Expunging a racist past

On its website, The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., describes reporter Jerry Mitchell this way: “He has been called ‘a loose cannon,’ ‘a pain in the ass’ and a ‘white traitor.’ Whatever he’s been called, Jerry Mitchell has never given up in his quest to bring unpunished killers to justice, prompting one colleague to call him ‘the South’s Simon Wiesenthal.’

“Since 1989, the 50-year-old investigative reporter … has unearthed documents, cajoled suspects and witnesses, and quietly pursued evidence in the nation’s notorious killings from the civil rights era.”

I listened to Mitchell, a Texarkana native and a 1982 graduate of Harding University, speak last week at the Clinton School of Public Service. As I sat there, I thought of the role he continues to play in transforming the image of what once was perhaps the most racist daily newspaper in America.

In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, Hodding Carter III once described the former owners of the Jackson newspaper this way: “The Hedermans were to segregation what Joseph Goebbels was to Hitler. They were cheerleaders and chief propagandists, dishonest and racist. They helped shape as well as reflect a philosophy which was, at its core, as undemocratic and immoral as any extant. They weren’t hypocrites. They believed it. They believed blacks were the sons of Ham. The Hedermans were bone-deep racists whose religion 120 years ago decided that question.”

Brothers Thomas M. Hederman and Robert M. Hederman migrated to Jackson from rural Scott County about the turn of the 20th century and found work as printers.

“They were hard working and parsimonious, and it wasn’t long before they took on the biggest printing job in town,” Kathy Lally wrote in The Baltimore Sun. “They bought The Clarion-Ledger in 1920 and left the paper along with their Baptist, teetotaling legacy to their sons.”

Lally wrote that the Hedermans “asserted their moral authority through their newspapers and their control of the First Baptist Church, the most powerful congregation in Jackson. They were able to proclaim themselves devout Christians while holding many of their fellow men — those of color — in contempt.”

A third-generation member of the publishing family, Rea Hederman, went to work at the newspaper in 1973 when he was only 28 and began trying to change things.

“It was really a terrible paper, about as bad a paper as you can get,” said former Mississippi newspaperman Lew Powell of Charlotte, N.C. “It was a mixture of incompetence and malevolence, especially on racial issues.”

Rea Hederman, embarrassed by his family’s past editorial positions, made significent changes before the newspaper was sold in 1982 to the Gannett Corp. Taking his part of the proceeds from that sale, Hederman bought a liberal icon among the Eastern elite, The New York Review of Books.

In a 2006 New York Observer profile, Sheelah Kolhatkar wrote: “The powerful attachment of adulthood can often be traced to the indignities of youth, and Mr. Hederman’s played out in the Deep South during the civil rights era. It was then, as a young editor, that Mr. Hederman learned about the dangers of editorial interference from above. … His relatives, and by consequence their newspapers, were pro-segregation and rabidly racist (as well as journalistically inept) — all of which mortified young Rea, even as he joined the family business.

”’Growing up in Mississippi, I went to an all-white school, and segregation was in full force, and I think at some point you just feel like you have to make a decision,’ Mr. Hederman said of his ideological split from those he grew up with. (Even some of his five offspring veered rightward, with one of his grown sons now ensconced at the Heritage Foundation).

“Mr. Hederman eventually became an editor at The Clarion-Ledger, where he proceeded to infuriate many of his family members by beefing up the news staff and by hiring, and covering, black people. His muckraking tendencies were unleashed on corrupt local figures — and sometimes on friends and members of the Hederman clan itself. Mr. Hederman described the period as ‘very rough,’ among other things: ‘I mean, the number of death threats I had, and reporters who worked for me had, was enormous. This was through 1982. It was way past the initial integration of public schools.’

“The newspaper’s turnaround was widely praised and won numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize. But all the while, Mr. Hederman had to wage daily battles with an extended network of relatives who felt that they had the right to decide what went into the paper. … The whole experience led to Mr. Hederman’s lifelong horror of editorial meddling and his ready eagerness not to do so at the Review.”

When the newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize in 1983 (after the sale to Gannett, though the project that won the prize began while Hederman was still in charge), Time magazine began its story this way: “When 200,000 people marched on Washington in 1963 to urge jobs and freedom for blacks, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger noted the rally dryly but reported the litter-clearance effort the next day under the headline: Washington Is Clean Again With Negro Trash Removed.

