NEW YORK (AP) – Fifty years after covering the civil rights marches in Selma for CBS News, senior White House correspondent Bill Plante is returning to Alabama for this weekend’s commemorations still working for the same news organization.
As one mark of how things have changed in five decades, Plante will be interviewing a black man who is president of the United States on Saturday. President Barack Obama will also be in Alabama to mark the occasion.
Plante was a 27-year-old reporter in 1965 who bore witness to police tear-gassing and beating demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Later, he interviewed the Rev. Martin Luther King as he crossed the bridge in a separate march to the state capital in Montgomery.
He was last in Selma three years ago, part of U.S. Rep. John Lewis’ tour of historic civil rights locations, and was struck by how much the community physically looked the same.
“The big difference, it seems to me, is the attitude of the black population,” he said. “Blacks were fearful 50 years ago and they needed somebody like a Dr. King to mobilize them. Now they’re very much involved in the political life of the city and the county. Which is not to say there is no more racism – of course there is. That will probably always be the case everywhere. But it sure is a lot better than it was 50 years ago.”
Plante and fellow reporters weren’t welcomed by the white population 50 years ago, and footage in the CBS News archives shows what appears to be an egg being smeared on a camera lens at one point in the march.
Plante admits he feared for his safety.
“We were regarded as troublemakers because what we did was expose what was going on for all the world to see,” he said. “This shocked the nation.”
It shocked Plante, too, and as someone who grew up in Chicago schooled in social justice, it was hard for him to remain neutral. He’d never seen such in-your-face racism. But there was segregation back home, too. He just didn’t notice it as much.
Plante said he hopes to talk with Obama about racial attitudes, a topic he has not addressed frequently as president. Portions of the interview will appear on Saturday’s evening news, along with “Face the Nation” and “CBS Sunday Morning.”
A walking institutional memory bank for CBS News, Plante said he hasn’t been bitten by the retirement bug.
“I’d like to keep doing this as long as I can,” said Plante, 77. “It engages you. You meet people, you participate in what goes on every day. It helps you to stay alive.”
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