A long-time Newsweek journalist piggybacks his life’s story onto the most important news event of his career: the turbulent drama of the civil rights movement.
Unfortunately, though, Fleming’s brilliance as a journalist is strangely at odds with his weakness as a memoirist. Clearly more comfortable recalling the violence of the struggle for racial equality, he offers vibrant portraits of the most harrowing incidents of that era, including the enrollment of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi, the investigation into the disappearance of three civil rights workers near Philadelphia, Miss., and the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta. These sections stand out with sharp observations of body language, vocal inflections, political maneuvering, street theater and the steely determination of both civil rights agitators and segregationist status quo enforcers to plant their politics on the landscape. Strangely, though, Fleming’s attempt to tell his personal story is less compelling. Born in 1927 in North Carolina, raised for most of his childhood in a Methodist orphanage (even though his mother was still alive and healthy), he escaped poverty and isolation through a late-teens stint in the Navy and then became a reporter. Yet he fails to enrich the account of his own life with the kind of revealing detail he brings to his historic coverage. The two stories that brought him his greatest national exposure, as the victim of a vicious assault during the 1966 Watts riots and one of those fooled by the D.B. Cooper hoax, are presented in an antiseptic and detached manner. His narrative of the post-Newsweek years sweeps along in an elusive rush lacking emotion and specificity; he casually, almost accidentally, drops in an account of being hospitalized and treated with electroshock therapy. It would seem the story of Fleming’s life is the dramatic news events he covered, not the life itself.
The author’s talents as a historian far outweigh his abilities as an autobiographer.