First Rites by Philip F. O’Connor

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Published SF Gate 4:00 am, Sunday, February 2, 1997

In the late spring of 1957, Martin Luther King Jr. was struggling to gain control of the budding civil rights movement. On a ridiculously smaller scale, I, then a cub reporter on the San Francisco News, was attempting to prove to myself and my editors that I could do more than write amusing feature stories. The young minister’s path and mine would cross – more accurately, I’d be thrown across his – the morning I was assigned to interview him at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel.

Though King had received national and international attention after the successful Montgomery bus boycott of 1956, his civil rights leadership rested on soft Alabama clay. Though later, the NAACP helped fund King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in mid-’56, NAACP officials were publicly belittling the new organization, which they believed threatened their activities in the South.

During the NAACP’s 1956 convention, held at San Francisco’s Civic Auditorium, then-NAACP counsel Thurgood Marshall called King “a boy on a man’s errand.” Elsewhere, even the great African American leader W.E.B. DuBois said, “If passive resistance could conquer racial hatred . . . Gandhi and Negroes like King would have shown the world how to conquer war itself.”

Such not-so-friendly fire came on the heels of attacks by enemies in Montgomery. Segregationists had bombed King’s and other boycott leaders’ homes. When suspected bombers were arrested, a local court set them free. Death threats to King and his family soon became as common as bulk mail advertising. Police themselves began stalking and harassing the young leader, arresting him on charges that ranged from driving 30 mph in a 25-mile zone to conspiracy to prevent the operation of a business.

As if King needed more trouble, members of his Montgomery Improvement Association, the organization that the SCLC would replace, began bickering with each other. Some tried to back out of the boycott, and others charged King with excessive travel and getting too much attention. Discouraged by the problems he faced during this period, King would soon tell singer Harry Belafonte, “I don’t know where this movement is going.”

By spring 1957, despite having been praised in a Time magazine cover story, and profiled in the New York Times as well as appearing on Meet the Press, King had had little success spreading his message of nonviolence through the South. In frustration, he decided to capitalize on his new media attention by writing his autobiography, Stride Toward Freedom, and by scheduling numerous public appearances. He began to work at a manic pace, writing, traveling and speaking. By the end of the year, he’d cover 780,000 miles and give 208 speeches. One of his stops would be San Francisco.

I didn’t ask why I, the newspaper’s least experienced reporter, was being assigned to interview King; it didn’t even occur to me. I was 24 years old and King was only 27. Despite the worldwide attention he’d begun to receive, Martin Luther King still wasn’t big news here. In preparing this article, San Francisco Public Library researcher Kathy Laughin and I found only one news item about King and the bus boycott in 1957, prior to June – a single paragraph announcing that local ministers were sending the boycott leader a letter of support. The Examiner librarian found that the morning papers, the Chronicle and The Examiner (which was then still a morning paper), and the other afternoon paper, the Call-Bulletin, likewise gave the rising civil rights leader – and the Montgomery bus boycott – almost no coverage.

My path toward King began at a U-shaped table called the copy desk. In the U’s center stood a man who never, at least in my presence, cast a smile. I know he had a last name but doubt he had a first. Secretly, I called him “Hatchet.” Periodically, he folded up sheets of paper that had been churned out by the United Press or Associated Press wire service machines or been sent over from the city desk, wrote a word-number on the outside and, without even looking, slapped them hard onto one of the sharp foot-long nails that stuck up in front each of his cowering sub-editors. None of the sub-eds cowered more than I, or had more reason to.

Once, given the number “200” on a U.P. feature story by Merriam Smith about a golf game among President Eisenhower and his cronies, I cut out of the approximately 500-word piece every reference to government matters, like whether Ike thought the Air Force deserved to get a $22 million, as opposed to a $24 million, budget increase, and left in more personal material, like a reminiscence about Patton’s dog (The President puzzled over why “Willie” had always growled at him) and Ike’s mysterious distaste for breakfast sausages. ( “Lately,” said the president, “they seem to back up.” ) I was certain that readers would doze over the budget speculation. “Hatchet” had another notion. The sheets quickly re-descended onto my spike. A small note was scrawled across the top: “Delete everything (two underlines) you left in and put back everything (three underlines) you took out.”

I was soon transferred to the city desk. My first assignment was to investigate the report of a body at the bottom of a lightwell on Hayes Street. I went to an apartment building, opened a second-story window and looked down to see ghastly eyes staring up at me out of a gray face with blood trickling from its mouth. Ack! A suicide, police told me. For months afterward, I closed my eyes whenever someone was about to bite into a strawberry- or raspberry-filled doughnut.

Much troubled, I began to dislike news. News, it seemed to me, licensed any lunatic who wanted to burn down a building, shoot a politician or undress on Market Street to determine what I did, thought and wrote about on a given day. A real reporter’s test, it seemed to me, was going up to the devastated loved one of a person who’s just been shot and saying, “Got any recent pictures?” And a real reporter’s life also went too fast. I wanted to sit at the back of the city room, free from deadlines, honing words inspired by pleasant encounters.

