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Baton Rouge, 1963
From a TV Reporter's Notebook
By Ron Steinman

As an associate producer for NBC News in 1963, I was covering a civil rights story in the South, one that would eventually become part of a documentary about wiretapping called "The Big Ear." That was a time when each of the three networks was proud to produce as many as thirty documentary films a year.

I was in Baton Rouge, Louisiana with a camera crew of two, the cameraman and his soundman. It was late spring. The weather, hot and muggy. Our assignment was to cover a group of anti segregation Quakers from Philadelphia who were planning a sit-down against segregated lunch counters. Baton Rouge is no different from every elsewhere in the South where segregation is rampant but under the threat of crumbling. In this city with a lovely name, the Quakers are working hard to change how people see each other, accept each other, and thus, affect how they live. It is our job, the crew's and mine, to capture on film what the Quakers are doing to change hundreds of years of attitudes. We want to show our audience that a major pacifist church group is active in encouraging revolution.

We arrived in town the previous day. After shooting scenes of Baton Rouge, high shots, rolling shots on city streets, the downtown, to get the look and feel of the place, we checked into our motel in the early evening. The sun had just begun to set. We had dinner. The crew then charged the batteries needed to run the film equipment in the field and we went to bed. After a hasty breakfast the next morning, I called my contact and he told me to come over. He was anxious to get started. We drove to the storefront where the Quakers operated. Weathered, red bricks sat atop the wide windows covered inside with black curtains. It was a quiet street of low-slung, two-story buildings, many closed with "For Rent" signs in the window. We went inside. The Quakers knew we are coming. A week earlier, we had arranged to be there after a series of guarded phone calls between New York, where I worked, and Philadelphia, Quaker headquarters.

Before we started talking, our contact signaled us to say nothing. His fingers went to his lips in the classic sign of quiet. He motioned to another man who took us outside and pointed to the top of a very high, wood telephone pole where we saw, among many other wires, a set of even heavier wires, also black. It did not take much to make us understand someone was tapping the phones. Outside the storefront, the Quaker civil rights worker felt he could say anything without anyone hearing or recording his illegal. incriminating words. They were words he had no trouble using because he knew his cause was right. He was not, however, a flaming radical. In the South those days, anything that smacked of seeking change put a person on dangerous ground. This man, though, was quiet and poised, sure of himself and what he believed.

We stood in the street taking pictures of the telephone pole, not the most interesting shot but one I needed, panning up and down, showing the storefront in relation to the bugged pole, and going in tight on the phone box attached to the wood with makeshift metal clamps. Despite his commitment to what they hoped to accomplish, he did not allow me to interview him on film. I would have to make do with the silent pictures of the telephone pole and his darkened window with nothing on it to indicate the men behind those curtains were breaking the (then) law of Louisiana, there to make a revolution. He and I stood in the hot sun and talked while the crew worked and tried to put something on film that I could use later in editing.

The few trees on the street were dead. There was no shade, and as the day made its way toward noon, the air grew more humid than in the early morning. Only in the Deep South, I thought. I suggested we get cold drinks. My Quaker contact agreed. We turned toward our car, a big Ford station wagon that held the film equipment and our luggage. We wanted to find a store that sold cold drinks. The Quaker said there was one a few blocks east of his headquarters. It was noon. The heat had become painful. After all, it was mid-summer. Heat like that day was normal for a day in Baton Rouge. Then, quickly, everything changed.

In the distance, a police siren screamed, breaking the silence at midday's lazy start. We looked up, saw nothing and ignored the sound. The police might be chasing anyone. What else did they have to do in a town the size of Baton Rouge where my instinct told me almost nothing important ever happened? To my surprise, the siren got louder by the second, until it came at us very loud and surrounded us like a wall. Barreling down the street, we saw a cop car coming toward us as if on a mission. The man inside, the sheriff we soon discovered, hit his brakes with unnecessary force, but, still, with all the flourish of a small town cop. The heavily marked police Ford came to a heavy-footed halt. To this day, I can still hear the screech of the car and smell the tires burning rubber. Lights flashed on top of the police cruiser looking as if we were at a carnival.

