Sept. 22, 2010 12:00

Hal Sieber: Peacemaker, man of letters and political mover

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Hal Sieber was recovering from a stroke at St. Simon Island in Georgia when he received a visit from John Marshall Kilimanjaro, publisher of the Carolina Peacemaker.

 

“He made the statement that I could do more in one hour than most people could do in a week,” Sieber recalled. “And he said that’s the kind of person in charge he wanted — somebody who knew how to delegate and somebody who knew how to get things done.”

Sieber became the editor of the Peacemaker, a weekly newspaper that serves a primarily African-American readership in Greensboro, in 1988, and served in that capacity for six or seven years. There were rarely clean demarcations in Sieber’s working relationship with Kilimanjaro, and he described the transitions as “phasing in, phasing out, undulating in the ocean of change.” In the 1990s, Sieber would shift focus to consulting for the nonprofit lowincome homebuilder Project Homestead, and then return to the Peacemaker in the early 2000s to work as its opinion editor.

Sieber and Kilimanjaro’s relationship went back to before Sieber came to Greensboro in 1966 to work for the chamber of commerce and before Kilimanjaro founded the Peacemaker in 1967.

“I recognized he was the publisher of the paper, and as publisher had become a political force in the community,” Sieber said. “Secondly, I had know him for many years before even coming to the chamber of commerce, and recognized him as a civil rightsrelated community leader. And that’s the opposite of political.”

Kilimanjaro had been a renowned theater professor at A&T before founding the Peacemaker, and continued to teach. Sieber also worked for A&T in the early 1970s, making the two professional colleagues, as well as friends.

“He was a big national figure at the head of the theater association, and I liked plays,” Sieber said. “And I got to appreciate the theater arts more, and he got to appreciate the written arts more. And as a writer I was beginning to become respected around the theater community.”

The details of particular areas of coverage and names colleagues were not readily accessible in Sieber’s recollection during an interview that was interrupted by a lunch delivery from a volunteer from Mobile Meals at his apartment in southwest Greensboro. Sieber’s philosophical outlook, poetic disposition and preoccupation with the process of history blend into the telling of those years.

Sieber recalled visits from former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, who would launch two unsuccessful electoral challenges to Sen. Jesse Helms in 1990 and 1996.

“Because I was editor, Harvey Gantt would come up here to see me, I guess to make sure I’d be on his side,” Sieber said. “And I enjoyed getting to know him.” Sieber describes his years as editor of the Peacemaker as transitional times for Greensboro, much like the present.

The Klan-Nazi killings that took place in Morningside Homes in 1979 had left their mark, not the least on the city’s political establishment, in Sieber’s view.

“First of all, not only were the trials over, more or less, at the same time the impact was not over, as far as Greensboro was concerned,” he said, “which wanted to make sure that that wasn’t the one thing that people always associated with Greensboro because it was a lot to Greensboro besides that.”

As Sieber sees it, progressives in Greensboro operated from a position of strength.

“The lingering allegations about police always being on the side of big business and being on the side of really conservative, reactionary type of thinking, which was really not the case in Greensboro because the local leadership knew that the civil rights leadership and the black leadership and the white liberal leadership as a combination and separately were very forceful and needed to be reconciled to the changes that were taking place,” he said.

Still, the Peacemaker under Sieber’s editorial leadership made tactical compromises.

Asked about the impact of the newspaper in that era, Sieber replied, “If the reputation of Greensboro was one of strength and accomplishment, it showed that a lot of things that were done could be done, including an eventual housing program.

“It also showed that the community wouldn’t have to collapse just because it had to compromise a little bit to stay alive,” he continued. “I say a little bit because that was the impression at the time. Now, I wonder whether we compromised too much; I don’t know. The word ‘compromise’ is not really the right word; it should really be ‘went along with’ because even thought the Peacemaker was up in the forefront it still was making concessions.”

Sieber worked to make the Peacemaker’s coverage vital and current.

“I didn’t want to highlight anything that wasn’t true,” he said. “And I didn’t want to highlight anything that was speculative. I didn’t want to highlight the past; I want to highlight the future. Wanted to highlight the future.”

The newspaper’s reputation was already established, and Sieber viewed his responsibility as sustaining its impact.

“It wasn’t a matter of what I hoped; it had it,” he said. “And I went along with the impact. To me, the paper had a tremendous impact in Greensboro and ultimately even internationally by extension of its coverage and Greensboro’s reputation.”

There were subtle differences between the way the Peacemaker and the daily News & Record covered stories, from Sieber’s perspective.

“The News & Record wouldn’t cover the reaction to a Klan visit in any big way because it didn’t want to dramatize the Klan’s visit, in accordance with the rules of most hush factors,” he said. “The News & Record wouldn’t cover what the black community had to say or the white community had to say about changes taking place in the civil rights vision because it was such a small portion of the total American package of civil rights in the United States.”

There was a lot to enjoy about having the bully pulpit of the editing chair at a newspaper such as the Peacemaker.

“Being white and editing a black newspaper,” Sieber said. “And having a chance to air my civil rights and political visions. And having my time to write poetry.”

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