When I returned to New Orleans in January 1946 after two years of Navy combat service in the Pacific, I started the job I had been promised three years earlier after graduating from Tulane University with a degree in journalism. The local Times-Picayune hired me as a general assignment reporter, then 18 months later sent me to report from Jackson, Mississippi's capital.
Though based in Louisiana, the newspaper was widely read in south Mississippi. We had first sent a reporter to Mississippi in 1890 to cover its constitutional convention at which the delegates wrote a "black code" filled with various traps to keep black people from participating in the political process. Those included literacy tests and poll taxes that would be required for voting. This constitution stands today, though these sections and others have been amended in more recent times.
On my arrival I had no inkling that in a decade, long-somnolent blacks in Mississippi who accounted for roughly 45 percent of the state's population would be demanding and marching to break the bonds of segregation, and a civil rights revolution would explode across the state. When I came to Jackson I assumed I would cover the governor, legislature and the state's gothic one-party Democratic politics. Yet as I began to hear rumblings of what would soon emerge as the civil rights movement, I knew I needed to develop new reporting skills as I started to build contacts in the black communities. As a one-man bureau, aside from continuing to cover the white political establishment, I had to get to know those who were emerging as leaders in black activist organizations.
As unrest percolated among blacks, white Mississippians, by and large, were not able to reconcile their loss of the Civil War. They were determined to prevent blacks from voting or using public facilities, including schools, churches, restrooms, hotels, swimming pools, and recreation fields. Anywhere whites went, they prohibited blacks from being there. After all, they had a state constitution in place to perpetuate this system, even if its "black code" provisions set it on a collision course with the federal constitution and the courts. As long as the rest of the country—most of all the federal courts and Congress—looked the other way, white supremacy would reign in Mississippi.
With the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that segregated public schools were unconstitutional, followed a decade later by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the old ways in Mississippi were changing. As a white reporter who was fundamentally liberal and sympathetic toward the cause of civil rights (and a Roman Catholic in a predominantly Baptist state), my job was changing, too. For one thing, it was becoming a lot more difficult to do.
The Civil Rights Beat
I realized that I had to be cautious to protect my flanks. I couldn't afford to isolate myself from news sources in Mississippi's white power structure, nearly all of whom were diehard segregationists, while I worked the story of what was happening with blacks. In time, I found ways to loosen Mississippi's tight grip on information critical to understanding what was happening. I put my hands on a hidden education department report that revealed huge disparities in the salaries paid to white and black teachers and the money provided for libraries in each school district in the state. I also wrote stories using statewide records through which I discovered that the state knew the voting ages of some 400,000 blacks from the early 1960's; yet only 21,000 of them had been put on its voter registration rolls. When the Southern Regional Council brought this information to the attention of Congress, it influenced passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
By the 1950's and into the early 1960's, Mississippi's whites were stiffening their resolve to resist change. Politically powerful white Citizens' Councils had been created to enforce segregation. Hodding Carter, editor of the Greenville (Miss.) Delta Democrat-Times, called them "uptown" Klan. They were only disbanded after riots at the University of Mississippi in 1962 endangered the white elite's sons and daughters. State officials, such as Governor Ross Barnett and law enforcement, had abetted the Citizens' Councils' efforts as the struggle for the soul of Mississippi got under way. Whatever connections of racial understanding moderate Mississippians had built were torn asunder.
|Marshals descended on the University of Mississippi in 1962 when rioting broke out as James Meredith became its first black student. Photo by The Associated Press.
In the fall of 1962, Barnett resisted federal court orders for the University of Mississippi to admit James Meredith, a 29-year-old black Air Force veteran, to its all-white school. On the day he went there to enroll, hundreds of nonstudents from a half dozen states poured onto the campus after state troopers suddenly got into their patrol cars and left checkpoints unguarded. The bloody campus riot that ensued, in which two people were killed and 80 federal marshals accompanying Meredith were injured, was quelled only when President John F. Kennedy dispatched 25,000 federal troops.
