Academic journal article Journalism History

The ASNE and Desegregation: Maintaining the White Prerogative in the Face of Change

Academic journal article Journalism History

The ASNE and Desegregation: Maintaining the White Prerogative in the Face of Change

Article excerpt

During the 1950s, the American Society of Newspaper Editors became the site of an ideological struggle between the racial status quo and the new social order envisioned by the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. This article examines the all-white ASNE in the years after Brown as the racial exclusivity of the organization and the profession it represented were both questioned and reaffirmed. Using a variety of primary source documents, including ASNE publications, convention transcripts, and members' archival materials, this project isolates the ways in which the white prerogative reasserted itself through the exclusivity of the ASNE membership structure, the usage of regional history and identity by editors from the South, and the manipulation of the journalistic ideal of objectivity and First Amendment values.

In 1957, members of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) were invited to participate in a Civil War reenactment of sorts, a North-South tennis tournament to be played during the annual ASNE convention in Washington, D.C. The incoming ASNE president, Virginius Dabney, the editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and Grover C. Hall Jr., the editor of the Montgomery (Alabama) Advertiser, issued the challenge. "It would give the Hall-Dabney Confederate . . . team exquisite pleasure to trounce the best combination the damyankees can put into the field," Dabney wrote in the ASNE Bulletin, the organization's newsletter.1 Hall, who insisted "the Confederate Constitution was written in Montgomery, probably on an Advertiser letterhead,"2 was in charge of scheduling the matches. A few months later, the outcome of the doubles tournament was loosely reported in the Bulletin, accompanied by a Chick Larson cartoon showing a Confederate tennis player with his foot on the neck of his vanquished northern foe. While the account of this first tournament was decidedly tonguein-cheek-"it was not Pickett's charge, it was not Chancellorsville; it was not, at times, even good tennis"3-the tennis event became an assertion of Confederate identity that southern editors repeated annually into the 1960s.

That this tournament emerged at this moment in the ASNE's history is no coincidence. The Supreme Court's 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which declared segregated schools unconstitutional, challenged the racial status quo in American culture and focused scrutiny upon the ASNE's identity as a racially homogenous and exclusionary enclave as well as on the benefits that editors derived from their whiteness. Issues related to race had begun to appear on the annual convention program, and ASNE members expressed a range of opinions, from segregationist ranting to a tentative questioning of the all-white composition of the organization. In this respect, the ASNE replicated the fissures and shifts occurring in American culture, but it weathered the 1950s with its white identity challenged but still intact. The resiliency of the ASNE's white prerogative was apparent in a variety of ways. For example, despite integration's growing support in the North throughout the 1950s, notably on the editorial pages of many daily newspapers, the ASNE accommodated the segregationists within its ranks and granted southern members a higher profile in the organization-through stories about them in the Bulletin, participation on annual convention programs, assignment to prestigious committees, and election to the board-than they had enjoyed prior to Brown. Viewed in this context, the tennis tournament became both a metaphor for the segregation challenged by Brown and a re-affirmation of the ASNE's stake in whiteness.

Used like this, whiteness does not refer specifically to white skin, a racial category, or the white supremacist ideology that is manifested in overt racism.4 Rather whiteness is a power differential that asserts certain persons are superior to others, and in this way whiteness represents social privilege. …

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