Can one journalist make a difference?
A documentary makes the case for one reporter, whose work from Mississippi may have proven more influential than any other during the height of the civil rights movement. And much of that work carried no byline.
“Bill Minor took risks to tell the story of what was happening in Mississippi,’’ Myrlie Evers, wife of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, says in the documentary. “But he also did something else. He gave us hope for a brighter future.”
Former New York Times journalist Claude Sitton called Minor a “first warning system” during the civil rights era, and Dr. Robert Smith, a veteran civil rights activist, said “the black community essentially had no access to the major press except through Bill.”
The 56-minute documentary is entitled “Eyes on Mississippi,” the name of the weekly column Minor wrote. Minor, a lifelong Catholic, World War II vet and son of a Louisiana linotype operator, began reporting from Mississippi for the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1947, later also working as an un-bylined “stringer” for the Times and Newsweek. He never left Mississippi, and kept writing his column nearly until his death in March 2017.
Director Ellen Ann Fentress, who had 40 hours of footage with Minor, shows the stories that tore at him — the circus-like atmosphere at the electrocution of a black man in Laurel, Mississippi; the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till; the riots and U.S. military intervention in the state to enroll a black student at the University of Mississippi; the swift police arrest of nine black college students for the “crime” of asking to borrow a book from the white public library in Jackson.
Also: The assassination of the NAACP’s Evers, a regular source, in the driveway of his Jackson home in June 1963. Also: The slaying of three civil rights workers in eastern Mississippi and the trial for those killings.
Minor covered that trial, in which a Mississippi court, for the first time, convicted white men for the killing of a black man, James Chaney. In fact, the judge asked Minor right before the trial if he knew any of the jurors, and the next day appointed Minor’s acquaintance as jury foreman. That move, Minor learned later, played a big role in the convictions.
“It’s hard to imagine today what a reign of terror existed in this state,” Minor says in one interview. It was a long effort to tell the truth that many local outlets, including the Jackson newspapers, had hidden about federal civil rights changes. “It makes you feel like you were put here for a reason,” Minor tells Fentress.
Former Gov. William Winter tells Fentress that Minor was about the only Mississippi journalist who was preparing state residents for the future, telling them they could not put their heads in the sand and imagine that Brown vs. Board of Education or the Voting Rights Act hadn’t occurred. Minor, who saw himself as a champion of the ordinary person, endured the ire of segregationists for decades afterward, as well as threats and a Klansman’s brick through his office window.
He could have worked anywhere, but Minor chose to stay in Mississippi, saying once, "I wanted to see how the story ended." So does Fentress, a native of Greenwood, Mississippi, who worked for Minor at the start of her journalistic career and now is the Times stringer in the state.
Did Minor make a difference? The New York Times called him the “conscience of Mississippi” in its obituary. Sitton said “no Southern newspaperman has done more for civil rights and civil liberties.” Fentress called Minor “the most essential reporter the nation has never heard of.”
That may be true, at least until the release of a broadcast version of her documentary later this year. Can’t wait to see it? Contact Fentress, who has has been showing an early version of the documentary to universities and other venues.
IRE Awards showcase accountability reporting
An award favorite and an international independent investigative unit took the two top prizes from the Investigative Reporters & Editors on Monday.
The New York Times reporting on Harvey Weinstein and sexual harassment on factory floors helped forge the #MeToo movement, and its work won both an IRE public service award and a prize for top print/online entry among big outlets. The package also had won an American Society of Newspaper Editors award last week.
Judges gave a public service and video/broadcast award to Bellingcat for “Killing Pavel,” a 49-minute documentary that uncovered new details in the 2016 car-bomb slaying of Ukrainian journalist Pavel Sheremet. Of the project, judges wrote: “Nothing could be more in the spirit of the IRE.”
CCTV footage of the two people believed to have planted the car-bomb. (Screengrab)
Among other winners:
"From Russia With Blood," by BuzzFeed News: Even before the nerve-gas poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter last month in Great Britain, there were a series of suspicious “suicides” in Britain and Washington that involved two Russian turncoats and three English citizens. The outlet’s investigation prompted authorities to reopen an inquiry and look more closely at Moscow’s role in the deaths.
"Deadly Decisions," Malheur Enterprise: This Oregon weekly newspaper fought a state agency that wanted to block documents in the killing of two people by a longtime ward of the state. It launched a GoFundMe drive to raise money for a lawyer to defend the journalist from a state lawsuit. The governor stepped in to support the paper and public records. “This work,” the judges wrote, “is proof that you don’t need a large staff and deep resources to move the needle on open records.”
"They Got Hurt at Work, Then They Got Deported," NPR and ProPublica: They were legally entitled to workers' compensation benefits, but insurance companies and Florida employers targeted these injured workers for denial of benefits and even deportation.
"The Pope's Long Con," The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting: State Rep. Danny Ray Johnson, a pastor who referred to himself as the pope of his flock, had a secret history: fraud and self-enrichment, including perjury and an insurance scam, and the sexual assault of a 17-year-old girl. Within hours, lawmakers called for Johnson’s resignation. Tragically, Johnson took his life days later.
Here is the full list of winners, including the Seattle Times, The Lens in New Orleans, WSMV-Nashville, WVUE-New Orleans, the San Francisco Chronicle and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The awards come two weeks before journalism’s most established awards, the Pulitzer Prizes, out April 16.
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What we’re reading
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HEARST AGAINST HEARST: Victoria Hearst won a battle against Cosmopolitan when Walmart banned it from the checkout counter of 5,000 outlets. Here’s the thing: Cosmo is published by her family.
NOT JUST 'FOLKS': Here's a plea for journalists to stop using tweets as measures of the public’s divergent views of an issue, noting the dozens of times “respectable” news outlets embedded tweets from Russia’s troll factory.
MARCH MADNESS: When not playing basketball, top NCAA teams were busy playing the video game Fortnite, the AP reports.
NEW RIVER: Deforestation and new fields for soybeans has brought a new feature to Argentina — a massive new river that cut through farmland overnight. Hat-tip: Frank Bajak.
20 FOR 20: High school senior Micheal Brown wants to become a lawyer someday, maybe a public defender. He has his choice of undergraduate opportunities, having been accepted to all 20 of the elite colleges to which he applied. No final choice yet, but here, from a shaky smartphone, is his joyful reaction — and that of his classmates — upon his acceptance to longtime favorite Stanford.
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