By, Carmen K. Sisson
October 20, 2012 8:18:06 PM
Byron Pitts speaks at Mississippi University for Women. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
Ask journalists why they entered the profession, and most will deliver some variation of wanting to give voice to the voiceless, defend the defenseless, shine light into the dark corners and change the world.
For some, it is truth. For others, it is platitude. When CBS news correspondent Byron Pitts says it, the candor is so evident, so starkly raw, that you almost avert your eyes.
Ten minutes earlier, he was doing what he does best — standing in front of the camera, his feet spread for balance, laying his narrative word after word with the precision of a brick mason.
Now, he is at ease, his lanky frame folded into a chair at Puckett House, on the Mississippi University for Women campus. His suit is immaculate, his diction smooth.
If there is an undercurrent to these still waters, it is betrayed only by the way he speaks with his eyes fixed on the floor, the way he rolls two water bottles across his fingertips, back and forth, keeping himself grounded.
The guest speaker for MUW’s black tie Welty Gala, part of the college’s annual Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium, is not nervous, but he is cautious. Even at 52, his secret shame lies close to the surface. The demons were vanquished years ago, pinned to the page in his memoir, “Step Out on Nothing,” and it is this victory that has led him to MUW’s campus on this breezy Friday.
Before he was the chief national correspondent for CBS Evening News, before he was a “60 Minutes” contributor, before he was a published author and the winner of two national Emmy awards, six regional Emmys, four Associated Press awards and one award from the National Association of Black Journalists, he was just “Pickle,” the quiet, polite boy who could not master words.
‘I know who I am’
One of three children, Pitts grew up in east Baltimore, watching his parents fight at night, fighting his own battles by day. A chronic stutterer, he could not protest when a neighborhood bully stole his lunch. Functionally illiterate, he could not read the sheet music to participate in the church choir — the one place where his words didn’t tumble from his lips like marbles spilling onto the floor.
It is faith that saw him through — faith and the unremitting support of mentors who stepped out on nothing but their belief in the things he could not yet see.
He was 12 when his cleverly-hidden illiteracy came bubbling to the forefront, but when the light of truth struck that dark corner, it illuminated the path to a better life.
His mother, refusing to accept a doctor’s admonition that her baby boy was mentally-handicapped, kept searching until she found help in the form of a reading machine and hours of grueling work.
When he rushed home with his first positive note from school, he read it to his mother while she wept.
But though he learned to read, words were still a challenge, and they would continue to be so until he was a junior at Ohio Wesleyan College, once more standing in front of a crowd of snickering classmates, shame flushing white hot across his light black cheeks.
He wanted to be a “jour-jour-jour-jour-journalist,” he told them.
His dreams may have died that day on the scuffed linoleum of a classroom floor, but his professor saw something in his eyes. A hint of determination, a hunger that could not be sated.
And so he began working privately with Pitts, forcing him to read the newspaper aloud with pencils in his mouth, read classic literature backwards, endure breathing exercises and sing while reading. Then he gave his young pupil the ultimate challenge: He told him to apply for a job as a disc jockey at the college radio station.
His mentors were the teachers who took time to educate a boy who believed he was “stupid.” The mother who threatened him with the beating of his life if he didn’t go to college. The church elder who showed him that a black man could be good and decent, not like his alcoholic, philandering father and so many other black men he saw on the Baltimore streets.
He never was interested in emulating rappers or rockstars or ballplayers. He always wanted the tangible, the real, the people and things he could touch.
But sometimes that isn’t enough, he acknowledges softly.
He stood in front of the cameras during the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, in the heart of war-torn nations and natural disasters.
“During the most difficult parts in life, when what you can touch isn’t enough to help you, you rely on your faith in God,” he says. “I know who I am, and I know whose I am.”
Work hard, pray hard
In a South that lags behind in everything, especially education, Pitts says he feels at home. Having been the underdog for most of his life, he feels a kinship with the disadvantaged, disenfranchised, dismissed.
People discount Mississippi, he says. If parents could find the strength to make children accountable, if educators could find the strength to make parents accountable, if they would use things like sports to keep academically-challenged teenagers in school, the tide would shift in Mississippi’s favor.
He became a success through hard work, a mother who refused to give up and mentors who refused to let go. And if it worked for him, it will work for any child, he believes.
“If you work hard, pray hard, if you’re optimistic, a stumbling block becomes a stepping stone,” he says.
Stepping out on nothing and finding faith.
He was forged in the crucible of the Civil Rights era, learning the hard way that there were stores he could not enter to buy a candy bar, color lines he could not cross.
He saw firsthand the power journalists held, the way the police would turn off the fire hoses, lower their firearms, release their quarry as soon as the cameras showed up.
Today, he wields that power for good, seeking the shining moments of people at their best in the worst conditions. He feels blessed to witness the small kindnesses, the hands outstretched in need met by hands outstretched in aid. It reinforces his belief that humans are capable of infinite goodness and great, courageous things.
In 10 minutes, he will be in front of the camera again. In a few hours, he will be at a podium, facing a crowd. He will not be afraid. Journalism gave voice to the voiceless. And his words will not falter.