Bill Minor’s Forty-Five Years of Progressive Journalism

Bill Minor’s Forty-Five Years of Progressive Journalism

By Michael L. Cooper

Vol. 14, No. 3, 1992, pp. 12-17

Bill Minor received a call in late 1947 from A. J. Liebling, media critic for the New Yorker. Liebling had read the young Times-Picayune correspondent’s articles on the newly-formed Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and was incredulous. Would the MBI really be a secret police, its agents and actions known only to the governor, Liebling asked. And were these agents really authorized to search and arrest without warrants?

Those were the facts, Minor responded, the state’s anti-labor legislature had created the MBI to combat a violent strike against a bus company. Liebling also learned Minor was a stringer for the Associated Press, and the wire service had sent the MBI story to media across the nation.

Surprised that none of the many newspapers he skimmed ran an article about this Southern “Gestapo,” Liebling wrote a column chastising the nation’s media for overlooking such an important story. Subsequently, major newspapers ran articles on the MBI, and the unwelcomed attention kept the governor from activating the agency. Minor’s reporting had brought the unconstitutional abuse of power to the nation’s attention and made Mississippi politicians change their ways.

A few months earlier, on his first assignment as the Picayune‘s Mississippi correspondent, Minor covered Theodore Bilbo’s funeral. Bilbo had been governor and U.S. Senator, offices that he won and held with a great deal of vitriolic race baiting. Less than a decade after the fiery demagogue had been buried, the racist system he represented began to crumble.

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The MBI and the Bilbo articles were portentous. When the civil rights movement roiled Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s, other local news people either joined the white opposition or were intimidated into silence. But Minor wrote daily accounts of the maneuvering, violence, and repression. He was an important source of reliable information for Mississippians and for countless visiting newsmen. His reporting influenced public careers and policies. Today, these columns and articles are a valuable record of white supremacy’s death struggle in a state once infamous for its racism.

“My own situation in those civil rights decades was a unique one,” Minor explained in a recent article, “I was something of a war correspondent behind enemy lines covering the battle of blacks to achieve first class citizenship.” Black protest in the South and the frequently violent white response transfixed the nation. Newsweek, AP, and the New York Times used Minor as a stringer, and he contributed features to the New Republic, the Herald Tribune, and other prominent publications. The reporter filed an enormous number of stories. Just for the Picayune alone, Minor estimates, he wrote an average of three news stories a day, over a thousand a year. And the Sunday Times-Picayune published, “Eyes on Mississippi,” an op-ed style column that allowed Minor to express his own views.

Some of the most horrific events of the civil rights movement occurred in Mississippi, drawing news people from across the nation. The trial in 1955 of two men accused of lynching fourteen-year-old Emmett Till attracted scores of out-of-state and foreign reporters. Other sensational stories followed: the Mack Charles Parker lynching in 1959, James Meredith and the Ole Miss riot in 1962 when a French correspondent was killed, Medgar Evers’ assassination in 1963, and Freedom Summer in 1964 when three, young rights workers were murdered.

Minor and Mississippi in the ’60s

The 1960s were a time of challenge, stress, and glory for Minor. Black protests and white resistance made Mississippi a difficult and dangerous place for a fair-minded and dedicated reporter. Minor’s colleagues in the national press recall their admiration for his work.

Joseph B. Cumming Jr., Newsweek‘s Atlanta bureau chief from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s, states, “Bill Minor was the only good reporter in Mississippi during those crucial, historic years … in position to report consistently and aggressively and honestly in the local press what was going on in the controversial racial story of the 1960s.”

Jack Nelson, Atlanta bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times in the 1960s, recalls, “No reporter covering the South in those days, including myself, would have thought of going to Mississippi to cover a major story, whether on politics, economics, or civil rights without checking with a man we all recognized as an expert, Bill Minor.” Nelson remembers relying on Minor’s vast network of contacts while writing a series of articles on the Ku Klux Klan. “He could tell you who was in the Klan or was sympathetic. He could tell you how much the Klan had infiltrated the state police or the governor’s office. He knew who to talk to and who not to talk to.”

