I first encountered Claude Sitton while I was a greenhorn reporter covering Oxford City Council meetings. Sitton was handing out guidelines on Georgia’s Sunshine Laws, or the Open Records Act, and reminding councilmembers of their obligations. Even in retirement, he was keeping public officials on their toes.
At the time, I was not aware of his fearless work crisscrossing the south as the New York Times’ point man for the South, covering the “race beat” and bearing witness to some of the most harrowing moments of the Civil Rights era. Nor of his leadership at the Raleigh News and Observer and the editorial columns that took on North Carolina’s most sacred institutions (such as college athletics).
But I didn’t need to. His everyday conduct in the small slices I was privileged to see spoke volumes of his character.
He was a cantankerous, sharp, dry, clear-sighted newsman in the grandest old-school journalism sense. A true believer. If you cut him he probably would have bled ink.
He suffered no fools. But his was not a mean-spirited edge. He only demanded of others the excellence he demanded of himself.
I remember the day he took the time to talk to the young newsroom of The Covington News during lunch at RL’s Off The Square. He was probably older than the collective ages of the reporters at the table. Ever the consummate editor, he came prepared with a hand-written list of questions and analysis of our reporting and the paper.
Did I mention that he was brutally honest?
But, again, his was not a mean spirited criticism but one that came because he believed we could do better and wanted to provide the constructive guidance and questions to get us there. I wish that everyone could have that person to provide that in their lives.
As the eve of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington drew near in 2013, I reached out to Sitton again to ask about his memories of the seminal Civil Rights event. By then, he was at the Emory Wesley Woods Center with his wife Eva as she recovered from a broken hip.
He was not in the mood to talk and clearly let me know that.
But he called back a day later and left a message apologizing for his grumpy behavior. He had not been sleeping much lately, he said, as the 50th anniversary had brought memories of that era flooding back to him.
We talked a little while. He described growing up on a farm off of Old Salem Road in Rockdale County – he had graduated from the Conyers High School in 1943 – and the office infighting and power struggles within the New York Times that he had no taste for. Despite his leanings while he was heading the editorial page at the News and Observer, he seemed apolitical and had not much to say when I asked him about how he viewed the Civil Rights struggle today. “It’s a different world,” he concluded. The struggle belonged to a new generation, he seemed to say, and the framework was different than the one he had understood.
As I read the accolades that came upon his passing on Tuesday from congenital heart failure, my respect for him and his wife – after all, it takes an amazing woman to provide a foundation for a life with a man like that – and his family only grows.
Another Rockdale native and Pulitzer-prize winner, E.R. Shipp, said upon hearing of his passing, “The world of journalism needs more Claude Sittons.” I would add that the world in general, not just in journalism, would do better with more like him. Rest in peace, Mr. Sitton.
Michelle Kim is the Editor of The Rockdale News. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org