Earl Caldwell was a pioneering journalist who covered several significant events of the civil rights era and its aftermath. He was the sole journalist present at the scene when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, and later found himself on the wrong side of the law when he covered the Black Panthers for the New York Times in the early 1970s. Between 1979 and 1994 he was a columnist for the New York Daily News, but moved away from daily journalism when he grew weary of the increasingly commercialized world of daily print journalism. Not long after leaving that job, he lamented the end of the golden era for journalists, who had been seen as crusading heroes just 20 years before. "The lines are drawn now in a way that pits people against each other," he told New York Times writer William Glaberson.
Born in the early 1940s, Caldwell grew up in central Pennsylvania, in a small town where his was one of just a handful of black families. As a teenager, he began working for Clearfield's local newspaper, The Progress, and moved on to a job with the Intelligencer-Journal of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It was an era when college journalism programs had not yet become mandatory for cub reporters, and Caldwell's career was also indirectly boosted by the civil rights movement, for some civil rights leaders would, when approached by the media, agree to a story only if a black journalist was assigned to interview them.
Hired by New York Times
Caldwell worked for a Rochester, New York, newspaper before landing a job at a prestigious daily, the Herald Tribune, in New York City in 1965. He went on to a brief stint with the New York Post before the New York Times offered him a position as a national correspondent, and he became the first African American ever to hold that title at the newspaper. His byline began appearing in March of 1967, and he covered an extensive range of issues that were shaking black and urban America in the years immediately following the ostensible end of the civil rights movement.
Though federal legislation had been enacted to secure equal protection for African Americans earlier that decade, poverty and social injustice still dominated parts of U.S. cities with large black populations, and a new political awareness as well as anger began to rise. Some of Caldwell's earliest stories for the Times focused on the campaigns of black political candidates, a walkout by teachers in a Harlem school because the building was drastically underheated, and a strike in Boston by an organized group of women welfare recipients that erupted into a minor riot. Over the next year, that last incident would be followed by increasingly longer, and far deadlier, clashes in largely African-American neighborhoods in Cincinnati, Ohio, Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit, Michigan, and Caldwell was sent to cover all of them for the Times.
Just after his first anniversary with the newspaper, Caldwell traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to write about a visit there by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who planned to lead a march in support of striking municipal sanitation workers. Caldwell checked in a room at the black-owned Lorraine Motel, where King and his entourage were also staying, and interviewed the civil rights leader on April 3. He returned to his room, wrote the story, and went to bed. The following day, unable to meet with King again for a planned second interview, Caldwell stayed in his room and wrote a briefer story about city officials' attempts to stop the march from taking place. Later that afternoon, he heard a loud blast and rushed outside, where he saw people ducking for cover; he also noticed a man near a thicket of bushes across from the motel. Realizing King had just been shot, he called his editor in New York to deliver the news, and immediately began interviewing eyewitnesses for his next story.
Never Questioned by Investigators
Journalists cultivate an eye and an ear for detail that help them fill in or uncover a story, and though Caldwell was the sole reporter on the scene that day, he was not questioned by authorities until 31 years later. He spent the hours following the tragedy meeting with others instead, and found that he was not the only one who had spotted someone running away from the bushes; the thicket was inexplicably cut down a few days later. At its onset, the official investigation seemed to focus on a white loner, James Earl Ray, who was believed to have fired the fatal shot from a flophouse across the street—a conclusion that was immediately viewed as suspicious. Many thought the government was responsible for King's death, and conspiracy theories abounded in the immediate aftermath and lingered on four decades later. Even the first sentence of Caldwell's story about the assassination for the Times noted that the civil rights leader was felled by a shot from "a distant gunman who then raced away and escaped."
Other elements of Caldwell's story became the template for suspicions about who had murdered King. Just before he was shot, King was standing on his motel-room balcony and speaking with the Reverend Jesse Jackson—at the time, a young aide of King's—and Caldwell's article quoted Jackson as saying, "when I turned around, I saw police coming from everywhere. They said, ‘Where did it come from?’ And I said, ‘Behind you.’ The police were coming from where the shot came…. We didn't need to call the police. They were here all over the place."
