LOS ANGELES — Karl Fleming, a former Newsweek reporter who helped draw national attention to the civil rights movement in the 1960s — and risked his life covering it with perceptive stories about its major figures and the inequalities that fueled it — died Saturday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 84.
The cause was related to a number of respiratory ailments, said his son Charles Fleming.
Born and bred in the Jim Crow South, Fleming worked his way through small North Carolina newspapers to become chief of Newsweek’s Atlanta bureau in 1961. In the next few years, he covered some of the most dramatic clashes that churned the South as the fight over racial injustice escalated.
He was nearly shot in 1962 during riots at the University of Mississippi after James Meredith’s admission as the first African-American student. He portrayed the “fast-moving phantasmagoria of grief, terror and hysteria” that enveloped Birmingham after the church bombing that killed four African-American girls in 1963. He was one of the first two reporters on the scene in 1964 when three civil rights workers taking part in the mobilization known as Freedom Summer disappeared near Philadelphia, Miss.; they were later found murdered.
Fleming also covered the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers and Gov. George Wallace’s symbolic stand in the schoolhouse door to block the desegregation of the University of Alabama. The reporter brazenly took notes at Ku Klux Klan rallies, had his phones tapped and was tailed by segregationists.
He managed to escape serious harm in the South but was far less lucky when Newsweek assigned him to Los Angeles in 1965. At a tense rally after the Watts riots, he found himself the only white person in the room with Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael and a crowd of angry blacks. When Fleming fled to his car, he was attacked and severely beaten by a mob. A photograph of him lying in his own blood, his jaw broken and skull fractured, ran in newspapers across the country the next day.