by Max Brantley
Jennings recounts Portis' work in newspapers, particularly reporting and violent times in Alabama, including coverage of a Klan rally in Bessemer
Portis was aware of himself as a target for locals who despised the media. In a story filed earlier that day, he had written of a Friday night gathering in the county courthouse in which “angry white extremists” who opposed the integration of downtown stores “ejected” the newsmen. Portis added, with wry pride, “A reporter from the Herald Tribune, in particular, was booed.” It must have taken no small amount of courage to then present himself in Bessemer the following night. Fortunately for him, the Klan crowd there “was not rising to the rhetoric,” as McWhorter writes, and when it ended about 10:15 p.m., Portis headed back to the Tutwiler Hotel with some other reporters. Around midnight, he and the others heard the “dull whoomp” of an explosion and they rushed to the scene, the Gaston Motel four blocks away.
What followed was a full night of rioting, arson, and civil unrest, unquelled until 6 a.m., by which time more than a thousand policemen and state troopers had brutally subdued African-American participants and spectators both. Portis had been in some peril from the fire and from bricks and bottles thrown. The city’s reckless armored police vehicle, he writes as he dips briefly into the first-person plural, “mounted the sidewalk once and made a headlong pass down it, sending about 50 of us spectators diving for the dirt.”
The next day, no doubt on very little if any sleep, he produced a 1,900-word front-page story about the evening’s chaos, one that not only captures the scene with immediacy and concreteness but gives it context and lyricism.