Minor, as a stringer for the national media, contributed to numerous widely-read stories about events in his home state. In 1963, former Governor J.P. Coleman gave the reporter transcripts of secret telephone negotiations between U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Governor Ross Barnett over James Meredith’s admission to the University of Mississippi. In 1962, a federal court ordered the state to admit the black man to the all-white university. Governor Barnett’s defiant speeches fanned smoldering anger among white Mississippians, and they rioted the day federal marshals escorted Meredith to his Ole Miss dormitory room. When the smoke and tear gas cleared, two people had been killed, damage totaled several millions of dollars, and 20,000 federal troops occupied the small university town of Oxford. Newsweek ran a two-page story on the secret negotiations between the liberal presidential candidate and the arch-segregationist that, according to the article, “gave a fascinating view of men in power trying to accommodate to political reality.”

Minor is most proud of a story he uncovered for the Picayune in 1961, seven years after the Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional and three years before the integration of any public grade school or high school in Mississippi. A contact at the state department of education, Minor recalls, asked him to drop by the department during the lunch hour. On the receptionist’s desk in the empty office the reporter found an envelope with his name on it that contained a secret, state-sponsored report of local expenditures by race of every school district in the state.

“It was shocking,” Minor explains, “in some school districts white children received $100 to every $1 spend on a black child.” The report was additionally damning because nearly a decade earlier, in an effort to avoid federal intervention, the legislature passed the biggest tax hike in the state’s history to fund a major education program intended to make black schools equal to white schools. “It was a tremendous report,” black politician Henry Kirksey told Newsweek‘s Joe Cumming, “that never would have seen the light of day except for Bill Minor.” This report found its way to the offices of several liberal congressmen who used it in their arguments for passage

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of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Minor again caught Congress’s attention in a New York Times article in 1965. He quoted Harold Cox, a local federal judge hearing formal complaints from blacks who had been prevented from registering to vote, as saying they were “niggers acting like chimpanzees.” Minor remembers the article caused an uproar in Washington where several congressmen wanted to impeach Cox. This controversy, Minor believes, chastened the judge and made him more responsible.

The black community, half of the state’s three million residents, respected Minor even before the civil rights movement. “He gave the white community an opportunity to judge the black community by a different point of view,” says Aaron Henry, the long-time president of the Mississippi NAACP. As early as 1948, Minor devoted articles to fledgling black political efforts and to the gross inequality in public education. “It was unusual to write about black concerns,” Minor explains, “but the Times-Picayune gave me freedom to write about anything. I was very careful not to come out pro-integration, but to show injustices in the system.”

Minor’s editors were not always happy with his articles. The Picayune was “a very conservative paper,” and it editor, the late George Healy, “didn’t like to rock the boat,” remembers Walter Cowan, a retired editor of the States Item, a now-defunct afternoon paper also owned by the Times Picayune Company. “His editors appreciated Minor only to a point. In my estimation Minor was the best reporter on the Times-Picayune. If I had had him a lot of his stories that were inside the paper would have been on the front page.”

This conservatism, says Mississippi editor and pubusher John Emmerich, who has served on four Pulitzer prize committees, kept Minor from being nominated for a Pulitzer. In the 1950s and 1960s, three Mississippi journalists—Hodding Carter II, Ira Harkey, and Hazel Brannon Smith—won Pulitzers for their writings on the civil rights struggle. The New Orleans newspaper never nominated its ace reporter for a Pulitzer or, for that mattter, for any prize or award. Minor’s work during the early civil rights era was honored in 1966 when the Neiman Fellows at Harvard University awarded him the Louis Lyons Award for conscientiousness and integrity in journalism. (The previous recipient was Edward R. Murrow.)

The local media flagrantly distorted its coverage of the civil rights movement. In his book, Mississippi: The Closed Society, published in 1963, Ole Miss history professor James Silver observed, “The Mississippi press mounts vigilant guard over the racial, economic, political, and religious orthodoxy, of the closed society. . believe the extent to which news is manipulated…. The inspiration for Negro demands becomes the Communist Manifesto, not the Declaration of Independence. Shotgun blasts fired into Negro homes become an NAACP plot.”

