[This article originally appeared in the April 1962 issue of Nieman Reports.]
In “Absolom, Absolom!,” one of William Faulkner’s great Gothic novels of Yoknapatawpha county, Quinten Compson goes to Harvard and is questioned endlessly by his Canadian roommate and others: “Tell about the South. What’s it like there? Why do they live there? Why do they live at all?” Young Compson has some trouble describing the incredible state of affairsback home.
That was 1910. Today, Yoknapatawpha County, after being left alone for more than 80 years, is undergoing rather drastic, externally wrought changes. Telling about it can be fraught with difficulty, if not for the novelist, for the journalist who must live there.
I have found some curiosity among newspapermen about how racial news is covered in the Deep South. Implied in the questioning is this: What strange set of circumstances shapes news coming from the South, and how do we know some of it is not being suppressed?
It would be no overstatement to say the Deep South is a unique region and the reporter responsible for writing about it for both local and external consumption undergoes a unique experience. Circumstances do shape his copy but usually not in the way the uninitiated might suspect.
My purpose here is to explain some of the problems involved and the framework in which the reporter must function. To do so, I must confine myself to Mississippi, still the hard core of the Deep South, and to my point of view as a wire service reporter. In doing so, however, the problems—shared to some degree by all reporters in the region—can be presented in acute form.
It is necessary first to give a brief description of social and political conditions. There is running through the South what is commonly called the black belt. Its characteristics include an agrarian economy, a large Negro population, and ultra-conservative opinion in economic and social matters on the part of its white leadership. Virtually the same climate of opinion exists in all black belt counties whether they be in North Carolina, Tennessee or Alabama.
The difference in Mississippi is that these counties cover almost the entire state and there is no large urban area or extensive coastline to mitigate the black belt influence such as exists in, say, Louisiana or Georgia. Black belt thinking has permeated all facets of public life, and it dominates the civic and business leadership of Jackson, the capital and largest city, as well as most other larger communities in the state.
Neither the federal government nor civil rights organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chose to press for equal rights for Negroes in the hard-core areas of segregation until changes had been made in the border states. For six years following the Supreme Court’s 1954 desegregation decision, Mississippi was an anxious spectator while the federal courts slowly brought about integration in some areas of life in surrounding states. With each decision and with each racial incident white opposition to any change in the status of the Negro hardened. The moderates were neutralized.
Thus, in 1961, when the civil rights front moved into Mississippi in the form of freedom rides, Justice Department intervention in voting, numerous federal court lawsuits, and demonstrations by local Negroes, the resistance was something like dragging an angry tomcat by his tail across a thick carpet.
It would take several columns to describe adequately the climate of opinion existing in the white community at this time. It will do here to state that news reporters are not the most popular people around. The least of the problems for the reporter, however, are the threat of being mauled in places like McComb and procedural difficulties. A few examples will suffice.
We cover Mississippi from Jackson with a five-man UPI bureau. It is customary to maintain part-time correspondents in most areas of the state to protect us on breaking news. Usually these people work for newspapers or radio stations and are an integral part of their community. The average community is engaged in an all-out drive for industry to stem population losses and bring in much needed prosperity. More than almost anything else its chamber of commerce does not want the name of the town associated with racial strife. As a result we are not likely to be tipped on a story with a racial angle by anyone in the community. (This is not true, generally, in counties where a daily newspaper is published, but they are few and far between.)
Instead, it is likely to come from a Negro leader, and usually it has come to him by a devious route. One day last summer an NAACP leader in Jackson called in a report that a plantation hand in a remote county had been lynched by his landlord and his sheriff. He said the report had come from Chicago from a relative of the victim. John Garcia, a staff reporter, spent several hours on the telephone trying to find out what had happened, but no one would claim any knowledge of the alleged incident. The sheriff went so far as to say he had seen the youth who was reported dead “hanging around town” that very morning. But when he was pressed for more information he spouted profanity and ungrammatical denials. Garcia moved a brief story on the basis of what the NAACP leader and the sheriff had said. In it, he cleaned up the sheriff’s speech except for one phrase with bad grammar, perhaps to retain some degree of realism. This prompted a call from a client editor who complained that he knew the sheriff to be a college graduate and we were slanting the news by making him appear illiterate. It was not until later in the day that we found out what the story really was. We sent a staff reporter, Ted Smith, to the scene, 100 miles away. He found that the young man in question was in jail and had been there for three days charged with assault and battery on his landlord.