My feature writing debut on the News came at the Golden Gate Theater with the opening of the movie The Incredible Shrinking Man. I interviewed a real-life shrinking man, thoughtfully provided by the movie promoters. As we spoke, the shrinking man rose from 5-foot-8 to 6-foot-1, then shrank back to 5-8. Other stories that appeared under my byline included an interview with a talking dog, an article about a jackhammer operator who hadn’t felt the big 1956 earthquake and a piece about a Berkeley sidewalk art show whose first prize went to Betsy, a chimp at the Baltimore zoo.

I was constantly being given advice by editors and fellow reporters: “Features aren’t real news.” “Gauguin drew dogs that were just dogs before he got into all those dibs and dabs.” “You’ve got to learn to bring back the bacon.” I watched the paper’s real reporters – Joe Sheridan, Mary Crawford, Bill Stief and the two George’s, Murphy and Duschek – go out and bring back slabs of it.

I tried.

One morning, I thought I’d done a great job. I’d beaten the rival Call-Bulletin reporter to the only available phone, minutes before deadline for both afternoon papers, with my report of an overnight robbery at the El Rey Theater. After I breathlessly spilled all of my information, the News’ rewrite man, Sheridan, said, “How much?” I’d given him the method of entry, the size of the safe, the cigarette butts on the carpet and could have told him the color of the manager’s hair or the smell the dynamite had left, but . . . how much? “How much what?” I asked. “Money,” he snapped. “Oh, boy! I’ll be right back.” I went to the manager and was given an amount. When I returned to the phone, the Call reporter was using it.

I kept on trying.

A piece of very big news landed on my lap. I didn’t know it was very big news. How could the police report of a pair of men who’d forced another into a car, robbed him of a dollar and then released him be very big news? I typed it up as a one-paragraph story. A few minutes after handing in my copy I was told to make it longer; it was to be the main front-page headline story. Only as I was rewriting it did I realize why. The headline said it all:

TWO GIVEN 25-YEAR TERMS

FOR $1 KIDNAP-ROBBERY

I scored a less accidental scoop when I was sent to the Hall of Justice and told to get the story of a bank robbery. I found that the bank-teller who’d single-handedly captured a hold-up man was being questioned in a room closed off to all but detectives. The story was in there. A detective had left his hat on a nearby table. I picked it up, put it on, opened the interrogation room door and, imitating Bogart as Sam Spade, said, “Get that bank teller out here right away.” He was sent out. I introduced myself and put him on the phone to Crawford. Before my deception was discovered, the teller had given his story to Mary. A dirty business. But we had a scoop.

Is the scoop why I was assigned to interview the visiting minister?

Or did my editors see King’s visit as just another feature story?

I arrived a few minutes late at the sparsely furnished hotel room and sat at the end of a long table, opposite the interviewee. His head was tilted down and to one side. When he looked up to see who’d come in, he seemed shy, perhaps nervous. The look gave me one of those up-the-spine jolts of electricity. I nodded at him. He wore a well-starched white shirt, a dark brown suit and a tie of the narrow sort worn in the mid to late-’50s. It was the very same color as the suit. The older-looking of two local black ministers seated on each side of him introduced him.

King spoke in a low, articulate, well-controlled monotone. He said that the Alabama boycott had been inspired by the teachings of Gandhi and that he and the SCLC were now working to begin other boycotts throughout the South. His statement was very short. The older minister invited questions. King’s look had put me off, and I was afraid go first. But neither of the other two reporters, each in his late 50s or early 60s, said a word. In the face of the increasingly painful silence, I finally offered two or three questions. I don’t recall specifically what they were, but I do remember that King’s answers laid out a plan to spread his nonviolent movement throughout the South and then beyond. It was only much later that I looked back and saw that he’d given an outline of what came to be called the civil rights movement.

I submitted three pages of copy, as much as I had ever turned in. I had time to prepare it carefully. There was no hurry. The story wasn’t being treated as breaking news. The next day my piece, reduced to a paragraph, appeared on an inner page of the paper’s first or “Home” edition. (Recently I searched through the late spring and early summer “Final” editions available at the San Francisco Public Library. It isn’t among them, so I have to believe that sometime between the first and the fourth, or last, edition, it was nudged out by other news.

Troubled by the placement of the story, I asked why it had been severely reduced, working up my nerve enough to say “I think that stuff is important.” I was told unequivocally but politely that it was not.

Of course! Had it been considered important, the Call-Bulletin would have sent a reporter and The Examiner and Chronicle wouldn’t have sent tired old men. And the News wouldn’t have sent me.

I’d only once before complained about the treatment of something I’d written. It was a “mood piece” about a jazz musician named Judy Tristano, whose group played soft Monday night music for weekend-weary Beats at The Cellars on Green Street. I was praised for the writing but the piece never appeared. I was told it didn’t belong in a family newspaper. I didn’t like the answer but, thinking about how my mother might respond to the favorable sketch of beatniks and their music, I understood.

This time, I didn’t.

I left the newspaper within days, possibly before my absence was requested, to enroll as a graduate student in creative writing at San Francisco State College. Soon, I was teaching at Riordan High School. I started those new adventures with the knowledge that, at least once, I’d brought it back.

Philip F. O’Connor, the author of several works of fiction, was a distinguished research professor emeritus at Bowling Green University. He chaired the 1994 Pulitzer Prize fiction committee.

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