While the local media distorted the news, public officials were uncooperative or hostile. “There is a conspiracy at every level of government, local and state, against the free flow of information,” Minor complained in one of his Sunday columns. Mississippi did not require public boards and commissions to meet openly until 1975. Eight years later the state passed its first law permitting public access to government records.

It was tough to be a good journalist here in the 1950s and 1960s, acknowledges Emmerich, a young columnist and editorial writer in those years for his family’s newspaper in McComb, a town south of Jackson. “Mississippi felt besieged,” he says, “there really was antagonism toward the outsider. It was a time when the whole state went crazy looking for people to blame. Minor covered every tough civil rights story at a time when many reporters were considered the enemy.”

The seared emotions of those years dogged Minor and his family twenty-four hours a day. Bill, his wife Gloria, and their three sons—Paul, Jeff, and Greg—lived in a small, ranch-style house in a modest suburb in north Jackson. Their neighbors and friends were all quite nice, Gloria Minor explains, but some subjects, such as civil rights, were just too controversial to discuss.

Most people thought Bill Minor was a radical, recalls Jeff Minor, who was a teenager in the mid-1960s. “We couldn’t talk with our friends about politics. And our views were a lot different than theirs,” says Jeff, who is now an optometrist in Jackson. “I couldn’t understand their hatred and anger about blacks.”

The Minors lived with a great deal of stress. Gloria remembers her husband “working very hard, long hours,” and the many breaking stories that abruptly ended dinners and holidays. Jeff too remembers that, “Dad worked under a lot of tension, he was a man of perfection, volatile. He yelled a lot and ran the house like a battleship.”

“I used to go after everything like it was the most important thing in the world,” Minor says earnestly, “I was a much tougher writer then than I am today. I had pretty thick skin,” he adds in a softer voice, “but I still liked to be liked.”

He seems to wince when he talks about attending a party for legislators hosted by his long-time friends, Eliza and Governor William Winter. Minor had been writing stinging articles faulting the progressive-minded governor for not standing up to the conservative legislature. Fuming about the articles, Mrs. Winter stopped Minor at the door and demanded, “What are you doing here?”

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A Courageous Example of Small Town Journalism

In 1976, the Picayune closed its Mississippi bureau because of declining circulation. The New Orleans newspaper offered Minor a job in Washington, D.C. And the Los Angeles Times asked him to run its new bureau in Houston. Minor and his family considered moving to the nation’s capital, but the Picayune refused to increase his salary despite the higher cost of living in the District of Columbia. “With the kind of money they were offering me,” Minor recalls, “I would have starved.” Plus, the newspaper’s Washington correspondent changed his mind about retiring, so even with thirty years of experience Minor would have been the junior correspondent.

Minor says he never seriously thought of leaving Jackson. He was not interested in advancing his career by moving around the country working for more prestigious, better paying news organizations. After investing a good part of his life in the state, he explains, he felt “important to Mississippi,” and “wanted to stick around to see how things turned out.” Minor became owner, publisher, and editor of the Capital Reporter. He once described the weekly as “a liberal, independent newspaper with sharp political insight, hard-hitting news and investigative stories.” Syndicated Washington columnist Jack Anderson called the Reporter, “one of the most courageous examples of small-town journalism.”

For five years the little weekly shook up Jackson’s political and business establishment. One story, “Tie Powerful Banker to Jury Fix,” described how Herman Hines, the president of the state’s largest bank, obtained a list of federal grand jurors for a friend under investigation for racketeering. While the court clerk who provided the list lost his job, the influential banker survived the incident unscathed.

Another story disclosed that Jackson’s top narcotic officer had flown to Miami to inspect a wooden statue seized by customs officials. The hollow statue, mailed from Jamaica to another well-known Jackson banker, contained three pounds of marijuana. Despite the Reporter‘s front-page article, “Pot Cover Up for Prominent Banker,” Jackson authorities never officially investigated the incident. But, infuriated by the article, the well-connected businessman organized an advertising boycott of Minor’s paper. (A federal court later convicted the banker of fraud and income tax evasion and sent him to prison.)

