The Embrace of Principled Stands: During the Civil Rights Era, a Few Newspaper Owners, Editors and Reporters Risked Their Lives and Livelihoods by Supporting Supreme Court Rulings and Desegregation

By Roberts, Gene; Klibanoff, Hank | Nieman Reports, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

The Embrace of Principled Stands: During the Civil Rights Era, a Few Newspaper Owners, Editors and Reporters Risked Their Lives and Livelihoods by Supporting Supreme Court Rulings and Desegregation


Roberts, Gene, Klibanoff, Hank, Nieman Reports


Buford Boone's years as an FBI agent introduced him to fear, I but nothing like he felt when he climbed the stairs inside the Tuscaloosa courthouse in January 1957 to face a seething, racist mob of white men and women. Boone--who had returned to his first career, newspapers, and become editor and publisher of The Tuscaloosa News--had taken a strong and overwhelmingly unpopular stand that the University of Alabama ought to enroll and protect its first black student, Autherine Lucy. And he had decried the thugs who swarmed on campus and tried to attack her as she headed toward classes.

Now he was about to encounter the West Alabama Citizens' Council, which had enough clout to gain use of a courtroom for their meeting. He had been invited to explain his position. Then he had been uninvited--out of concern that he would be physically attacked.

He went anyway. In spite of the hissing and jeering, he started talking. "It is not the easiest speaking assignment I ever have accepted," he said. "But I believe the problem of segregation and integration is one that needs to be discussed rationally, fully and intelligently."

He added, "I believe the Supreme Court decision had to come and was morally right." The mocking continued, accompanied by a threat to throw him out the window. But he kept talking. "Nothing in it is inconsistent with my conception of democracy...." (1)

Risks Worth Taking

Boone, who held his own and survived the night, was one of a small group of liberal and moderate Southern editors, probably no more than 20 at any one time, who risked the anger of their readers as well as circulation and advertiser boycotts to urge compliance with the Supreme Court's school desegregation decisions of 1954 and 1955. Reporters and photographers, too, braved mobs, bottles, bricks and gunfire to report on the civil rights struggle. They painted a picture of white supremacist and segregationist excesses that American voters, ultimately, could not ignore.

Many editors were not even integrationists, or didn't start out that way. They urged little more than compliance with the law. But they paid a heavy price even for that stand. During the Central High School desegregation crisis in Little Rock in 1957, Harry Ashmore and J.N. Heiskell, editor and owner of the Arkansas Gazette, editorialized, sometimes on the front page, that the national interest must prevail over regionalism and that the Supreme Court must be obeyed to avert anarchy. Their newspaper suffered severe circulation drops and lost an amount equivalent to $13 million today. But they didn't alter their views a bit.

The owners of the main black newspaper in town, the Arkansas State Press, lost even more. In 1950, when Ebony magazine asked black editors to write the headline they most wanted to see in their news-papers, L.C. and Daisy Bates wrote the most ambitious of them all: "South Abolishes All Jim Crow." They wrote their newspaper--and in her advocate's role, Daisy ran the local NAACP and led the nine black students who integrated Central High School--with the same gutsy ambition. They remained bold even as their national advertising base disappeared. They kept the paper on life support until 1959, when it finally gave out and died.

Some editors responded fearlessly to brutality. L. Alex Wilson was highly respected and influential in the black community and among white politicians and professionals in Memphis, where he was editor of the Tri-State Defender, a black weekly. But on the streets of Little Rock, where he and three other black journalists walked toward Central High, the lanky, impeccably dressed editor was treated with the indignity of a slave. Surrounded by a scrum of angry white men, he was taunted, slapped and pushed to the ground. He rose, quietly retrieved his hat, and tried to walk forward when he was kicked repeatedly from behind. …

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