Defenders of Orthodoxy
This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 9 No. 1, "Stayed on Freedom." Find more from that issue here.
Southern orthodoxy had no stauncher champion than the Jackson, Mississippi Daily News, the afternoon paper in the state capital. Its editorial philosophy, which often spilled over into its news columns, was clearest in the front-page columns of editor James M. (Jimmy) Ward. The columns were concoctions of folksy humor, homespun philosophy and devastating attacks. To the Daily News, civil-rights workers were “agitators” and their leaders “money-filchers.” Federal officials were “meddlers,” the Supreme Court a “pernicious pestilence.” States’ rights were sacrosanct, as was Mississippi’s image.
In Meridian, third largest city in Mississippi, Star editorial writers also drew deeply from the vat of racial wrath. The editor, James B. Skewes, was a shy, introverted man, said to leave the day-to-day operations to his lieutenants’ but when race was the issue, Star editorials were never bland. They spoke ominously of “mongrelization” and “pollution of our blood.” The Supreme Court, the Star warned, was trying to “pollute the very blood in our veins—to destroy one of the things we hold most sacred—our racial integrity.”
When James Meredith attempted to enter the all-white University of Mississippi in 1962, the Daily News and the Star stood four-square behind Governor Ross Barnett and resistance to the federal government. The governor’s action in physically blocking the doors, declared the Star, was “beyond mere praise.” Resistance was mandatory; if anyone were jailed for resisting, his cell would be “a temple of courage and honor.” In the Daily News, editor Ward’s column recommended that Attorney General Robert Kennedy retire and devote “FULL time as legal advisor to the NAACP,” called Meredith “the boy,” and deplored the “sledge-hammer tactics” of the ”feds.”
As the crisis deepend, editorial opinion increasingly slipped into the news pages of the Star and the Daily News. In the latter, stories written as President Kennedy toyed with the idea of sending in federal marshals included references to “a possible invasion,” a pending “government attack,” and a “government ‘goon squad’ of 50 to 100 marshals.” The Daily News ran a front-page story about a cross-burning on the campus, allegedly to protest Meredith’s plans. University officials later charged that the cross-burning had been staged by “a Jackson newspaper” to inflame feelings.
The day after Barnett blocked Meredith’s attempt to register at the university’s Jackson office, Star headlines said, “Meredith and G-Men Knock But Barnett Blocks Door” and “Crowd Cheers ‘Good News,’ Boos Meredith.” The Daily News, meanwhile, packaged its Meredith coverage alongside articles by columnist Jack Lotto—for example, “Commies Using Negro As Tool”—and stories about black crime and rioting.
Meredith’s admission, and the tragic rioting, changed the Star and the Daily News not one whit The state was the innocent victim of an arrogant invasion, they said; political resistance should continue. Federal troops monopolized the Daily News’ lead story, and a page-one headline said, “Negro Troops Set Off Oxford Battle,” but there was nothing in the story to that effect. That same day, a front-page editorial in the Star predicted: “If our spirit is ever broken and we become apathetic about integration, this evil shall constantly increase until it becomes massive and complete rather than token, and we shall face eventual mongrelization of the races.”
Rob Hooker is deputy metro editor of the St. Petersburg Times. (1981)