From a TV Reporter's Notebook
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
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
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
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
"Are you going to arrest us," I asked.
"Yes," he said. "But don't you worry about anything. It won't be for
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.