Trailblazing journalist and Chicago native, Carole Simpson, made history as the first woman to moderate a presidential debate. She joins us on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm. Read an excerpt from Chapter 8 of Simpson's memoir, NewsLady, which details her encounter with Martin Luther King, Jr., when she was just starting out her career in Chicago.
Dr. Martin Luther King Gives Me a Boost
Thanks to Dr. Martin Luther King I made my first mark in journalism in Chicago. In 1966, four months after the riots in Watts, California, he announced from Georgia that he was going to bring his non-violent civil rights campaign to Chicago, but he gave no reason. Nearly everyone in America was befuddled by the news. Why would he come North? There were no segregation laws in Illinois. Of course, I was excited that the great black leader would be making national news in my city. I wanted that story.
The national and all the Chicago media were trying to find out what Dr. King was guarding so closely. Public interest continued to heighten. In early January, the journalists following him in the South reported that the civil rights leader and a group of his closest aides had boarded a plane in Atlanta bound for Chicago. The flight would take about two and a half hours.
I literally begged my news director to let me cover his arrival at O’Hare to try and find out what the Chicago campaign was all about. Okay, he said, and he reminded me we were in a highly competitive situation with other Chicago media. “If it’s to be gotten, I will get it,” I said too boastfully.
I joined throngs of reporters and camera crews at the gate where the Atlanta passengers were to arrive. No Dr. King. Flight attendants told us he had been whisked out the back of the plane to a waiting motorcade on the tarmac to avoid the press. We all shouted, “Where did he go?” As if they knew.
I knew I had to find his hotel. Most of my more experienced colleagues headed downtown to look for him at one of the major hotels. Dr. King was usually put up in the best hotels when he came North to make a speech or receive an award. But it made sense to me that he wouldn’t go that far since he was being so secretive. There were several hotels near the airport. I went to each one and asked the desk clerks stupidly, “Is Dr. King registered here?” Of course, they all denied it.
There was something about one of the hotels that piqued my interest. It just seemed to have more activity going on, although I didn’t see any black faces, or extra security. It was just my gut feeling. I sneaked past the front desk to get to the elevators leading to the twelve floors of the hotel. I got in one of them and pushed the button for the second floor. The doors opened and I looked up and down the corridor. Fortunately it was a rectangular hotel so there were no hallways leading off the main corridor. Nothing was going on. I stopped at each floor, repeating the exercise. Three, four, five, six. Then lucky seven.
The doors opened and at one end of the long corridor, I saw six or seven black men chatting at the end of the hallway. I squinted to see if one of them were Dr. King. I couldn’t tell, but I got off the elevator. It was about 7:30 p.m., and if I hurried I could get a story on the 8 o’clock newscast. I set up my heavy, clunky reel-to-reel tape recorder, plugged in the microphone, hoisted it on my shoulder and headed toward the group of men. One of them walked forward to block my path. He said, “Can I help you, young lady?”
“Uh, yes. I’m Carole Simpson from WCFL Radio and I’d like to interview Dr. King.” Oh, my naiveté.
“Dr. King is resting and he’s not granting any interviews. He’s holding a news conference at 10 o’clock in the morning. You can ask your questions there,” he said with finality.
“But I can’t wait that long,” I pressed. “I have to get the story now.”
“Well, you won’t,” he said. Another “No.”
“Then I’ll wait here,” I told him. “Dr. King might change his mind.”
I got back on the elevator and went to a pay telephone in the lobby and called the news editor on duty. I reported that I had found where Dr. King was staying and that I didn’t see any other reporters around. I told him his aides said he wouldn’t give me an interview. I also gave him the news about the press conference the next morning. I surprised myself when I said I was going to stay on his floor of hotel all night if I had to, that I was determined to get the exclusive. I told him I would call when I had something. “Good girl,” he offered. Just as an aside, if I had been a man, I doubt he would have said, “Good boy.”
The hotel gift shop was still open. I bought some newspapers, some cheese and peanut butter crackers, and a Hershey bar. I stopped on a random floor and got a Coke out of a vending machine. Armed with my provisions I headed back to the seventh floor and plunked everything down right at the edge of the bank of elevators. Dr. King would have to get past me to leave the hotel and I was prepared for a long wait. It was winter so I had a big coat I sat on to soften my makeshift seat on the marble floor.
I kept one eye on my reading material and the other on the end of the hallway to my left. At around eleven, one of the men came over to me and said, “Why don’t you go home, miss? You’re not going to get anything from Dr. King tonight.”
I stared up at his kindly face and said, “Thank you, sir, but I’m going to stay until I can talk to Dr. King.” I figured I was still ahead of the rest of the press corps by having him a few hundred yards away from me.
The comings and goings from the row of guest rooms at the end of the hall continued until well after midnight. I would later learn the names of the men I saw: The Rev. Ralph Abernathy, The Rev. Andrew Young, The Rev. C.T. Vivian, and The Rev. Hosea Williams. I had seen them all on television, arms interlocked with one another, Dr. King at the center, marching through Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, and Albany, Georgia. I also recognized the civil rights leader in Chicago, Al Raby. This was going to be big.
The night seemed like an eternity. At 3 a.m., I was tired and sleepy and wanted to go home. But I didn’t risk nodding off. I was starting to feel a little foolish. I read the horoscopes, did the crossword puzzles, even read the sports. I ran out of things to do to keep me awake.
