A respected reporter from the civil rights era, Moses Newson risked his life covering some of the most notable events of the time. These events include the Emmett Till murder trial, Little Rock school desegregation and the 1961 Freedom Rides. Newsom later left journalism to become a public affairs specialist for what was to become the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
After high school, Newson enlists and serves in the U.S. Navy for two years. He serves in the Steward’s Branch at the end of the war.
Newson attends Storer College in Harper’s Ferry, W.Va., then transfers to Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., where he graduates with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.
Newson’s first job as a reporter is for the Tri-State Defender in Memphis. Editor L. Alex Wilson, a fellow graduate of Lincoln University, hires Newson and they are the only two full-time staff members. Wilson and Newson had both grown up in central Florida during the time of the lynching of Claude Neal. As a reporter Newson covers the civil rights movement, voting rights and related domestic human rights stories. He goes on to become a city editor with the Tri-State Defender.
In an especially violent year during the civil rights movement, Newson covers the funeral of George Lee, a black preacher and enfranchisement advocate for African-Americans who was killed in the middle of the night. Later that year, Newson covers the slaying and trial of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy who was mutilated in Mississippi after allegedly flirting with a white woman. The crime stuns the nation, and for the first time, Newson and other black reporters sit side-by-side with white reporters covering the same story.
In the volatile aftermath of the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, in which the justices unanimously rules that “separate but equal” racially segregated schools were unconstitutional, Newson covers school desegregation in Hoxie, Ark., and Clinton, Tenn.
Newson leaves the Tri-State Defender for the Baltimore Afro-American, where he would be a reporter, city editor and ultimately executive editor for the final 10 of his 21 years at the newspaper.
His first assignment for the Afro-American brings Newson to Little Rock, Ark., to cover the civil rights crisis there, a national news story for months. Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus had ordered the Arkansas National Guard and police to block black students from entering Central High School. Due to the legal battle and physical confrontations, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent 1,000 troops from the 101st Airborne Division to intervene and federalized the Arkansas National Guard to protect the students who were integrating the school. The troops moved to quell the angry white mob and the beatings of journalists, especially those who were black.
Newson is among a group of black reporters who are blocked from reporting and are brutally attacked by the crowd. Newson’s colleague and former boss, L. Alex Wilson, is part of the group but, refusing to run, is even more severely beaten. Newson and other black journalists earn the trust of “the Central High Nine” and are able to provide intimate reporting out of their relationships with the students and the local black community.
According to Newson, “For the first time and over the next several years, Americans began to see the ugly, unavoidable truth about “democracy and fairness and justice” in their country. And, indeed, how could they not, “. . . when [they] started seeing people sic dogs on people and knocking people down with fire hoses, buses being burned up with people on the buses and that sort of thing. I think people just didn’t feel that that was something the country should tolerate. And I think that included people who were not necessarily for desegregation,” according to Newson, in an interview years later with Charles Lewis.
One of only two journalists who initially rode on the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) Freedom Rides, Newson joined the group of civil rights demonstrators from Baltimore to New Orleans to defy Jim Crow laws. Newson’s bus was attacked in Anniston, Ala., when a mob firebombed the bus, forcing the doors shut and attempting to trap the passengers inside. Newson was the last person to leave the burning bus: “People were crawling around and were coughing and trying to get the smoke out of their chest . . . It was one of the more horrible scenes you would see. You know, just to think that some Americans were doing that to other Americans. … I just got burnt behind the ears when the sparks came up on the bomb when they first threw it in.” Newson said “the mob people didn’t go away” for the longest time, hours and hours; at some point, he and a few others were taken to a local hospital. Eventually escaping with his life, Newson continued the rest of the way to New Orleans reporting on the story.
Black reporters like Newson and others cover the race story for years, often traveling alone, driving at night on two-lane, unlit country back roads, staying in rooming houses instead of hotels, using easily hidden “sawed-off steno pads” so they wouldn’t appear to be reporters. They were the most physically vulnerable journalists, according to Gene Roberts, co-author of Race Beat. It “was a tough assignment for a black reporter to go into a racially charged town,” Roberts said in an interview. And arguably there wouldn’t have been a civil rights movement without the black press, which basically sensitized a couple of generations of Americans to want and then ultimately demand [the] full rights of citizenship in the United States.”
With access to the University of Mississippi campus blocked to all black reporters, Newson is forced to report from Memphis the desegregation of the university by James Meredith and the riots that ensued.
Newson goes on to report from national political conventions as well as a number of foreign countries during critical periods. He corresponded from post-civil war Nigeria, wrote about Bahamian independence, and covered apartheid in South Africa.
Leaving the newspaper business after 26 years, Newson goes to work for the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (later to become the Department of Health and Human Services as a public affairs specialist.
After working for the government for 17 years, Newson retires at the age of 68.
Working closely with his former colleague at the ¬Afro-American, Newson helps write Sam Lacy’s autobiography, “Fighting for Fairness: The Life Story of Hall of Fame Sportswriter Sam Lacy.” The book provides tells the story of Lacy’s career battling racism while covering sports throughout the civil rights movement and beyond.
Newson is inducted into the Hall of Fame for the Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association.