The rest of Caldwell's career in journalism would prove equally as tumultuous as that first year with the Times. He covered the murder trial of Angela Davis, an African-American scholar and activist linked to a notorious prison escape by some members of the Black Panther organization in which a California judge was killed. The Panthers, a militant group, were regularly in the headlines for their increasingly provocative acts and statements, and Caldwell was sent to cover the group during the heated months of the trial in northern California. "I had incredible access, it was an exciting group to be on the inside with," he told journalist Rebecca Neal in an article that appeared on America's Intelligence Wire. "They were geniuses with using the media to sell their story." But Caldwell soon found himself on the other side of the law: his belongings were searched at the courthouse, and a film canister containing marijuana was discovered. Caldwell was arrested, but acquitted on the charge, with a judge agreeing that his bag and belongings were often left open and unguarded in the room used by the press at the Davis trial's courthouse.
At a Glance …
Born in 1941(?) in Clearfield, PA. Education: University of Buffalo.
The Progress and the Intelligencer-Journal, Pennsylvania newspapers, journalist, late 1950s-early 1960s; Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester, NY, journalist, early 1960s; Herald Tribune, New York City, reporter 1965-66, New York Post and New York Times, journalist, 1967-74; New York Daily News, journalist, 1975-94, New York Daily News, columnist, 1979-94; Hampton University, Scripps Howard endowed professor of journalism, 2003-2005; "The Caldwell Chronicle" Pacifica radio network show, host; Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, founder and director of the History Project.
National Association of Black Journalists.
President's Award, National Association of Black Journalists, 1995.
Office—c/o Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, 1211 Preservation Park Way, Oakland, CA 94612.
Asserted Reportorial Privilege
Caldwell's troubles soon deepened, however: the U.S. Department of Justice contacted him and asked him to work as a secret informer for the Panthers, and he refused. Then he was asked to provide information anyway via grand-jury testimony, but Caldwell refused to appear. For that, he was charged with contempt of court, and the New York Times supported his case, on the grounds that journalists should not be compelled to name their sources. There were two similar contempt charges against other reporters at U.S. newspapers, and a legal defense team joined the three cases together for trial and took it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In their final decision, the High Court justices reversed a lower court's ruling in the United States v. Caldwell which agreed with Caldwell that he was protected by the First Amendment from having to divulge his sources to the government. In response, states began to enact "shield" laws that granted journalists the right to protect their sources, but the issue remained a controversial one; in 2004, journalists for the New York Times and Time magazine were jailed for several weeks when they refused to disclose their sources.
Caldwell continued to write for the New York Times until mid-1974, and went on to a job with the New York Daily News. In 1979, he achieved another career first, this time as the first black journalist to write a regular column in a major daily newspaper in New York City. He held the job for the next 15 years, but resigned in early 1994 after a clash with his bosses at the paper. He had written a column about a hushed-up New York City police department investigation into charges that one of its white officers had sexually assaulted five black men in separate incidents. His editor asked him to change some of the wording, he refused, the column never ran, and Caldwell left the paper.
A collection of Caldwell's Daily News columns, Black American Witness: Reports from the Front, was published in 1995. He has been a professor of journalism at Hampton University, and host of a radio show the Pacifica network, "The Caldwell Chronicle." He is also associated with the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education in Oakland, California, which seeks to increase diversity in U.S. newsrooms, and serves as director of its History Project. In the interview with Neal that appeared on America's Intelligence Wire, Caldwell conceded that while black journalists had made incredible strides since his generation first appeared on the scene, times had changed for the worse, too. Most major media outlets were part of large corporations, and the focus was on profit, not prestige. "If I was just starting out," he admitted, "I don't know if I see anything that would attract me to this business."
Black American Witness: Reports from the Front, Lion House Publishing, 1995.
America's Intelligence Wire, April 6, 2004.
Broward Times (Coral Springs, FL), April 8, 2004, p. 1; April 15, 2004, p. 2.
Editor & Publisher, May 14, 1994, p. 17; August 13, 1994, p. 15.
New York Times, April 5, 1968, p. 1; June 8, 1972, p. 57; July 18, 1994.
San Francisco Chronicle, November 19, 1999, p. 6.
Virginian Pilot, April 6, 2004, p. E1.
"Earl Caldwell Biography," Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education,www.maynardije.org/news/features/caldwell/Biography-EarlCaldwell/ (February 20, 2007).
"The Caldwell Journals," Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education,www.maynardije.org/news/features/caldwell/ (April 3, 2007).
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