Thursday, December 06, 2007

Mike Sherman Dies, Liberal Alabama Journalist

I pause to pay tribute today to my former brother-in-law and distinguished Alabama journalist, Mike Sherman, who died Tuesday night of cancer at the age of 64. He was a strong personality with a dry sense of humor, a loving husband, father, brother and uncle, and, above all, in a conservative Southern state a liberal and humane man.

For 34 years, Sherman worked for Alabama newspapers, the Anniston Star, the Alabama Journal and the Montgomery Advertiser in a career that saw him serve as a reporter covering the Alabama Legislature, an associate editorial page editor, a city editor and a state editor. Other members of his immediate family also were in journalism, his sister Amelia a reporter for the Anniston Star and his son, Merrill, now a graphics designer with the Associated Press in New York.

Sherman grew up in Birmingham during the great civil rights struggle there eventually led by The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in what had been up to that time one of the most segregationist cities of America. He was 19 at the time of the cowardly church bombing that killed four black girls at the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham one Sunday morning in 1963, but as early as when he was eight years old, Sherman wore an Adlai Stevenson-John Sparkman button in the 1952 presidential campaign at a time when virtually all his school mates came from families that were Dwight Eisenhower supporters.

Sherman came from an unabashedly liberal Presbyterian family in the working class Ensley section of Birmingham, not far from the great steel plants. His mother was a long time Social Security employee, his father, a postman who had fought in Gen. George Patton's Third Army in World War II and was in the unit that liberated the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Carl Sherman never forgot what he saw that awful day in 1945, and he made the experience one of the foundations of the family's liberalism. The family was not wealthy, but three Sherman children, including Mike, graduated from the University of Alabama. They were the first generation of Shermans to go to college.

Growing up, Sherman lived on the same block as a boy his age who later became executive editor of the New York Times, Howell Raines. The two were close friends, and Raines recalled this week that Mike Sherman "picked journalism as a profession much earlier than I did."

Raines, who in his career also authored an oral history of the civil rights movement, still remembers when Sherman wore the Stevenson-Sparkman button to elementary school. "It was stunning to me that we had anybody in our neighborhood who supported Stevenson and Sparkman," he said in a tribute that was part of a lengthy obituary today in the Montgomery Advertiser.

Raines said Sherman enjoyed working for the Anniston and Montgomery newspapers "because he was a fair-minded man who knew those papers were tools for social progress in Alabama."

Colleagues from the Advertiser were quoted in the obituary as remembering Sherman for his integrity and as a reporter who could keep a confidence. His son Merrill told the newspaper, "Politicians opened up to him because they knew he wouldn't violate off-the-record comments. He was always proud of covering the Legislature."

The reporter who joined with him in a team covering the lawmakers, Mike Cason, described him as "the most honest, unselfish person I ever knew...Those who worked with him and those he wrote about say the same thing...He churned out great stories because he had a grasp of Alabama and its history. I was so lucky to have been his friend."

Other reporters quoted in the obituary said his dry wit and quick smile did not prevent him from coming up with some sharp rejoinders.

Ken Hare, editorial page editor of the Advertiser, said that as an editorial writer, Sherman "grasped complicated issues quickly and had a remarkable recall of Alabama history and politics. But his best editorials were those that had a human side, the kind that were designed to help people. That reflected what was most essential about Mike -- he was just a nice guy."

When Sherman's father died, he was very taken by the reaction of his young nephew, David Reich, who had gone with his grandfather and the family to a beach house on the Florida Gulf Coast on vacation and remembered how much Carl Sherman had loved Panama City Beach. Told that his grandfather had "gone to heaven," David, then only five, remarked, "Oh, he's gone to Florida." Mike Sherman wrote a column then that ended, "His grandfather would have liked that."

Sherman occasionally visited California after his sister and brother moved here, and he was in Los Angeles visiting when Los Angeles police surrounded members of the Symbionese Liberation Army in a South Los Angeles house and blew the place to pieces. I can remember, as if it were yesterday, his intent look as he viewed the dramatic proceedings.

But what I most remember was Mike's humanity, his love of the South, his admiration of the Southern Poverty Law Center founded by Morris Dees, and his respect for the civil rights pioneers, Rosa Parks and Dr. King, who had led the Montgomery Bus Boycott that began to bring Alabama out of the cruel age of segregation.

He will be greatly missed, no question about that. I was staying in Berkeley Tuesday night when I heard the news of his passing, and I sat in my hotel room silently for a long time, remembering the past and thinking of him with admiration.



Blogger D. Willoughby said...

I sat next to Mike at the Advertiser for several months, and I'll never forget his kindness and his amazing Rolodex. What a great man.

12/06/2007 8:31 PM  
Blogger D. Willoughby said...

I sat next to Mike at the Advertiser for several months, and I'll never forget his kindness and his amazing Rolodex. What a great man.

12/06/2007 8:35 PM  

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