ANN ARBOR, Mich. - They were, in a way, two generations of war correspondents, men and women who had covered, in different decades, different battlefields in the same unending story that has always defined America: Race.
On one side of the moderator sat men like David Halberstam, the best reporter of his generation, and the legendary crusading editors John Seigenthaler and Gene Roberts, all of whom covered the greatest story of their time, the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. With them sat Moses Newson, who had covered those struggles for the black press, and had been beaten up and come within a hair of losing his life in the process.
Some of them were older than Martin Luther King, who would have been 72 tomorrow. To their right sat half a dozen generally much younger men and women who had spent more than a year on the New York Times' epic project, “Living Race in America,” a look at the vastly complex patterns of race in this country today.
Some of those reporters are too young to have any actual memory of Dr. King.
But all had traveled thousands of miles and spent many, many hours striving to understand what a Swedish sociologist long ago called “the American dilemma.” And the University of Michigan had brought them all together, a week before tomorrow's King holiday, to discuss race in America a third of a century after the great leader's death.
They talked about that, indeed. But what resulted was actually a fascinating glimpse into how race still is the defining force in American life.
Not all of the “old-timers” agreed with each other. Nor did all of the younger reporters. Whites agreed and disagreed with whites; blacks with blacks. Steven Holmes, a black Washington correspondent, said he thought that while problems remained, “things have never been this good” when it comes to relations between the races.
Several other panelists, white and black, seemed to disagree, but all agreed on two things: That the issue remains vastly important, for both the press and the public.
And that we need to keep working at it. After a few short years in the 1960s, many Americans have chosen to paper over or keep silent about their racial differences. “There is a price you pay for not being able to talk about it,” said Gerald Boyd, the highest-ranking African-American executive at the New York Times. “If you can't express your opinion, I don't see how you can deal with some of these issues.”
“The civil rights era is not over, ladies and gentlemen - we still have to work at it,” said the Chicago Tribune's Clarence Page, who bridged the generations. “We still have a task, and ... we need to be `divinely dissatisfied,'” he said, quoting Dr. King.
The veterans agreed that in their day, covering race relations was physically much more risky, but journalistically easier; the issues were clear-cut; right and wrong clearly defined. Now, race relations are so complex that any story must be carefully nuanced.
Indeed, when written questions from the overflow audience were considered, many complained that the panel acted as if race were only a question of black and white. “What about those of us of mixed race or Asian-Pacific island ancestry?” some asked.
For Roger Wilkins, an assistant U.S. attorney general before becoming a journalist and a history professor, the most sobering thing was the perception that “we are creating in our country today a `black untouchable class,'” that is moving “further and further away from the reach and sight of the rest of us.”
For Mr. Holmes, the bigger story was that in a few short years, the percentage of blacks living below the federal poverty line had fallen, from roughly two-thirds to barely a third of all African-Americans - a tremendous leap.
When the conference - which will be shown on C-Span - ended, I drove home, wrestling with my own thoughts about race in America, and vaguely remembering something a young man not at the conference once said. Later, I found the exact words.
“The fact is that we are tied together. Whether we like it or not ... our music, our cultural patterns, our poets, our material prosperity, and even our food are an amalgam of black and white.” And whether we like it or not, he added, “there can be no separate black path to power and fulfillment ... there can be no separate white path,” in America.
Martin Luther King was 39 when he told a group of rabbis that, and he had 10 days to live. Thirty-three years later, his country is still working on it. I suspect he wouldn't be surprised, and what might have pleased him most in Ann Arbor was the recognition by all that we have a long way yet to go.
Jack Lessenberry is The Blade's ombudsman and a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit. E-mail him at OMBLADE@aol.com or call 1-888-746-8610.