The Reporter soon found itself staring at a double-barreled threat, the advertising boycott on one side and Ku Klux Klan intimidation on the other. In the late 1970s, Minor says, his newspaper ran a series of investigative articles detailing the resurgence of the Klan and its growing influence in state government. The “invisible empire” responded characteristically by shattering the Reporter‘s windows with bricks and bullets and by burning a cross in front of the office. But the Klan proved less of a threat than the hostile business community.

The advertising boycott caused the little newspaper to cease publication in the fall of 1981. The Reporter had a circulation of about six thousand and cost some $5,000 a month to publish, Minor explains, it was under-capitalized and probably doomed from the beginning. Despite its short life, Minor is still quite proud of his weekly. “I wrote some stories with zing in ’em. Nobody else would touch those stories until we printed them. We raised some kind of hell and we changed some things. I don’t regret having my own newspaper in my career. That’s the goal of every reporter. But I do regret how tough it was on me.”

When asked about the Reporter, Gloria rolls her eyes, looks heavenward and groans. Bill worked sixty-hour weeks, she remembers, writing, editing, and supervising

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his young staff. He never paid himself. The family depended, Gloria says, on her small paycheck and the health insurance provided by her state job. Minor earned money syndicating a column and running a legislative reporting service.

The Reporter expressed Minor’s unabashed liberalism. During most of his life, liberals in the Deep South were a rare and endangered species. Minor attributes his abiding liberal values to his experiences in the hardscrapple years of the 1930s.

“My conditioning during the Depression made me a liberal. I never did forget about the underdog or little people,” he emphasizes before describing a childhood of abject poverty and his family’s dependence on New Deal social programs. Born in 1922 in Hammond, Louisiana, Wilson F. Minor was christened for the doctor who delivered him. But his mother and everybody else called him Bill. (The Times-Picayune did not allow its reporters to use nicknames, so his byline always appeared as Wilson F. or W. F. Minor.) His father, a native Mississippian whose grandfather had served in the Confederate infantry, worked as a printer when he had a job. But Jacob Minor was an alcoholic and frequently unemployed. In one four-year period, usually after being evicted for not paying rent, the family moved twelve times. In the early 1930s, Jacob worked for the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, and his family depended on the cheese, powdered eggs, and other commodities that the federal government gave away.

Minor graduated from high school in the southeastern Louisiana town of Bogalusa. His hard work and intelligence won him a tuition scholarship to Tulane University in nearby New Orleans. To pay room and board Minor held part-time jobs, and the New Deal’s National Youth Administration paid his wages of fifteen cents an hour. After graduating from Tulane in 1943 with a major in journalism and a minor in political science, Minor joined the Navy and served first as an ensign, then as a lieutenant on a destroyer in the Pacific during World War II.

The young navy officer saw some of the war’s fiercest fighting, but his most poignant memory was the day President Roosevelt died. “I went out on the bridge and cried,” he recalls. “We loved Franklin Roosevelt. I felt back then that he saved our lives. My only role model, my only hero was Franklin D. Roosevelt I believe in the New Deal and everything it stood for.”

Kind of a Mission

Minor’s New Deal liberalism, some critics claim, is all too apparent in his reporting. “If Bill Minor can be criticized for something it’s for not being objective. He has his heroes and villains,” observes long-time friend John Emmerich,who publishes thirteen Mississippi newspapers, ten of which carry Minor’s syndicated column. Referring to the state’s old guard conservatives, Emmerich says, Minor “felt kind of a mission to expose those guys for what they were. His heart was always with the reformist.”

A look at Minor’s columns seems to confirm Emmerich’s observations. The reporter has praised many of the state’s few progressives such as Lucy Howorth, “the long-time heroine of the women’s movement in Mississippi,” and Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who in the 1960s was a young Mississippi priest “working at reconciliation between the white man and the black man.”