After spending most of the night in Jackson, keeping an eye on the Governor's Mansion because of reports that federal marshals would be arresting Barnett, I flew to the campus in Oxford on a private airplane I had chartered. I could hear gunfire when I arrived, but as dawn broke soldiers with bayonets were rounding up the last of the rioters. I wrote what I saw and told what I had learned about the riot's instigators. Through the mid-1960's, I reported on the escalation of violence as black churches were burned and bombed and murders of blacks by Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members and others were carried out with virtual impunity.
Black leaders, such as Medgar Evers, who had brought demonstrators into the streets to peacefully protest for voting rights and access to public facilities, were assassinated; Evers was ambushed in the driveway of his Jackson home and though the rifle was found with fingerprints of a known white racist, prosecutors failed in two trials to convict Byron De La Beckwith before white juries. Thirty years later, a racially mixed jury convicted him of the murder. Uniquely among Mississippi journalists, I covered Beckwith's initial trials and decades later when justice finally was done.
After 30 years as the paper's Mississippi correspondent, the paper closed the Jackson bureau as it drastically cut back its coverage and distribution in Mississippi. They offered me several job possibilities, among them was to assist the one person in the Washington, D.C. bureau, but at half his salary. Since a move would mean that I'd also lose my jobs as Mississippi stringer for Newsweek and The New York Times and have to sell a debt-free home in Jackson, I took the paper's retirement package, pitiful as it was.
Reacting to News
There was another reason I stayed in Jackson. The previous year I'd become owner of a small weekly paper in Jackson. The paper wasn't doing well. This was a newsman's dream—I'd be the editor (and publisher) of my own newspaper, write editorials, and even come up with headlines for my stories. All that I had absorbed in covering civil rights I could now put to full use. I hired a few eager young, local college graduates and we transformed what had been little more than a bulletin board for Little League baseball scores and social meetings into The Capital Reporter, a hard-hitting investigative paper, something unseen in the state.
When we stepped on the toes of the president of Jackson's biggest bank, we lost whatever Main Street business advertising we had. When we took on the longtime, corrupt district attorney, bricks were thrown though the window of our office in a warehouse district. Late in 1977, we started to tackle the comeback of the KKK in Mississippi. In response, a cross wrapped in kerosene-soaked rags was set ablaze just past midnight outside our building. Fortunately, an off-duty fireman passing by was able to extinguish it.
Several months later, only minutes after I had left the office late one night, rifle shots were fired into the front of the office. The police told us that the shots came from a Nazi army rifle. Through the benevolence of a lawyer who owned a two-story building downtown, we moved to a safer location. He also helped us financially for several months, but it wasn't enough. Our shoestring existence depended on subscriptions for revenue. We didn't have enough.
Six years after I bought the paper, I was forced to shut it down. There was some consolation when Southern Illinois University presented its Elijah Lovejoy Award to me as the nation's most courageous weekly editor. In the meantime I had begun syndicating my political column, Eyes on Mississippi, to a dozen or so of the state's newspapers, and at age 89, I still do. I continue to receive hate letters, as I always have in the six decades I've written about this state. Still, there are some in the state, as there are outside of it, who describe my reporter's voice as being the conscience of Mississippi.
It might have happened 60 years ago, but I won't ever forget the smell of burning flesh when I witnessed the state's execution of a black man in its crudely built wooden electric chair after his questionable conviction on charges of raping a white woman. I've watched, too, the wonderment of rural Mississippians when telephone service was brought into their community.
In these years, I've seen and heard it all—and chronicled most of it, beginning with my first assignment in August 1947. I reported on the two-day funeral of U.S. Senator Theodore G. Bilbo, a fire-breathing race baiter who Life magazine branded the "worst man in the Senate." Virtually every Mississippi politician of any significance—whether they loathed "the Man" or adored the red suspender-wearing, piney-woods politician—came to pay his respects. That day the conversation was generally optimistic that with Bilbo's passing Mississippi could close a dark chapter in its history and that a more enlightened political dialogue would emerge. Were it only to be so.
Wilson F. "Bill" Minor has covered Mississippi since 1947, as a correspondent for The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune, editor of The Capital Reporter, and now as a political columnist for several Mississippi newspapers. In 1966 the Nieman Foundation recognized him with its Louis Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism, and in 1997 he became the first recipient of the John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism, then given by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication.