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Roy Reed, Mainstay of Arkansas Journalism, Dies at 87

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Roy Reed, a Garland County native whose writings chronicled the civil rights movement for The New York Times and illuminated Arkansas history in well-crafted and often funny books about former Gov. Orval Faubus and the Arkansas Gazette, died Sunday in Fayetteville.

Reed, who was 87, joined the Gazette in 1956, became a national correspondent for The Times in 1965 and in later years molded a younger generation of journalists through 16 years as a professor at the University of Arkansas. The cause was a stroke, relatives told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Reed was a frequent companion of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and he witnessed and described in vivid detail the “Bloody Sunday” police crackdown on more than 500 black marchers in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, which he later described as a turning point in the struggle for black rights. Reed was depicted by the actor John Lavelle in “Selma,” the 2014 movie by director Ava DuVernay.

“I guess that is when the Civil Rights movement began to get a grip and really become effective. The Voting Rights Act was passed in the late spring of 1965 as a direct result of what happened in Selma, Alabama. My two months orientation for The New York Times was cut short because they said that I just had to get on down to Selma,” Reed told interviewer Harri Baker in 2000.

Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The Times, described Reed as a lyrical writer and a historical figure, “one of the greatest national correspondents of all time” who “understood the South at a time when it was the center of the biggest story in the land.”

Among many civil rights watersheds, Reed covered a curtailed march through Mississippi by James Meredith, the first black student to attend Ole Miss. But Reed missed Meredith’s wounding by a white gunman because he had stopped at a roadside store to get a Coke. That incident inspired a chapter, “Where’s Roy Reed?” in “The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation,” the 2006 Pulitzer-winning book by journalists Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff.

“Yes, oh Lord, I’ll never live that down,” Reed said in the 2000 interview, part of an oral history on the Gazette, a project that Reed served as a primary interviewer and later edited into one of his three books, “Looking Back at the Arkansas Gazette.”

“I was there, so to speak,” he said, explaining that he had a rental car and was walking with Meredith for parts of the march, running back to get his car, then walking again, when he decided to go with fellow journalists to grab a cold drink on a sweltering day in the Delta. “We were standing in the cool of the store drinking a Coke” when they saw people starting to run. “There lay James Meredith in the middle of the road,” Reed recalled. “People were in chaos, and the shooter, we didn’t know it at the time, he was still about forty yards away in some bushes. It turned out that the picture that won the Pulitzer Prize that year was the picture taken by an [Associated Press] photographer of James Meredith, lying in the road. Unbeknownst to him, it also had the would-be assassin in the background pretty clear.”

Meredith survived, and Reed would call it “one of the most interesting days of my life.”

Reed described that exploit, and many others, in his witty 2012 memoir, “Beware of Limbo Dancers: A Correspondent’s Adventures With The New York Times.” He took the title from an experience on his first day at the vaunted newspaper, in 1965. On a visit to the men’s room, he noticed that the stall doors were of an old sort, descending to within inches of the floor. At the very bottom of the door, an earlier occupant had written “beware of limbo dancers.” Before retiring after more than a dozen years at The Times, Reed was the paper’s bureau chief in London.

More: Watch AETN’s Steve Barnes talk to Reed about his book, “Beware of Limbo Dancers.”

Reed’s other full-length book was a well-reviewed biography of Arkansas’ most famous player in the civil rights years, Gov. Orval Faubus. Faubus had sent the Arkansas National Guard to stand in the way of nine brave black students intent on integrating Central High School in 1957. The ensuing crisis led President Dwight D. Eisenhower to dispatch elements of the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to quell protests and let the students in. Reed’s book, “Faubus: The Life and Times of an American Prodigal,” was named a New York Times Notable Book for 1997. Faubus eventually served six terms as governor.

Reed, an Air Force veteran and University of Missouri graduate, was a reporter at the Gazette at the time of the Central crisis, but he wasn’t a major player in covering it. While other Gazette staffers were depicting menacing white mobs and witnessing the beating of a black reporter, L. Alex Wilson, Reed was covering city government in North Little Rock. And in that role, Reed was physically attacked by a member of the City Council, Joe Donnell. In June, after Montana congressional candidate Greg Gianforte made headlines for attacking a reporter, Reed recalled the incident for Arkansas Business.

Donnell, a railroad worker, was angry about a story Reed had written and invited him to his house to discuss it. Reed arrived to find Donnell accompanied by another councilman, and they invited Reed to take a seat in Donnell’s living room. The other man was there “as a witness,” Reed said “Donnell came across the room to where I was sitting and started beating me with his fists. I couldn’t get out of the chair.”

Years later, when Reed “was covering the White House and other exalted branches of government,” and then teaching journalism at the University of Arkansas, he liked to boast that he was “the only newspaperman that had ever been beaten up by an alderman.”

Reed was born in Hot Springs in 1930 and raised as the son of rural merchants just west of town in Piney. He graduated from Lakeside High School in 1947 and attended Ouachita Baptist University for a year before taking bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Missouri in the early 1950s. He also worked for about a year at the Joplin Globe in Missouri before spending two years in the United States Air Force.

In 1952, he married Norma Pendleton of El Dorado, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. They had two children, Cindy and John.

Hoyt Purvis, a former UA journalism professor, was interviewed by Bill Bowden for a masterly obituary that appeared on the front page of Monday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

“I really consider Roy to be the gold standard, you might say, of journalism,” Purvis told Bowden. “He excelled in all aspects of reporting and covered some of the major stories of our time.” Ernest Dumas, a former colleague of Reed’s at the Gazette, called him “one of the most gifted newspaper writers of the era” who “ought to be enshrined in one of the civil rights museums.” Dumas wrote a remembrance of Reed for the Arkansas Times on Monday.

George Waldon, a longtime senior editor of Arkansas Business who studied under Reed, said he was a man of seemingly little ego. “He was a storyteller, and you could talk to him for hours and be fascinated,” said Waldon, recalling a lunch with his old teacher this year. “He was spry, his memories were sharp, and we after lunch we sat on a bench outside and talked a long time.” 

Reed had a lifelong admiration for the Arkansas Gazette, which won two Pulitzer Prizes during his time there, both for coverage of the Central crisis, and he mourned the newspaper’s demise on Oct. 18, 1991, when it was subsumed in a deal with Arkansas Democrat Publisher Walter Hussman Jr.

Reed put much of the blame for the paper’s downfall at the feet of Gannett, the newspaper chain that bought the paper five years before its end after nearly a century of family ownership. Gannett didn’t understand the paper’s proud heritage or its Arkansas readers, Reed argued. When it closed, he mourned.

“That was a dark day not just for the people who worked at the Gazette, but for the state of Arkansas,” Reed told Arkansas Business last year. “The Gazette before Gannett was a progressive beacon and an excellent paper. I think the main consequence of its death is the part it might have played in slowing the state’s move to the right politically.”

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