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Editor’s choice: ‘Jackson, 1964’ by Calvin Trillin

“Jackson, 1964: And Other Dispatches from Fifty Years of Reporting on Race in America” by Calvin Trillin, Random House, 275 pages, $27. A long career in journalism is such a rare and obvious blessing in America that it is seldom acknowledged how much of a curse it can sometimes be too.

Calvin Trillin is so well-known as a humorist and beloved, archetypal food writer (the progenitor, really, of a whole school of food writing) that his identity as the writer of these pages was almost entirely obliterated before its publication.

He first became a staff writer for the New Yorker in 1963 after working for Time magazine. His first piece for the New Yorker is called “Jackson, 1964” here. It is about the “Mississippi Summer Project” (Freedom Rides) – “a statewide program of voter registration and other civil rights activities being carried out by some six hundred volunteers and some hundred paid workers.” Trillin reports an airplane conversation between Martin Luther King and a “nice-looking young white man with a short haircut and wearing Ivy League clothes. He looked as if he might have been a member of a highly regarded college fraternity six or eight years ago.”

King, in 1964, says to the man “let me tell you some of the things that have happened to us. We were slaves for two hundred and fifty years. We endured one hundred years of segregation. We have been brutalized and lynched. Can’t you understand that the Negro is bound to have some resentment? But I preach that despite this resentment, we should organize militantly but non-violently.”

In 1964, it was news. In some grim ways it still is – even though, says Trillin, we live in an era of a black president whereas back then, he’d have given anything just to see “a black policeman.”

Trillin now gives us a life of reportage after starting out on the “seg beat” for Time. “I knew all the verses to ‘We Shall Overcome’. My expense account included items like ‘trousers worn in racial dispute’ and ‘after prayer-meeting snack, Tuskegee $3.75.’ I could calibrate a white Southerner’s social views by the way he pronounced the word ‘negro.’ ”

From a writer whose reputation needs radical revision, let’s just call this classic journalism.

– Jeff Simon