Southern Cultures 8.2 (2002) 108-110
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The Press and Race Mississippi
Journalists Confront the Movement
The Press and Race Mississippi: Journalists Confront the Movement Edited by David R. Davies. University Press of Mississippi, 2001. 302 pp. Cloth, $30.00
Eudora Welty explored the troubled mentality of Mississippi's white segregationists when in 1963 she wrote a fictional New Yorker article from the viewpoint of the man who killed civil rights leader Medgar Evers. The assassin's wife says to her husband as he returns from shooting the African American in the back: "Well, they been asking that—why somebody didn't trouble to load a rifle and get some of these agitators out. . . . Didn't the fella keep drumming it in, what a good idea? The one that writes a column ever' day?"
With that, Welty conjured up inflammatory columnist-editor Jimmy Ward of the Jackson Daily News and other like-minded Mississippi journalists and newspaper readers who were upholders of a white racial status quo. They represent what historian James Silver called Mississippi: The Closed Society. As a white man and a product of that society, I grew up on a newspaper diet that included Ward's references to nbc as the Negro Broadcasting Company and cbs as the Communist Broadcasting System. Another of Ward's smart-aleck cruelties referred to "the Reverend Dr. Extremist Agitator Martin Luther King junior." Ward edited one of the state's major newspapers, published in the capital. My hometown's daily, the Columbus Commercial Dispatch, was slightly less strident. As with many newspapers operated by whites in the 1950s and 1960s, the news columns identified African Americans as "negroes" with a lower case "n." When the three civil rights workers were missing in Neshoba County in 1964, a Dispatch editorial [End Page 108] recommended that blacks who didn't like living in the South should be provided with free bus tickets to the North.
This tortured psychological landscape of Mississippi at a racial crossroads vividly comes across in The Press and Race: Mississippi Journalists Confront the Movement. Editor David R. Davies, a University of Southern Mississippi media historian, compiled the collection with eight coauthors. The Brown decision of 1954 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 frame the nine historical and biographical essays whose flavors are more academic than literary. The work attempts to explain why and how journalists reacted to the "movement"—whether it is the Civil Rights movement or the white supremacist one. Essays profile seven white editors, publishers, and writers from Mississippi compass points: George McClean of Tupelo in the northeast; Hodding Carter Jr. of Greenville in the Delta to the west and Hazel Brannon Smith of nearby Lexington; Wilson "Bill" Minor and Jimmy Ward, both in the state's center in Jackson; J. Oliver Emmerich of McComb in the south; and Ira B. Harkey Jr. of coastal Pascagoula. Another essay deals with enigmatic African American editor-publisher Percy Greene of the Jackson Advocate.
As it illuminates the fluctuations and contradictions of Mississippi's attitudes about integration, the book presents a strange collection of journalistic bedfellows who struggled with race as they functioned as Mississippi agenda-setters. By any standard, Harkey was the most liberal, Ward the most conservative. The others fall in between. By profiling Greene, who took Booker T. Washington as a model and was criticized as a pawn of the white power structure, the book delineates tensions within the African American community over civil rights. Carter, who wrote about Mississippi for publications such as Look magazine and the Saturday Evening Post, opposed the Brown decision and federal anti-lynching legislation, yet he was considered liberal. One essay quotes Mississippi U.S. Senator Theodore Bilbo's bigoted reaction to Carter's winning the 1946 Pulitzer Prize: "No self-respecting Southern white man would accept a prize given by a bunch of nigger-loving, Yankeefied Communists for editorials advocating the mongrelization of the races." In1948 Carter wrote that Mississippi is the "only place in the western world where a man could become a liberal simply by...