The defendant’s mother told Smith she saw her son severely beaten, without provocation, by the sheriff and the landlord, and he had been taken to a hospital for treatment before being jailed. At the jail, Smith found the youth had been questioned by an FBI agent. But the sheriff would not let Smith interview him and sent Smith away from the jail. By this time people around town were beginning to grumble about UPI “stirring up trouble,” and Smith left town under threat.
The FBI reported it found no ground for entering the case, and its findings were not disclosed. The story probably rated no more than two paragraphs on the national wires, although we carried the details locally. One news bureau was spent and frustrated.
Southern police usually are cordial to newspapermen. Jackson police were during the freedom rides last summer. Recently, they used police dogs to break up a crowd of Negroes who were protesting segregation of the state fair. Several were chased for blocks, and one bystander, who had nothing to do with the demonstration, was bitten on the leg. A reporter went to the hospital to interview him. Everything was fine, it seemed. The city had bought him a new pair of pants and the mayor, Allen Thompson, had sent his apologies. This seemed nice of the mayor, and it was included in the story.
But it had no sooner appeared than the telephone started ringing. One call was from Chief Detective M.B. Pierce to Bureau Manager Cliff Sessions. He said the mayor was upset by the story. He had offered no apologies and owed none. The man should have moved if he did not want to be bitten. We stood accused of irresponsible reporting.
When the Interstate Commerce Commission order against segregated travel facilities went into effect November 1, UPI checked several cities to see whatthey would do about it. Most planned to continue segregation, but the mayors of Winona and Grenada said they would comply with the ICC order. But they had not reckoned with Citizens’ Council leaders who leaped into action as soon as the story appeared. The mayor of Winona explained he thought he had been talking to an ICC agent rather than to a reporter. The mayor of Grenada said in a formal statement he was misquoted, and the chamber of commerce and city council adopted resolutions condemning “false” news reports, all of which were carried in full in The Grenada Sentinel-Star without explanation. I wrote a personal letter to Publisher Joe Lee:
“It was perfectly clear that when the Citizens’ Council people put the screws on your mayor, then came the statements of denial, resolutions, etc. It doesn’t matter to us what they do about the bus stations in Grenada, but it is news that has to be covered. And I sure resent being used as a scapegoat for a public official who is forced to back down from his prearranged plan.”
Lee agreed and printed the letter in full on page one. We never heard from the mayor.
Usually we don’t come out smelling as sweet. In one city we were harassed by the newspaper and both radio stations for reporting some behind-the-scenes developments that did not fit the official version of what happened.
These are not isolated incidents. Everyone is emotionally involved. Persons who never before paid attention to news coverage have suddenly become experts on how the delicate subject should be handled. For a long time we were told that the activities and statements of integration leaders were not news because they did not have enough following to give them substance. That is seldom heard now. Most complaints concern the way the news is worded. For example, when Memphis integrated three schools we relayed this abbreviated version on the state radio wire:
“(Memphis, Tennessee)—Thirteen children ended more than a century of school segregation in Memphis today. They romped and played with their white classmates then left for home half an hour early. The children were accompanied from the schools by their parents and whisked away in automobiles about 2:30 this afternoon. The white students were dismissed at the regular 3 o’clock time.
A policeman reported earlier that he saw two Negro girls skipping rope with some white youngsters at one of the three schools integrated. A Negro boy was seen running hand in hand with a new-found white friend at another school.
The whites and Negroes ate at the same tables in the cafeteria and put away their dirty dishes together.
There was none of the bloodshed and violence that erupted at Little Rock and New Orleans when schools were integrated.”
This prompted an “official protest” from a subscriber. “Why can’t you report the facts without romancing the Negro race?”