Shortly after 7 a.m. (I had become an inveterate clock-watcher by this time) there were stirrings at the end of the corridor. Doors began to open and men were chatting in the hall. One of them approached me and said, “You really stayed all night?”
“I have to get a word with Dr. King,” I responded with sleep in my eyes and my muscles aching. By now, I concluded an interview was out of the question. The man told me Dr. King would be going down to breakfast shortly. My opportunity had come. The sleepiness and exhaustion dissipated quickly.
I tried to straighten myself up, pressing out the wrinkles in my skirt, taking a brush to my hair, and applying some lipstick without a mirror. This was about to be the biggest moment of my life as a journalist. Dr. King was an iconic figure, a rock star, the most important black man in America and the moral conscience of the nation. He had won the Nobel Peace Prize, at age thirty-five. I was in Tuskegee, Alabama, when he delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington. Living in Alabama, at the time, I hung onto every eloquent phrase, which I’m not sure I would have done if I were still living in Chicago. I now had an appreciation for how much degradation and injustice segregation was inflicting on my people in the South.
Dr. King came out of his hotel room. His male contingent filed behind him. My heart swelled. Don’t blow this, Carole, I said to myself. He walked closer to the elevator bank that had been my temporary home for twelve hours. He was shorter than I expected, not much taller than my 5 feet 7 inches. But he was a towering figure. I was in complete awe.
He spoke first. “Are you the nice young lady I’ve been hearing about? You spent the night here?” he questioned.
I stuttered, “Y-y-yes, sir. And it is my greatest pleasure to meet you.” He extended his large hand and gave my much smaller one a firm shake.
“Dr. King, I hate to bother you on your way to breakfast but I’ve been waiting to find out what your crusade in Chicago is all about.” My words tumbled out. “I’m the only Negro female reporter in Chicago and it would really help my career if I could find out before the rest of the reporters. Please tell me Dr. King, please?”
He leaned his face toward mine and whispered in my ear: “I am here to challenge the authority of Mayor Daley on the issue of fair housing. This city, as far as housing is concerned, is the most segregated in the nation.” He turned his face away and in his cultured southern accent he said in a friendly voice, “Now don’t you tell anybody, ya’ hear?”
For a moment I was taken aback and then he winked. I took that to mean, “It’s yours.”
“Oh, Dr. King, thank you so much.”
As he got into the elevator, he looked back at me and said, “I admire your perseverance, young lady. Good luck.”
I felt as if I had been blessed. But I quickly recovered my composure to call my news desk. I screamed into the phone that I had just talked to Dr. King and I know why he’s here. The news editor didn’t want to wait until the 8 a.m. newscast. He went straight to the morning disc jockey and said we’ve got a scoop from Carole Simpson on Dr. King’s mission. “Can we break into programming and I’ll put her on the air with you.” The deejay quickly accepted the offer.
I hadn’t written anything. I would have to just tell what happened. And I did, somewhat breathlessly. Things happened so quickly. For the 8:30 newscast, I was live again. The Mutual Broadcasting Company, which my station was affiliated with, put me on the national network. I was heard on radio stations all across the country, my first national exposure.
The wire services, the Associated Press and United Press International, picked up the story, which began, “WCFL Radio in Chicago reports...” Those wires went directly into newspaper, radio and TV offices across the nation. I later heard that many newspapers were skeptical of the story. Who is Carole Simpson? She works for a rock station. How can we trust her reporting?
That didn’t seem to matter to their bosses, who started running reports that Dr. King will announce at press conference this morning that he will mount a campaign against Chicago’s segregated housing, taking on the political machine of Mayor Richard J. Daley.
I got back to WCFL from the airport hotel at about 9 o’clock, and walked into the newsroom to applause. The news editor said “we” had beaten the entire Chicago press corps. Get that. “We.” I had a lot to do with it, but it was still too distasteful for the guys to congratulate me directly.
Unwashed and still in my wrinkled clothes I went to Dr. King’s news conference and one of those nice hotels he usually stayed in. I beamed when he made his announcement. I had gotten it right. At age twenty-four, I had trumped all the national veterans on the Dr. King beat. During the news conference they eyed me warily. During the question and answer period, I caught Dr. King’s eye. He smiled and I gave him a baby “Hi” motion with my hand.
With his whisper in my ear, Dr. Martin Luther King literally made my career. With an exclusive on one of the biggest stories in the nation, I was now a force to be reckoned with inside Chicago’s prestigious journalism corps. Without my scoop it may have taken much longer to attract the attention of the Chicago media establishment.
To press his point about Chicago housing, Dr. King moved into an apartment in the Lawndale community, one of the city’s poorest, to launch his anti-housing discrimination protests in some of the all white neighborhoods of Chicago. I continued to be the reporter on the King beat in Chicago and went where he went to demonstrate and hold rallies. White violence had followed him North. He was hit by a rock thrown in Gage Park, a middle class neighborhood on the Southwest side, whose residents vowed blacks would never move in. He later remarked that he was more frightened in Chicago than in any of his marches in the South. Chicago proved that racial hatred was not confined to states below the Mason-Dixon Line.
Excerpt from NewsLady by Carole Simpson