“Times have changed in Mississippi — and at the 146-year-old Clarion-Ledger. The state capital paper, whose modest daily circulation of 70,000 is Mississippi’s largest, crusades against corrpution and police brutality toward poor blacks. Last week the paper’s campaign for reform of the state’s allegedly inadequate, segregation-tainted public schools won the most coveted award in newspaper journalism, the Pulitzer Prize for public service.”

Two years ago, the newspaper endorsed Barack Obama for president.

“If Col. Robert McCormack, the longtime publisher of the arch-Republican Chicago Tribune, is spinning in his grave as a result of that paper’s endorsement two weeks ago of Democrat Barack Obama, imagine what sort of posthumous somersaults the brothers Thomas and Robert Hederman must be doing after this morning’s editorial in the Mississippi paper they controlled for a half century,” historian Robert McElvaine wrote at the time. “… No major media organ was more intransigent in its support for segregation and its opposition to the civil rights movement. … In the days when the Hederman brothers owned the paper, it frequently warned of the horror of ‘miscegenation.”’

In a 2002 PBS interview, Bill Minor (who for many years was the Jackson correspondent for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans) called the newspaper “an instrument of perpetuating the system of segregation on a daily basis. … The owners, the Hederman family — none of them wrote anything as far as I know, but they hired people who would write and express that point of view. And some of the worst things were some columnists that they had. And some of them had daily columns, and they would insult blacks on a regular basis.

“Bigotry would be at the soul of it in my estimation, although I would say 90 percent of them would go to church on Sunday and be in the amen pew, so to speak. They would give to some charitable causes of the church, maybe to do something over in Africa, you know, and so they absolved themselves in their own minds. But in their own town, in their community, they were bigots.

“They really promoted segregation through their paper in different ways. And of course we learned in later years, and suspected back then, that they were being fed these reports from the State Sovereignty Commission, which I used to call the KGB of the cotton patches. I mean, it was this arm created in the state supposedly to maintain a segregation strategy, but they had these investigators. And they would hire some private eyes to follow all sorts of people who were civil rights workers. But they would also watch some people who were not civil rights workers, even some whites, and there was a file on everyone that they thought was doing something to break down the system of segregation.”

For more than two decades now, Jerry Mitchell has worked to uncover buried stories from the civil rights era and bring former Ku Klux Klansmen to justice. In that sense, this Harding graduate continues the redemption of The Clarion-Ledger, almost 30 years after the newsroom reformer Rea Hederman left the South for New York.

“I think Jerry Mitchell deserves a great deal of credit,” Minor said. “And you have to give the newspaper credit for giving him the time, the liberty and the freedom because he’s a one-man operating team. He doesn’t have an investigating team working with him. He’s working by himself, working the telephone and working sources. He meticulously builds all these files and knows all the people. … It’s redemption, it really is. It has a redeeming value for the state. I wish more people appreciated it down here.”

Post to Twitter

3 Responses to “Expunging a racist past”

  1. Ken Bissell says:

    Rex – Great post. I knew Jerry Mitchell (or ‘Boo’, as he was known back then) while we were students at Harding and served on the ‘Bison’ newspaper, and partnered with him on a story investigating student athletes and work studies. What makes him such a great story is his humble, unassuming personna and his clear effort to give credit to God for placing him in this position to help redeem some of the terrible mistakes of the past. It was obvious to all of us who new him back then that he was destined for great things. As an aside, he and his wife Karen received Harding’s Distinguished Alumnus Award a couple weeks ago at homecoming.

  2. rexnelson says:

    Thanks for reading, Ken.

    Yes, I had come across the “Boo” reference when doing my research.

    Jerry should be a hero to everyone in the journalism business — Rex

  3. Gordon Stephan says:

    Rex,
    Great post. I recall a visit once to Rosalie, the lovely antebellum home. overlooking the river in Natchez. On a beautiful, wooden stand in the parlor, there lay an open family bible from the 19th century. The thought came to me that there likely were Bible-believing and good people who perhaps did not question any the underpinnings of their privilege and vast wealth. It could be a challenge to sense that the water in which you are bathing had been ever so slightly tainted with some noxious substance, a tincture of an unhealthy brew. After all, it had always been there, so, it must belong there. I also grew up in such a naive world; perhaps, we all do. That does not mean that we should remain unaware or unaccountable.
    Thanks for your seeing eye, listening heart and faithful hand,
    Gordon Stephan

Leave a Reply