Black History Month

Q&A: Richard Stolley

TFK spoke with the former LIFE reporter about his coverage of the civil rights movement

January 28, 2010
DON HEINY FOR TIME FOR KIDS

TFK Kid Reporter Andrew Ravaschiere met with former LIFE reporter Dick Stolley in his office in New York City.

Richard Stolley has brought major news stories to people around the world for decades. He began his career in journalism while still in high school, as sports editor for his hometown newspaper in Illinois, the Pekin Daily Times. In 1953, Stolley began reporting for LIFE magazine, a weekly publication that brought news to Americans through words and powerful photos. In 1974, Stolley signed on as the first managing editor of the successful People magazine. He became the editorial director for Time, Inc. publishing company in 1989 and now, in his retirement, serves as Time, Inc.'s senior editorial advisor.

TFK:

What inspired you to become a journalist?

RICHARD STOLLEY:

There were no journalists in my family. My mother was an English teacher. My father managed a factory, but he was a voracious reader. I think my mother's background in teaching English had something to do with it, but it came out of nowhere. I knew when I was twelve years old what I wanted to do with my life, and I never turned back after that.

TFK:

When you were 15 years old, you became the sports editor of the Pekin Daily Times, a newspaper in your hometown in Illinois. What was it like to write for a newspaper, and then head to high school every morning?

STOLLEY:

It ruined my career as a high school athlete! Needless to say, I could not write about sports and participate. It was awkward sometimes writing about my friends on the sports teams, particularly football and basketball, and having to be somewhat critical of their performance. So, it did not make me the most popular boy in high school. But for two years, I got up at five in the morning and went down to the newspaper, put out the sports page, and then walked up to the high school. On Friday night, there was either a football game or a basketball game. All of my friends were out celebrating, and I had to go back to the newspaper office and write the story because the Saturday paper went to press very early.

TFK:

How did you get the sports editor job?

STOLLEY:

This was during World War II; the sports editor went into the Navy. He and I were friends. He knew I had been the editor of the junior high paper and the editor of the high school paper, and he recommended me to the publisher. The editor of the paper then was a young woman who was in her early twenties. The publisher decided he did not want a woman to be sports editor, so he hired a child instead!

TFK:

What was it like to be a young reporter for LIFE magazine?

STOLLEY:

LIFE was the best-known magazine in the world then. About three years after I went to work for LIFE, I got sent down to the Atlanta bureau, and that started my career as a bureau correspondent. Most of the adventures I had at LIFE happened after that.

TFK:

How would you describe the role of the journalist during the civil rights movement?

STOLLEY:

There would not have been a civil rights movement without journalism. It's hard to imagine what the country was like compared with now. National television was only fifteen minutes a night. Of course, there was no Internet, no computers, nothing. National publications were responsible for telling America what was happening in the South. It was crucial for journalists to tell America what was happening in the South, otherwise they would have had no idea the cruelties that had taken place down there, the discrimination. Once Americans were informed, they could react to what was going on, and put pressure on the South to pay attention to the Supreme Court ruling that public school discrimination and segregation were illegal.

TFK:

How did photos impact the civil rights movement?

STOLLEY:

I think LIFE magazine was the most influential publication in changing American attitudes toward race because other news magazines would tell you what was happening and LIFE magazine would show you. LIFE photographers captured images of people spitting on black kids. Those people landed in a great big photo in the magazine, their faces distorted with hate, and spit coming out of their mouths. That image is going to change peoples' attitude in a way that words never could. That is exactly what LIFE magazine did week after week after week.

TFK:

In 1957, LIFE sent you to Little Rock, Arkansas, to cover the integration of Central High School. What was one of the most powerful images that LIFE published of that integration? What made it powerful?

STOLLEY:

It was the sight of those nine brave students, surrounded by soldiers, walking up the steps and into this high school. It got you thinking, 'Goodness! What has this country come to that it takes soldiers to get these nine students into the school?' At the same time, you think, 'Thank goodness for America that they would send armed paratroopers to make sure that the law of the land will be maintained.'

TFK:

What was it like to cover the Montgomery bus boycott?

STOLLEY:

It was interesting. For one thing, it wasn't violent. It was amazingly peaceful. All of these black employees, maids, and all of the rest, either walked to work or set up a kind of shuttle system with cars. Some even rented their own buses. The people who employed blacks, either in their homes or in their stores, were the ones who were finally hesitating and said, 'This was nuts, our houses are dirty, we do not have people to wait on customers.' There was a growing sense of frustration in the town. They said, 'Let them ride on the buses. It's not the end of the world.'

TFK:

Did you meet Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks?

STOLLEY:

I met Dr. Martin Luther King. He was a galvanizing speaker. And I met Rosa Parks. She was an elegant, very quiet, strong and determined woman.

King was astonishing. One day, I walked off my flight at the Atlanta airport and there was Dr. King with his wife, Coretta, and their little kids. I looked at him and I suddenly realized that they were all waiting there because there was no place else for them to go. They couldn't get into the restaurants because they were all segregated. Blacks could not get into the restaurants or any place else. They had black and white toilets and drinking fountains. There was not a black waiting area and a white waiting area, which was true of most bus stations in the South. So, Dr. King and his family could sit in the one waiting area. I went over [to him] and reintroduced myself. We chatted for a while. I remember thinking, 'One of the reasons that Dr. King is doing what he is doing is that he and his family can't go into that air conditioned restaurant and have a Coke or something like that while he waits for his plane.' It was that kind of daily humiliation that blacks had to go through in the South that fueled the civil rights movement in many ways more dramatically than the big school decisions. Having to encounter that kind of discrimination every morning when he woke up... it's a wonder that that the whole civil rights revolution wasn't even bloodier than it was.

TFK:

How would you advise kids today who are interested in pursuing careers in journalism and photojournalism?

STOLLEY:

Do what you're doing. How did you get to be a TIME For Kids reporter?

TFK:

I just found an interest and I stuck with it. When I was in first grade, at the end of the school year, I missed my friends so I wrote a newsletter and it just took off from there.

STOLLEY:

You've just answered your own question! That is exactly what you do. People who want to be journalists, they have to understand that they want to do it and what it involves, and then just do it. That is exactly what you are doing, your example is much like mine many years later, using this [a tape recorder] instead of a notebook.

My advice to kids is to find that thing that you want to do, and if it's to explore human beings and write about them, then do it. Start in the first grade if you can!

 

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