Minor often lacerated conservatives. For example, he felt that long-time legislator and former house speaker Buddy Newman, one of the state’s most powerful politicians, “represented the forces of darkness leading Mississippi in the wrong direction.” Asked for his opinion of the journalist, Newman replied tersely, “Mr. Minor is a socialist and I’m a conservative. He’s been cutting on me for forty years, and I don’t have a nice thing to say about him.”

Minor insists he always treated people fairly. ‘I was the first investigative reporter in these parts. I couldn’t always be a nice, get-along, go-along person. I could get along with people but I always reserved the right to be critical.” A good example of that attitude is Minor’s friend-

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ship with William Winter, who is generally regarded as Mississippi’s most progressive governor.

The two men first became friends in 1947. “I was always very fond of William Winter,” Minor says, and when he ran for governor, “I personally thought he was the most qualified of the candidates. I promoted his candidacy in subtle ways.” The reporter, the politician, and their wives often discussed issues over dinner. “Bill and I had many of the same ideals and ideas about the state,” says Winter, now a prominent lawyer in Jackson. “I felt free in discussing issues with him not only as a reporter, but as someone committed to constructive change.” After Winter became governor in 1979, Minor began criticizing his friend’s policies. “I was trying to push him to show more guts,” he explains, “because I felt he could accomplish more. His major accomplishment was in education, one of my long term interests.”

The journalist also took a critical look at local civil rights activists. After the summer of 1964, he remembers, “I received a lot of criticism from blacks when I wrote about COFO [Council of Federated Organizations] being rife with extremists, possibly communists, who were alienating local blacks. Some of the old blacks who I had a lot of confidence in were upset about the radical influences in COFO. It was the first time that I made any attempt to show division in the ranks. A lot of blacks didn’t like that.”

More recently, Minor clashed with influential black politician Aaron Henry. In the early 1980s, he printed an accusation by a former Henry associate who claimed that, some years earlier, a successful candidate for Coahoma County sheriff had paid Henry $12,000 to deliver the black vote in that north Delta county. “I didn’t know the man who made the statement,” Minor says, “but I knew his reputation and I figured he was reliable. I didn’t know the sheriff was still alive so I didn’t check with him.” Minor claims he tried, unsuccessfully, to check the story with Henry.

Henry won a $20,000 slander suit against the man who made the accusation, and the politician sued Minor for libel, but later dropped the suit. Surprisingly, at a time when libel suits were popular weapons against the press, antagonists initiated suits against Minor only twice and both were dropped before trial.

Minor has many admirers, particularly in the press. Writing in his flagship newspaper, the Greenwood Commonwealth, Emmerich observed that, “Minor knows more about Mississippi politics—the people involved, the controversies, the deals made, what went on behind the scenes—than any other journalist.” Claude Sitton, the chief southern correspondent for the New York Times during the 1960s, believes that, “No Southern newspaperman has done more for civil rights and civil liberties than Bill Minor.” And Jack Nelson, now the chief of the Los Angeles Times Washington bureau, says that Minor “is one of the great reporters of our time.”

Still the state’s best informed political journalist, Minor twice a week writes a column called “Eyes on Mississippi,” which is syndicated in forty-five local newspapers. But today he is less apt to pursue a story as though “it was the most important thing in the world.”

He and Gloria obviously take good care of themselves and look years younger than they are. Minor, at seventy, is a trim five foot ten with engaging blue eyes and thinning flaxen hair. The couple travel when Gloria has time off from her state job as a workers claims arbitrator for the Workers Compensation Commission. They have visited Europe more than a dozen times. They like to spend time with their five grandchildren, all of whom, Minor is proud to say, are growing up in Mississippi.

The journalist is surprisingly optimistic about his home state and, despite nearly half a century of political reporting, about human nature. “Most of my dedication comes from the proposition in journalism that people had a right to know what was going on in government even when they didn’t want to know. You can bring about change just by making people aware of corruption.”

Michael L. Cooper was born and raised in eastern Kentucky. He now lives in New York City where he writes nonfiction for children. This fall Dutton/Lodestar will publish his next book, Playing America’s Game: The Story of Negro League Baseball.