majoring in religion and political science. He can be reached at

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