Working the Story: ‘It’s hard to grasp the impact he had on a nation’
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Sun-Times columnists share how they reported the King story
“Working the Story” is a video feature of the Chicago Sun-Times that explores how our reporters do their jobs.
In this edition, listen as Chicago Sun-Times editorial board member and columnist Mary Mitchell and urban affairs reporter and columnist Maudlyne Ihejirika hold a fascinating newsroom discussion about the emotions they felt as African-American reporters helping our audience understand the anger, grief and frustration felt on Chicago’s West Side upon learning of King’s assassination.
Ihejirika begins by talking about what Ruby Bridges and her iconic painting meant to the civil rights movement and Ihejirika’s decision to travel to Memphis, the place King died, earlier this year.
Transcript of conversation
[00:00:01] MITCHELL: Welcome to The Chicago Sun-Times’ “Working the Story” — a video feature that takes you behind the scenes of what goes into putting together breaking news stories and features.
Joining me in the newsroom to talk about the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination 50 years later package is Maudlyne Ihejirika, author of the Chicago Chronicles column. Maudlyne, your column “Marking Memphis, Moving Forward” is called sort of a scene setter, but you had a column before that when you talked about the iconic Bridges story. Talk about that. Ruby Bridges story. Talk about that.
[00:00:39] IHEJIRIKA: Right. Well, Ruby Bridges, of course, is the civil rights icon who was the subject of the 1964 Norman Rockwell painting that had the pretty little girl who was walking surrounded by four white federal marshals and against the backdrop as she passed was a wall splattered with the n-word, et cetera. And so it’s a painting that was one of the earliest political statements of Norman Rockwell who was a supporter of the civil rights movement. And so Ruby Bridges grew up to become someone who spent her entire life really promoting racial harmony and talking about how that experience impacted her on where we need to be today.
[00:01:27] MITCHELL: So we call that a scene setter. What is a scene setter?
[00:01:30] IHEJIRIKA: So a scene setter is when you start to think about Martin Luther King’s fiftieth anniversary assassination stories you say OK what is it that we want to do? We want to mark the occasion right? Right. But we also want to mark it with stories that will leave impact and that move people, hopefully that move them to action and reflection. And so you start to search in your inbox like mine is filled. I mean right. 27 thousand, that started probably around January. Started getting pitches for stories. And amongst those 27000 e-mails are many many pitches for stories for MLK 50 and so you wade through them and you wade through them and you’re looking for the one that’s going to grab people. And I happened to receive a pitch from “One Hope United” which is a nonprofit in Chicago that is having a May 4th fundraiser that Ruby Bridges was going to keynote.
[00:02:31] MITCHELL: Did it not immediately pop into your head as a reporter and a long time reporter. This is a story that’s going to kick it off?
[00:02:40] IHEJIRIKA: As soon as I saw Ruby Bridges and knew who that name was. I knew that this was the story. And I thought OK should we do this on Martin Luther King’s fiftieth Anniversary Day itself, should we do it the day before? And as I reflected it I thought, no we’re going to be doing lots and lots of news stories on the day before. We need something that starts to make people remember and think about it and reflect on exactly what this anniversary is and the civil rights movement and the movement itself.
[00:03:17] MITCHELL: And what King was able to do and accomplish during his time on earth. And certainly Ruby Bridges story shows very very poignantly what he was able to do. Absolutely. And then come on let’s talk about your next column. That was “Marking Memphis, Moving Forward.” And again you were kind of ahead of the curve you had that column out there first, talk about it because there’s some there’s some probably some background on that story. We don’t know anything about.
[00:03:46] IHEJIRIKA: You know it’s interesting is that knowing that MLK 50 was approaching, I took a road trip not too long ago a few months ago down South, and I knew as a reporter I must stop in Memphis at this museum you’ve never been there I’ve never been there before in my life. It was my first time but it was on my map. And so I went by myself thinking of course of MLK 50 and what what content this would give me in terms of when the time came to write stories about it. So that’s really the background. And I went, and it was such a moving experience. And I held onto it for several months waiting for MLK 50.
[00:04:30] MITCHELL: So did you go down there with a recorder and interview people or did you just witness a reflection of what it meant to you. Was it a moving an emotional journey that you were able to recount in a column months later because that you were down there at a different time it wasn’t like you just came back from Memphis. This was a while ago. What did that entail? How did you keep all of that fresh?
[00:04:51] IHEJIRIKA: You know what’s interesting is that I did go as a pilgrimage as a personal pilgrimage knowing that MLK was approaching. But it was more about I as an African-American woman in this nation, there is no way that I can go down South and not pay homage to the place where this revered civil rights leader died. So this was really for myself. And so when I went and because I was so moved and just completely floored to tears I knew that this was going to be content that I would use for any stories that we did when MLK 50 approached. And so what I did was I came back. I did not interview anyone because it was a personal experience. OK. I just went for myself and I didn’t talk to anybody. But when I came back immediately I wrote my own reflections. So it’s almost like a diary. I had a diary. Yes so I took notes on the experience and stored it away waiting for the anniversary.
