On matters of race, the history of American newspapers is generally a bleak one, but then so is the history of the country. I was born in 1948, and I am shocked to the point of despair any time I am reminded that the indignities heaped upon the descendants of slaves, including the worst kinds of violent crimes, have happened not in some age long ago, but during my lifetime.
That these crimes — including torture and lynchings — should occur either with nonchalant disregard or active encouragement of newspaper leaders turns my natural skepticism into corrosive cynicism at the stroke of a single bloody anecdote. While many of the perpetrators of racial hatred and their victims are now dead, their history must be remembered. Efforts to apologize for that history — like the one described here by leaders at the Orlando Sentinel are remarkable — but not heroic.
The heroes of racial progress — my mentor Gene Patterson reminded me time and again — were the young black men and women who put their bodies on the line during the struggles for civil rights. Patterson always mentioned Rep. John Lewis as an example. African-American journalists who covered the voting rights protests in the South are generally underappreciated, except in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Race Beat” by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff.
In my own work I have often called attention to the work of white editorialists in the South, journalists who wrote against the tide of their culture and kinfolk. A favorite book is the anthology “Pulitzer Prize Editorials” (1917-1979), edited by W. David Sloan. Check out this sample of Pulitzer winners over the years:
1920: Harvey E. Newbranch, the Omaha Evening World-Herald, for an editorial “Law and the Jungle,” condemning mob violence that resulted in the burning of a courthouse and lynching of a black man.
1928: Grover Cleveland Hall, the Montgomery Advertiser, “for his editorials against gangsterism, floggings and racial and religious intolerance.”
1929: Louis Isaac Jaffe, Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, for his editorial titled “An Unspeakable Act of Savagery,” condemning lynching and encouraging action to prevent it.
1946: Hodding Carter, the Delta Democrat-Times (Greenville, Mississippi), for work attacking the Klan and those in government and law enforcement who supported it.
1957: Buford Boone, Tuscaloosa (Alabama) News, for his calls for peace and justice in a community enflamed by attempts to desegregate the university.
1958: Harry Ashmore, the Arkansas Gazette, for his editorials encouraging the peaceful integration of the Little Rock public schools.
1959: Ralph McGill, the Atlanta Constitution, in response to racial terrorist efforts to burn schools and churches.
1960: Lenoir Chambers, the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, for fighting efforts to close public schools rather than integrate them.
Through the 1960s, you can add Ira B. Harkey Jr., Hazel Brannon Smith, John R. Harrison, Eugene Patterson, Paul Greenberg and Horance G. Davis, Jr. as Southern Pulitzer winners whose work stood for racial justice.
Many of those writers came to the cause too slowly, but they came. The proof of their virtue was that they came at great cost: their homes and businesses were vandalized, their livelihoods were ruined by boycotts, they were objects of public scorn and they dodged threats of physical violence in their own communities.
Gene Patterson, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, once described for me how he received a phone call from his daughter, Mary. Someone had shot their dog, Kathleen. “I know who did this, Daddy,” she said. “It was those people who are mad at you for the things you’re are writing.” (The dog lived a long life with a bullet near her heart.)
These two things can exist at the same time: 1) We can expose and condemn and apologize for the crimes of the past on the journey to racial reconciliation and progress; 2) We can remember, not as heroes, but at least as distant models men and women, white and black, who felt outrage and transformed it into righteous anger and, over time, steady encouragement. If the failures of the past anger, confuse and disappoint us, then the stories of braver journalists can give us hope.