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11 chapter one Why It Is Critical That Newspapers Survive The early 1950s were tense and dangerous times for the publisher and editor of the Whiteville News Reporter. Publisher Leslie Thompson, who had just secured a loan to buy out his long-standing business partner, watched as both circulation and advertising for the small twice-weekly newspaper in rural southeastern North Carolina spiraled downward in reaction to an editorial stance against the violence spawned by the Ku Klux Klan in nearby communities. But Thompson had more than his business to worry about. Both he and editor Willard Cole had received numerous threats—anonymous notes and pamphlets placed on their car windshields or slid under the door of the newspaper office warning that the Klan was watching. In response, Cole began carrying a loaded pistol everywhere, and Thompson, breaking with tradition in the small town of Whiteville, began locking the front door of his house and established a family curfew and protocol for entering the home. In many ways, Whiteville, population 5,000, was a sleepy southern postcard town in 1951. It was the seat of Columbus County, one of the state’s largest in area—954 square miles of farms and swampland interspersed with villages and crossroad communities. Social life and the economy revolved around the tobacco season. In late summer and early fall, local farmers sold their cured crop at one of the fifteen auction houses in Whiteville (or the smaller markets of nearby Tabor City and Chadbourn in the southern part of the county) and then settled up their accounts with the downtown merchants. In the postwar era, life was relatively simple— mules pulling farm wagons were still a common sight on Saturdays around the courthouse square. Life was also segregated for the county’s 50,000 residents, of whom 65 percent were white, 30 percent were African American , and 5 percent were Native American. Roughly twenty miles south of Whiteville, Tabor City (population 2,000) adjoined Horry County in neighboring South Carolina, which had creating a new strategy 12 become a hotbed of Klan activity in the late 1940s. On July 22, 1950—a sultry Saturday night—a twenty-nine-car motorcade, with a spotlighted cross attached to the lead car, appeared on the streets of Tabor City. A week later, in an editorial, the News Reporter took note of the motorcade of 100 armed and masked men, stating: “Columbus County. . . . has no need for the Klan.” Over the next three years, along with Horace Carter, the editor of the weekly Tabor City Tribune, Whiteville’s Thompson and Cole would print dozens of editorials and front-page articles documenting, exposing, and excoriating Klan beatings, floggings, and drive-by shootings in the southern portion of the county. Several of the editorials, issuing a clarion call to action among community citizens, ran on the front page of the News Reporter. “Front-page editorials are unheard of today, but Cole and Thompson knew this was necessary to keep the public focused on the seriousness of the issue,” says Jim High, Leslie Thompson’s son-in-law and the current publisher of the News Reporter. The activist editor, he points out, even traveled to Charlotte 150 miles away to meet with the FBI and ask them to intervene. In 1953 more than 300 reputed Klansmen were arrested, and sixty-two—including the police chief of Fair Bluff—were convicted and served time. The Klan activity in Columbus County ultimately attracted the attention of media outside the area, including Life magazine photographers who covered a Klan rally of 5,000 just south of Whiteville in August 1951. Still, the perseverance, tenacity, and courage of these two small community newspapers—one a weekly of 2,000 circulation and the other a semiweekly with only 4,500 subscribers—so impressed Jonathan Daniels, the editor of the News and Observer of Raleigh, one of the state’s largest newspapers, that he nominated them both for journalism’s highest honor, the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, which they were awarded in 1953—becoming the smallest papers ever to be awarded the Gold Medal. Cole, who later used the Pulitzer medal as a paperweight on his desk, acknowledged the recognition, but he added in an editorial that the greatest reward of the three-year investigative endeavor was not the award itself. “We believe the richest harvest from this experience,” he wrote, “is a renewal of our faith in the soundness of awakened citizenry and a restoration of...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781469615448
Related ISBN
9781469615424
MARC Record
OCLC
966859658
Pages
264
Launched on MUSE
2017-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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