[00:05:54] MITCHELL: That’s wonderful and that is really kind of the way it works. I mean you have to always be thinking ahead. There are these occasions, historic moments that we have to recapture as reporters and one of things that the Chicago Sun-Times did on the anniversaries was to put out a wrapper, full wrap coverage where we looked at his life his death and his legacy. That’s right. Putting together putting together packages like that entails a lot of things. OK you got to have the column which is the emotional piece of it. Then you have to have the broad story and you have to sort of think about how all these fit together. So one of the things that I like to point to is that part of the story is the pictures. Yes. And this picture right here on the front page shows just how beloved, how beloved he was.
[00:06:50] IHEJIRIKA: It was, it’s really about why we are marking the date right marking the date because of who this man was. And this photo talks about it. It’s not the photo, I think you and I had a conversation about the photos choices and whether or not you put the iconic photo of him standing on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel just before he died and all of it right after he died and all the people pointing, do put that which is the choice of most people in marking his death right. Or in a city like Chicago where as you wrote about so eloquently today it went up in smoke in areas that were African-American neighborhoods. Why did it go up in smoke?
[00:07:35] MITCHELL: That was part it was part of the reason for choosing this photograph because I think it’s hard for for people to grasp the impact that he had on the nation. But in a place like Chicago he spent a lot of time in Chicago you know heat marched in Marquette Park. And you got an apartment over in on the west side in North Lawndale and lived there just to put focus on the substandard housing and how even though down South they were fighting for the rights of sharecroppers and the law. They’re fighting for the rights of people to live in decent housing and housing and then live in decent neighborhoods, they’re fighting to get kids out of Willis wagons and into the classrooms. This picture shows to me how many people loved him and what the grief was. If you if you are able to impact this many people and your life is snatched away by an assassin’s bullet that’s going to have a impact on these people. Right. On these masses. That’s exactly right. So that’s why I thought this was the picture and writing about it. You know I looked through my e-mails today and there were people that said ‘great article’ and there were some people that said you shouldn’t be writing about the riots you’d be writing about his legacy. I think we did cover all the bases in that package. We thought we had a story about his legacy. We had a story about his, from his children and what they had to say. We had a story that really told what happened that day on the balcony and we had a story about the riots because the riots showed the outpouring of sympathy and grief and anger and frustration. You know it was as if a hurricane had hit this city and cities across the nation. It happened. So that’s part of the history and it’s not a part of history we like to talk about.
[00:09:22] IHEJIRIKA: No it’s not. It’s not. And you know one of the things that always impresses me Mary about your particular columns are that you take on the tough issues, you take the tough angles that so many of us are afraid to tackle. And as you just said just now that that that lead of yours, “It’s been a half century since an unnatural disaster tore through the West Side and pockets of the South Side with the fury of a hurricane and the rage of a California wildfire. That’s because that’s it, what that’s exactly that’s what happened here in Chicago, it was fury was anger frustration and you captured that most important thing was in Chicago. We could spend all day talking about what happened at the Lorraine Motel right. We could spend all day talking about the commemoration activities that are taking place across the nation. But ultimately in the end what matters to Chicago the impact on Chicago this man and the impact was what happened in the aftermath.
[00:10:33] MITCHELL: And the aftermath and why I think it’s important for us to recall it and to try to explain it and to try to understand it is because we don’t want to see the repeat of it, and we need to actually begin to hold people accountable for what the West Side looks like today 50 years, 50 years and you still have these big gaps and you still have a littered lot. You still have infrastructure that makes the West Side look war torn just like you in a war zone as opposed to an urban area that we need to confront that and deal with that and understand that as long as it is it looks that way then we are not really fulfilling the legacy of Dr. King because he would be out there pointing to these areas too and holding the people responsible for rebuilding that community. Yes.
[00:11:24] IHEJIRIKA: And one of the things that you pointed out that you had in your story was you found and spoke with these West Side leaders, elected officials and you ask them the pertinent question: Why does this still exist? Why does the West Side still look like this? And the answer was so disappointing, that there simply has not been the resources — or the will.
[00:11:47] MITCHELL: And that’s the key is the will of it if people really look at it and say OK it’s almost as if people are saying that because young people went on a rampage and set fires and intentionally did this that they’re not going to rebuild. They’re not going to invest into the West Side. West Side has a lot of history. This is the place this was the entry point for African-Americans coming from the South. It was the first place the gateway for the migration into the urban areas of Chicago even before Bronzeville even before Bronzeville first came to the West Side. So to leave the West Side and that is such disrepair it definitely does not do justice to Dr. King’s legacy. That’s what I wanted to point out that yes he has a full legacy of all that. The housing ending housing discrimination segregation voting rights and all of that can be to Dr. King’s credit, but until we rebuild these cities we have not fulfilled his dreams.
[00:12:48] IHEJIRIKA: I think you’re right. And unless with the comment made by Maureen Forte to one of the Chicagoans I spoke with heading to Memphis. She said that it’s important to look backward so that we do not forget.
[00:13:04] MITCHELL: Right. Thank you so much Maudlyne for coming and being interviewed. And thank you for all your wonderful work. And we will see you next time.
We invite you to watch other segments of “Working the Story” from the Chicago Sun-Times