Out stepped the sheriff from the driver's side. He looked nasty. He had a pork belly and a nose like W. C. Fields, or should I say, Jackie Gleason. His fleshy, red face was nearly purple, not from the sun, but, obviously, from too much booze. I wondered how he could fit behind the wheel of his car. Sweat poured from his face and ran in rivulets onto his dark brown shirt staining the cloth. The lights on top of the car continued to flash. The motor kept running. Both were obviously for effect, to show us he was serious. Then the sheriff's deputy slowly emerged from the passenger side, his hand on the butt of his six-shooter. He positioned himself near the hood of the Ford and leaned on it ready for action.

"What do you think you are doing," he asked.

"Not much," I answered, trying to be casual.

"I can see you're with NBC News," he said.

How could he miss? In those days, we had no fear of announcing who we were and we plastered our logos over everything, including the camera, the sound gear, even our luggage. In most places, journalists were not yet the pariahs we would become for so many.

"We are doing a story," I said.

"Not in my town," he said, pausing briefly. "Not the story I think you are doing."

Another police car pulled up. Two sheriff's deputies stepped out.

I could feel how nervous my crew and I were. My crew stopped filming. The Quaker moved to separate himself from us.

I made a decision. I told the crew to pack their gear. We had most of what we needed, anyway.

"We'll leave," I said.

"I don't think so," the sheriff said.

The crew and I paused. I wondered what would come next. The crew looked to me for guidance, but I knew that whatever I suggested would make no difference. With his left hand, the sheriff motioned for his deputies. They moved closer to where we were standing.

"Here's what's going to happen," he said. "You'll get in your vehicle and follow me to police headquarters. I'll be the lead car. My deputies will be behind. We'll be the bread. You, the inside of the sandwich."

"Are you going to arrest us," I asked.

"Yes," he said. "But don't you worry about anything. It won't be for long.

We're not bad people here." He smiled.

Then he got mean. He pushed and prodded us, shoved and frightened the hell out of us. Along with his attitude, he had a long nosed, .38 pistol, his helpmate and equalizer. We have no choice but to follow him to the jail.

When we reached the inside of the dank station house, the sheriff took us first to a holding cell. He did not take our names. He did not fingerprint us. The jail cell we were in was the "drunk tank", vomit-covered, urine stained, and foul smelling, still filled with drunks and junkies. We smoked cigarettes, gagged from the fetid odors and seethed knowing that there was nothing we could do except wait for the sheriff to decide what to do with us.

The sheriff kept us for three hours. Then he came to the cell door, stood there a few minutes saying nothing, and finally let us know we were free. He unlocked the cell door and told us to get our Northern white asses out of town. Of course, there were no charges. On leaving, he warned us not to help get the blacks out to vote. Only in those days they were Negroes in print and on the air. Our sheriff called them "niggers". He had no shame. He was a man of his era and place. He used the pejorative with pride, showing the ancient habit was alive and well and if he were alive today, he would probably still call blacks, as he did then, "niggers".

For some reason, the police did not confiscate the camera nor take our exposed film. They even allowed us to have our equipment in the cell. I had the cameraman turn on his camera there in the cell so we would have some footage, whatever it would look like, when they finally released us. But what he shot was unusable. The light was too low for a decent image. We were dirty, sweaty, in need of fresh cigarettes and cold beers. We piled into the car, drove from the police station and headed out of town.

I told the crew that I wanted to make another pass at Quaker headquarters for more footage. I had one more shot on my mind. I knew we needed at least another establishing shot before we got out of town. The crew laughed in assent. "Yes" they said, as if a chorus. They were with me completely, and, without hesitating, we drove to the storefront. At the Quaker office, we stopped the car, rolled down the windows and the cameraman made several more shots. Then we drove off, literally into the sunset, kind of like cowboys, but not really. We had our story and though worn out, we survived and were ready to do the same again, if needed.



 

At NBC News for 35 years, Ron Steinman was bureau chief in Saigon, Hong Kong and London, was a senior producer on Today and wrote and produced for Sunday Today. At ABC News Productions, he produced and wrote documentaries for A&E, TLC, Discovery, Lifetime and the History Channel. He has a Peabody, a National Headliner award, a National Press Club award, a International Documentary Festival Gold Camera Award, two American Women in Radio & Television awards and has been nominated for five Emmy's. He is a partner in Douglas/Steinman Productions, whose latest documentary, "Luboml: My Heart Remembers," aired on PBS' WLIW/21 and the History Channel in Israel, April 29, 2003. He is the author of, "The Soldiers 'Story", "Women in Vietnam," and most recently, "Inside Television's First War: A Saigon  Journal," University of Missouri Press, 2002.

 

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