AUBURN – Journalist Earl Caldwell, who chronicled some of the most significant events of the Civil Rights Era, will speak as part of the Neil O. and Henrietta Davis Lecture Series on Wednesday, Feb. 2, at 6 p.m. in the auditorium at The Hotel at Auburn University and Dixon Conference Center.
The lecture series is sponsored by Auburn University’s Department of Communications and Journalism in the College of Liberal Arts and is free to the public.
Caldwell, who began at the New York Times in 1967, was the only reporter to witness the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis in 1968.
In addition, Caldwell helped define reporters’ rights in the 1972 Supreme Court “Branzburg decision.” Caldwell refused to appear before a federal grand jury and disclose confidential information involving the Black Panther Party. When the case came before the U.S. Supreme Court, the court consolidated three cases involving reporters’ rights, one of which was United States v. Caldwell. In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled reporters must testify before federal grand juries. That 1972 decision led to the enactment of shield laws in many states that allow reporters to protect sources and information.
Caldwell’s other notable accomplishments include covering the race riots in the summers of 1967 and 1968; reporting on the riots in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention; covering the Atlanta child murders and the trial of convicted killer Wayne Williams; and traveling the campaign trail in 1984 with the Rev. Jesse Jackson during Jackson’s bid for the presidency. In 1979, he joined the New York Daily News to become the first black journalist to write a regular column in a major daily newspaper, a position he held until 1991.
At Hampton University, Caldwell is an assistant professor of journalism in the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications. The National Association of Black Journalists bestowed its President’s Award to Caldwell in 1995, calling him “one of the most important journalists of the last 50 years.”
He is writer-in-residence at the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education in Oakland, Calif., where he is writing “The Caldwell Journals,” a serialized account of the black journalist movement spawned by the 1960s civil rights movement.
The Davis Lecture Series was established in 1996 to honor the late Neil O. and Henrietta W. Davis and encourage excellence in journalism. The series features distinguished journalists who can inspire students to follow the spirit and the principles embodied in the couple’s life and work.
“I had the honor of working with Mr. Caldwell when I was on the faculty at Hampton University,” said Jennifer Wood Adams, journalism program director. “Mr. Caldwell’s distinguished body of work exemplifies the spirit of the Davis family’s commitment to the civil rights movement and education.”
Neil Owen Davis founded The Lee County Bulletin in 1937 and served as publisher and editor for 40 years. He was a 1935 Auburn graduate and a Nieman Fellow, whose incisive editorials won state and national awards and were reprinted in such publications as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Louisville Courier-Journal and The Atlanta Constitution.
Henrietta Worsley Davis, also a 1935 graduate, was the Bulletin’s associate editor and chief reporter. Her precise and complete coverage of civic matters, particularly education, made the Bulletin a staple in Auburn homes.
The couple devoted their professional lives to making their newspaper an agent for positive change in the community and advancing the cause of civil rights in Alabama and throughout the Southeast. Neil Davis also taught courses in journalism at Auburn University.
The Davises’ purchase of The Tuskegee News to provide coverage of the black community in Macon County and their responsible reporting on numerous events, such as the desegregation of Auburn University and Auburn’s public schools, are widely considered critical acts of leadership during troubled times. Both have been inducted into the Alabama Press Association’s Hall of Honor on the Auburn campus.
The Davis Lecture is endowed by the gifts of the Davis family and friends, distinguished journalists, their newspapers, and Auburn University alumni and faculty.
(Contributed by Kelly Walker.)