R.I.P., Karl Fleming, stalwart of the race beat

Death noted: Karl Fleming, 84, one of the greats of civil rights reporting.

Fleming was born in Newport News, Va., but grew up in the Methodist Orphanage in Raleigh, attended Appalachian State and worked on dailies in Wilson, Durham and Asheville before landing his career-defining job at Newsweek.

This is from his “Son of the Rough South: An Uncivil Memoir” (2006):

“To be an alien reporter in the remote towns of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana where the young black ‘outside agitators’ were causing trouble was to be almost totally isolated behind enemy lines, linked to the outside world only by a long distance line that I always assumed was tapped. My nerves were constantly on edge. I drank a lot of Maalox and a lot more bourbon. That I had grown up in segregated North Carolina and had a redneck crewcut and deep Southern accent made it even worse. Not only was I a troublemaker, I was a traitor as well… perceived as betraying ‘our Southern way of life’….”

However perilous Fleming’s years on the Southern “race beat” — and he exaggerates not an iota — it was not until, as chief of Newsweek’s Los Angeles bureau, that his life began collapsing amidst a confluence of depression, drugs and alcohol. A beating after a 1965 Black Power rally in Watts left him with a fractured skull, and in 1973 he was scammed out of $30,000 by a phony “D. B. Cooper.”

But in his prime he surely deserved mention alongside his frequent roommate on the road, Claude Sitton.


‘Enuf to make Shakespeare raise an eyebrow’

On this day in 1956: Jack Kerouac, Beat Generation icon-in-the-making, sits down at his sister’s kitchen table in Rocky Mount and begins writing a novel.

Since Kerouac, 33, arrived last spring he has been drinking moonshine, suffering nightmares about H-bombs and waiting for a publisher to accept his oft-spurned “On the Road.”

With his hosts away on a trip, Kerouac begins filling a tiny pocket notebook with the story of his brother Gerard’s death a year earlier. Fueled with benzedrine, he will write furiously for 15 straight nights. After each session he walks across a cotton field to a pine forest to meditate with his brother-in-law’s hunting dogs. He sleeps in a sleeping bag on a cot on the back porch with the windows wide open.

When the manuscript is finished, he will write a friend that it is “a beaut, my best. . . . Enuf to make Shakespeare raise an eyebrow.”

Reviewers are less enthralled. When “Visions of Gerard” is finally published in 1963, Newsweek calls it the work of a “a tin-ear Canuck,” while The New York Times Book Review dismisses it as “garrulous hipster yawping.”