Curtis Wilkie | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Curtis Wilkie

Imagine a window into your own history. You can watch yourself change, grow and experience events as if they're happening for the first time. Depending on the success of your mental picture, you might have an idea of how Greenville-born writer Curtis Wilkie feels about his new book, "Assassins, Eccentrics, Politicians and Other Persons of Interest" (University Press of Mississippi, 2014, $30).

The book is a categorized anthology of sorts, collecting 50 articles from Wilkie's younger self. He wrote many of the pieces several decades ago, including his 50-year-old story on Freedom Summer, during his time as a cub reporter for the Clarksdale Press Register, but he doesn't mind the imperfections.

"I put them in, warts and all. I think I say in the back story for one or two of them that these are certainly not perfect examples of a story," Wilkie said. "Maybe the wording is a little awkward, or I show some of the flaws that young reporters may have. But I didn't try to scrub them up. I showed them exactly as they appeared."

Initially, Wilkie, a visiting professor at the University of Mississippi since 2002, didn't set out to create a book. That idea came from Ann Abadie at the University of Mississippi's Center for the Study of Southern Culture, a friend who helped him arrange the college's annual book conference.

"She has major connections at the University Press, so she approached me a couple years ago and said, 'I really wish the University Press would put out a collection of your stories.' I said, 'Well, I'm flattered. I'd like that, too.'"

Sure enough, Leila Salisbury, the director of the University Press, contacted him soon after about working together on a book. Given that the company's catalog is mostly centered on the South, Wilkie decided to choose stories related to Mississippi and the surrounding states.

"That left out most of the stories I did over my career, because I started in Mississippi but spent the bulk of my career at The Boston Globe, overseas or working out of Washington," Wilkie said. "I'm happy with the selections, though, and I think most of them still have some relevance today, something people down here can relate to."

"Assassins" includes portions of Wilkie's coverage from the Civil Rights Movement, which, in the 1960s, created plenty of challenges for young, southern reporters like him.

"The '60s was a difficult time, writing for Mississippi papers, because you were writing about a movement that was widely unpopular with your white readership," Wilkie said. "And yet we did it in Clarksdale. I was proud that we had these stories in."

Wilkie, now 74, said the general consensus from white readers at the time was that they wanted the Civil Rights Movement to simply go away. They didn't want to read about it, so the coverage was often disliked and the subject of many complaint letters.

"Some of these stories weren't out on the front page. Some of them were, and some I can't remember. But they were there, and that was important," he said. "There were not a lot of papers in the state that covered the movement with their own reporters."

Wilkie named McComb's Enterprise Journal and Greenville's Delta Democrat Times as two of his comrades in civil rights coverage, but Jackson daily newspapers had no interest.

"The Jackson papers tried to ignore it. This earthquake that's going on in your state, and you're going to ignore it," he said. "Hell, they didn't even cover the Ole Miss riot with their own people. They would use wire service stories, so if someone complained to the editor or publisher, they'd say, 'Well, it wasn't our people covering.'"

Wilkie's collection also features some of his best profiles of important figures. He spent time with Martin Luther King Jr. only days before his death, and interacted with people who were making a difference. He attributes those opportunities to reporting in Mississippi, right in the midst of change.

"One of the joys of working in Clarksdale was that it was a hotspot during the movement—a lot of demonstrations, a lot of rallies," Wilkie said. "All the major speakers from the movement came through Clarksdale. ... I was exposed to this story that was not only national but also worldwide. Even though I was working for this small daily, I got to cover the best story going on in the country."

Curtis Wilkie will sign copies of "Assassins, Eccentrics, Politicians and Other Persons of Interest: Fifty Pieces from the Road" at 5 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 1, at Lemuria Books (202 Banner Hall, 4465 Interstate 55 N.). For more information, visit lemuriabooks.com.

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