Earl Caldwell
VHFP Visionary

Born in 1935 in Clearfield, Pennsylvania

Ground-breaking journalist whose refusal to disclose confidential information involving his sources in the Black Panther Party led him to become a central figure in one of the century’s most celebrated cases involving reporters’ rights

Interviewed by Tiffany Shepard
2006 Visionary Heritage Fellow
Third Place NVLP Scholarship Winner
Hampton University

Written by Tiffany Shepard

Earl Caldwell is a well renowned journalist. He has experienced not only the perks of being a black journalist but also the obstacles. Although his name is mostly associated with the New York Times, there is much more to him than what surfaces on Google.

Earl Caldwell was born in 1935 in Clearfield, Pennsylvania, the youngest of six children. Both of his parents grew up in the south, his father in Asheville, North Carolina and his mother in Clinton, South Carolina. Because of their experiences, Caldwell’s father always warned him about the dangers of the south and how he never wanted to return.

Caldwell credits his father for teaching him discipline and his mother for educating and motivating him. At an early age, he began to dislike the ideas taught in classes by his teachers. Fortunately, his mother made learning more interesting, while teaching him how to read as well. Caldwell praises his parents for preparing him for the obstacles that he later encountered.

Growing up, Caldwell’s father had a rule that everyone in his household must either get a job or go to the military. Caldwell chose college. He enrolled at the University of Buffalo in New York as a business major and studied insurance. He soon landed a job at an insurance company in Philadelphia. However, he was very disappointed to find out that the company required him to work in Alabama. This disappointment caused him to return home.

Unfortunately, his father’s rule still applied, so his friend offered him a job at the local newspaper. He worked at The Progress and moved up the ranks until the editor encouraged him to move on to bigger papers. He landed a job at the Intelligencer-Journal in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1959. He was the first African American in their newsroom. Years later he moved on to the New York Times.

This interview has
been archived in the
NVLP Collection of
African American
Oral Histories at the
Library of Congress
American Folklife
There were two assignments that became landmarks in his career and for black journalists everywhere. On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and Caldwell was the only reporter to witness the tragedy. He argues that the “official” report of the assassination is not what actually happened that night. Caldwell is still involved with efforts to tell that story accurately today. The second assignment that was important to his career occurred years later. The Times sent him to California to cover the Black Panthers. In doing so, he was approached by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). They wanted him to become a spy for the agency and for him to hand over all of his notes on the Panthers. Caldwell refused; as a result he was required to appear before a Grand Jury. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court and resulted in a landmark First Amendment decision on reporters' rights to protect confidential sources.

"The ruling was unanimous. The court ruled that the first Ammendment protected a reporter's information, notes and confidential sources," said Caldwell, "and it protected the reporting proces."

Currently, Caldwell is teaching at Hampton University in the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications as a visiting professor. He teaches a civil rights course, hosts Caldwell Cafes and is working on his own oral history project and a book.


Earl Caldwell's Wikipedia page

URL (Click to bookmark): http://www.visionaryproject.org/caldwellearl