The reporter begins to feel he is in a straitjacket. While he may not acknowledge criticism as being justified, he may find himself writing without direction. He is inclined to turn out deadpan copy when interpretive reporting may be in order.
Newspapers, by and large, understand the problems involved and the reporter’s need for freedom. There is considerable sensitivity to the fact that newspapers outside the South frequently play down racial strife in their own cities and play it up under a Southern dateline. There is a feeling that every incident is played nationally. Actually, the great bulk of that reported never goes beyond the state wires. There simply is not room, and probably no demand, for all of it on the trunk wires.
This leads to another problem. We feel a responsibility to report this type of news in some detail. It is used by subscribers, and it is felt that justice is more apt to prevail in the light of publicity. In doing so, however, we load our wires with it, and the energy of the news staff is consumed in tracking it down. Taken in large doses it can be pretty dreary stuff. Some days more than half the stories on the wire pertain either directly or indirectly to the race issue.
Dealing with the subject day in and day out the reporter may acquire a strange sense of imbalance. He may become preoccupied by this one issue and find himself a stranger to the larger, more important events in the world today, a provincial fellow.
There is, I believe, a need for a new approach in reporting the kind of social change that is going on in the South today. Certainly deadpan rendering of facts is not helping to bridge the gap of misunderstanding that exists between races and groups involved. Why does the Main Street banker persist in thinking all integration leaders are wild-eyed Godless radicals saturated by Communism, when many of them are deeply religious and in many ways conservative? Why do some liberals always categorize all white segregationists as irresponsible, insensitive lawbreakers, when frequently they are acting in conviction out of a lifetime of conditioning to their “way of life”? Why, unless there has been some breakdown in communications, whether through mass media or otherwise? It cannot all be attributed to blind prejudice.
Obviously, there is a limit to what wire services can do under the most favorable circumstances. Most newspapers seem content to continue under the old formulas. Last summer, during trial of a lawsuit for admission of a Negro to the University of Mississippi, an unusual opportunity presented itself for conveying some of the deeper meaning involved. The trial was conducted in a federal courtroom under a giant mural painted in the 1930’s by a WPA artist. It was meant to depict rebuilding of the South but within the stereotyped framework of the Old South—forward-looking whites working and planning in front of a large columned building with magnolia trees and a steamboat in the background, while Negroes, segregated, pick cotton or strum a banjo.
The scene below was different—a well-dressed Negro youth on the stand asking for admission to Ole Miss, an outrageous request if placed in juxtaposition with the mural, and vice versa; a dark-skinned woman lawyer with a Grecian profile demanding, and getting, a court instruction on the correct pronunciation of “Negro” for benefit of the white attorneys; a gesticulating state attorney with a Tidewater Virginia accent deploying an array of dilatory tactics.
Those two scenes told a lot about the way things are and the way people think they are, about the past and about the future. We moved a story on it. It wasn’t a great piece but it was a fresh approach, and it told more than any story of the trite testimony in the trial. It drew compliments from other journalists, but that was as far as it got. I had a hard time finding it in print.
Most newspapers from outside the region have played the Southern integration story from the point of view that it—the court-ordered change—is morally right, the law of the land, and inevitable. Obviously, the wire services cannot do this, and they should not be asked to any more than they should be asked to write from the point of view of the Main Street banker who looks on freedom riders as the lawbreakers, considers state segregation laws superior to U.S. Supreme Court rulings, and looks forward to the day when the courts will return to William Graham and Plessy vs. Ferguson. Wire services can and should maintain a vigilant watch for any violation of individual or group freedoms guaranteed to all citizens of the United States and report the truth as nearly as it can be ascertained. Finding and reporting the truth has become a good deal more difficult than it used to be, and it probably will become worse before it’s better. There is a need, as never before, for highly competent, skeptical reporters who can, if nothing else, keep the record straight.
All of John Herbers’ 13 years as a newspaperman have been in Mississippi, the last 10 with the UPI bureau in Jackson, the capital. He became Bureau Manager in 1953 and State Manager in 1959. Born in Memphis, his education was at Tampa University and Emory University, Georgia, and as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard last year.