Wednesday, May 23, 2007
People come up and thank me all the time for being "daring." Or "courageous." Or "fearless." No, the Jackson Free Press is not particularly daring or courageous (although admittedly we can be a bit fearless now and then). We're just trying to do our job the best we can. Sometimes we succeed better than others. But "daring"? Not really. Unless you mean willing to risk angering an advertiser or a reader when we tell an unpopular truth.
That's the price we pay as journalists.
When people start talking about the JFP's so-called courage, my mind always jumps back in time. My greatest inspirations as an editor are journalism greats who came before me, back when it was "daring" and "courageous" for a white person to be seen riding with an African American, or serving one at their lunch counter or—heaven forbid—calling for an end to Jim Crow and Klan violence.
The list of heroic Mississippi editors and publishers from the past is sadly short, but it's stocked with the names of people who knew fear, and what it was like to stand up in the face of serious threats. Medgar Evers and RLT Smith of the Mississippi Free Press (where we got our name). Hazel Brannon Smith of the Lexington Advertiser and the Northside Reporter here in Jackson, who was bombed and boycotted for standing up to bigots (and printing the Mississippi Free Press). Hodding Carter Jr. (and his son Hodding III) who infuriated the White Citizens Council back when the Delta Democrat Times was a real newspaper (whose family would drop to the floor when a car backfired because they thought it was gunshots). Oliver Emmerich of the McComb Enterprise, who bucked the status quo (and whose journalistic progeny, sadly, support it in papers like the current-day Delta Democrat Times and the local Northside Sun).
In my hometown of Philadelphia, where violent Klan activity marked my early childhood, there was a newspaperman from Meridian who took over the Neshoba Democrat in the midst of the heat of the Civil Rights Movement. Like other "hero" editors (all but the MFP), Stanley Dearman did not suddenly emerge as defiantly progressive on the "race issue"—he would have been bombed out of town. And frankly, to read the words of these heroic editors, being a hero back then really meant that you did not buy the ugliness and violence hook, line and boycotts, like so many in the white community did.
In other words, the state of race relations—or white supremacy, to be honest—were so extreme in Mississippi that a white editor could be deemed a "hero" just for saying that black kids ought to be able to go to school, too—not necessarily to the same school as whites. Just to school.
The story of these editors in many ways is the story of the evolution of white Mississippi. Carter Jr., who is now deceased, wrote candidly about the changes he had to go through—from his upbringing as a segregationist to a man willing to stand up against an angry Citizens Council willing to boycott him for challenging the horrendous strictures of Jim Crow. Dearman is frank that both he, and his community, had a long way to go and a lot to learn back when he took over the newspaper in 1966 (from a man who had declared in the paper that the murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were a "hoax" by "outside agitators").
One doesn't usually become a hero overnight; the road is usually long and bumpy. The same goes for becoming a good journalist.
Dearman, who retired in 2001 after leading the Democrat for 44 years, spent his aging years calling for long-overdue justice for the murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner in my hometown in 1964. I drove up to Oxford recently to watch him accept the Silver Em award, a distinguished journalistic honor awarded each year by the Ole Miss journalism school to a journalist from Mississippi. He was honored, in large part, because of these recent years of devotion to justice in that case, for writing an editorial calling for justice in 2000 in a town that still barely talked about the case, for helping form the multiracial Philadelphia Coalition to call for prosecutions in the case (leading to the conviction and incarceration of Edgar Ray Killen in 2005).
In his remarks at the awards dinner and then early the next morning to journalism students in a packed classroom, Dearman told them that it was simply his job to do "good journalism." And good journalism consists of reporting the truth—even in a place where people were afraid to speak up about what was right.
"The majority of the people in that community were good people," he told the students. "They just didn't express themselves on much of anything."
To do good journalism, he said, he had to learn to live with the repercussions of challenging beliefs people held dear. "If you're interested in being in a popularity contest, you're in the wrong business," he said.
He wasn't just referring to the "race question"—Dearman also told the journalism students about his weekly newspaper taking on corruption in Neshoba County. He told of a hospital administrator who had paid off the board of trustees and "put $35,000 of hospital money in his pocket."
"Talk about corruption," he added, shaking his head.
He also had to take on the bootleggers—a lucrative industry in "dry" counties where law enforcement officials often were on the take even as they arrested people for building stills or for possessing alcohol in the city limits. Dearman said bootleggers were hauling whisky in from Missouri where they could get it cheaper. These organized criminals would arrest those who wouldn't buy the booze from the right source and have them put in jail. The bootleggers also had the grand jury stacked, he said.
This journalistic hero of mine—whose paper first published me when I was in high school—also talked about the victimization of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, which is based in Neshoba County, especially from illegal businesses that set up shop around the reservation.
I listened with rapt attention from my spot on the steps at the back of the classroom. I didn't know all this stuff about my hometown; I've long agonized over our civil rights history, but I didn't know about the corruption and the newspaperman who was daring to fight unsavory characters—many of whom were "upstanding" citizens—by doing good, factual journalism.
Dearman—a man who has witnessed the worst in many of our neighbors—was careful to point out that he believes that most of the people around him were good people, and when he did his most daring journalism, they stood by him and the truth.
"People came down on the side of law and order," he said, "and that was very gratifying."
Listening to Mr. Dearman talk about those 44 years, though, I realized that people do not always come down on the side of law and order overnight. It takes good people like him in the community, willing to fight the "worthy scrap," as our mutual friend Dick Molpus calls the good fight, over the long haul to help a community grow.
And it takes the kind of journalism that is oblivious to corporate whim, journalism willing to ruffle feathers—what Dearman calls "published with a good intention"—to give people the facts they need in order to make good decisions.
Thank you, Mr. Dearman, for your tireless service and for inspiring young journalists to try to do a fraction of what you have done for us. We owe you big time.
What a rich journalistic history we have in this state! Thank you, Donna. (sniff). Is this information also in a book I could read? Oh, yeah, what was Dearman, first name?
Thanks for pointing that out, L.W. I just fixed it: It's Stanley Dearman. That must have happened in last-minute editing. Argh. I'll run a correction in the paper next week too. I also should have included Forrest Johnson who was the editor of the very daring Miss-Lou Observer in Natchez in the 1960s. Now HE stood straight up in the face of the Klan then. That was true courage as well.
Oops, I don't know how "Dearman's" turned into "Dearman,".
"To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing." Elbert Hubbard I love this quote about courage.
Vert nice column. Great perspective. I finally read it at lunch.
- Ray Carter