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Professor honored for life's work in journalism, civil rights project

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Nov. 5, 2015

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Hank Klibanoff, James M. Cox Jr. Professor of Journalism, is being inducted into the Atlanta Press Club Hall of Fame for his accomplishments as a journalist and director of the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project at Emory. He is shown here in class with students working on the project. Emory Photo/Video

With a career spent shaping some of the nation’s biggest newspapers, you might say that Hank Klibanoff helped forge the very fabric of what would become America’s golden age of journalism.

From serving as editor of his high school newspaper in Florence, Alabama, to helping run newsrooms at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Philadelphia Inquirer, to winning the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for history as co-author of “The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation,” Klibanoff would never lose a fundamental curiosity to better understand the world around him.

Nor did he want to. “Journalism exposed me, in the newsrooms alone, to some of the most wonderful, exciting, smart, ethical, delightful people anyone could hope to be associated with,” he reflected during a recent interview.

In 2010, Klibanoff was appointed James M. Cox Jr. Professor of Journalism at Emory, where he would help launch the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project, an acclaimed program that helps undergraduate students understand history by examining unsolved and unpunished racially motivated murders from the modern civil rights era in Georgia.

This evening, he’s being inducted into the Atlanta Press Club Hall of Fame “for his accomplishments as a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and for the impact he is making as the director of the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project at Emory,” says Lauri Strauss, Atlanta Press Club executive director.

Emory Report caught up with Klibanoff to talk about what has kept him engaged in journalism — and the classroom — over the years, and the future of a rapidly changing newspaper industry.

How did growing up in the South as the nation’s civil rights movement was gathering momentum affect you?

My father was from Tennessee, my mother was a New Yorker from Manhattan — and somehow they found each other. We were Jewish and there was a fairly progressive philanthropic, civically active Jewish community in our town [of Florence].

It was not inhospitable. The reactions of most people ranged from curious to warm. I did have relatives who had crosses burned in their lawns, although there was some dispute as to the motive, and we did have a swastika painted on our temple — a beautiful temple that my parents and grandparents were involved in building and sustaining. I remember arriving there one morning for Sunday school and my mother saying, “We’ve got to go home.”

Did that experience influence your interest in writing about the civil rights movement?

I’m sure it did. It was made clear to me from the very beginning that Jewish history bore strong similarities to the history of blacks. We were certainly reminded that Jews had been slaves and that we shared a common bond with what, at the time, we would have called our Negro brothers and sisters. There were not too many times that the rabbis missed a chance to point out that we were an oppressed people.

How did journalism take hold in your life?

I was editor of my high school paper. My mother very much wanted me to spend more time writing. I’m certain it was because she admired her older sister, whose oldest son, Joe Lelyveld, was a journalist for the New York Times. She thought that would be a cool career, and she was so right.

Writing has never come easily, but I’ve done a lot of it and was always comfortable with it. When I went off to college, Washington University in St. Louis had no journalism classes at all. I found one, non-credited night course, in which an editor from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch would drive over after work to meet with several of us for an hour and regale us with fantastic stories, which only made me hungrier for a career.

After receiving your masters degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, you spent more than 35 years as a reporter, editor and newsroom leader in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, and in Gulfport-Biloxi and Jackson, Mississippi. What stands out about those years?

This president or that president, this athlete or that athlete — I really don’t think about who I covered as much as I think of the privilege of working with some of the best editors in this nation’s history.

The strain that runs through all of those relationships is that they trusted the people who worked for them. I benefited from their trust. I didn’t always do things the easiest way or the quickest way. But I was fortunate to walk into those newsrooms at a time when those people were in charge.

The past decade has seen profound changes for American newspapers. What’s your take on where the industry is heading?

I draw great feelings of enthusiasm just by watching our students who come out of Emory ready to make a difference — whether in journalism or some other field — using their training in ways they believe can contribute to saving the world. When I came out of journalism, we talked about changing the world. Now it’s time to save it.

What I hope more than anything is that the values, the standards, the ethical compass that has traditionally guided journalists, that these things aren’t cast aside — that expediency doesn’t suddenly become the most important factor, that clicks don’t become the single-most important determinant of quality. That worries me, because I teach against that trend.

Thoughts about being inducted into the Atlanta Press Club Hall of Fame?

My respect for the Atlanta journalism community is so great. I am deeply honored and overwhelmingly flattered.