James H. Meredith, who had integrated the University of Mississippi in 1962 at considerable cost in blood and temper, consumed three weeks of my time during the summer of 1966. I was not bored.
Meredith set out in Memphis intending to walk 12 miles south into his home state and on to Jackson to prove that he could do it. He might have intended to walk all the way to the Gulf Coast, but with Meredith you never knew what was in his mind. He dared anybody to stop him. A white man with a shotgun took him up on it and shot him down on the second day out. Didn't hurt him much, but he spent a couple of days in a Memphis hospital having pellets removed from his back. The assailant, Aubrey James Norvell, of a Memphis suburb, confessed and was sentenced to five years in prison. It was just as well that he confessed. Twenty or 30 people saw him do it, including police officers who did not lift a hand to stop him.
I was not one of those witnesses. I missed the shooting because I was with three or four thirsty reporters and photographers drinking soda pop in a country store a few hundred yards back down the road. We didn't know anything had happened until we saw people running down the highway. We all jumped in my rental car and sped to the scene.
When the wires flashed the news of the Meredith shooting, my boss, Claude Sitton, the national editor [of the New York TImes], rushed to the wire-photo machine to scan the pictures coming in. (An AP photographer won a Pulitzer for his photo of Meredith lying on the pavement with his assailant visible in the bushes.) Claude was looking for me in the picture. "Where's Roy Reed!?" he demanded.
I didn't know I was in trouble. It took me about an hour to find a roadside phone and call Claude. During that lapse, the Associated Press had moved an erroneous story from Memphis saying Meredith had been killed. Claude's first question when he heard my voice was not where in the hell I had been but was Meredith alive or dead. I assured him that Meredith was alive. How did I know? Because when I got to him he was lying in the road talking and didn't seem to be seriously hurt.
"Hold on!" Claude said. He turned away to pass the information to his assistants. The Times radio station, WQXR, quickly broadcast the story that Meredith had not been killed. My bacon was saved. I won a publisher's award that month for my two-word report on the telephone: "He's alive."
Back at the scene, I was able to put together a decent enough story in time for our first edition. I was pumping a month's worth of adrenaline by suppertime. I have no idea where I stayed that night or whether I slept in a bed.
On the second day, I managed what I thought was a scoop. I made my way by stealth into Meredith's hospital room after a friendly nurse carried a note to him. He told me, among other things, that his main regret was not having a gun when he headed into Mississippi.
I noticed several other people in the room during the interview. I took them to be nurses and doctors. But one of them walked out with me and identified himself, a little hesitantly, as Bill Kovach of the Nashville Tennessean. When he had seen me leave the knot of reporters at the front door and head upstairs, he figured something was up, and he followed. Would I mind if he used what he had overheard from my interview? What could I say? We both got a story out of it, and Bill went on to high positions at several places including the New York Times. The cunning rascal retired as one of the most distinguished curators in the history of the Nieman Fellows program at Harvard.
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