Muted Voices

Muted Voices

Reviewed by Paul Delaney

Vol. 17, No. 2, 1995

The Black Press in Mississippi, 1865-1985, by Julius E. Thompson (University Press of Florida, 1993, 242 pages).

Thompson’s is a fascinating and important, if not well-written, account of the black press in Mississippi, from its feeble beginnings in the aftermath of defeat and ruin at the end of the Civil War up through the mid-1980s. A press is supposed to be the voice of a people, but for decades what Thompson finds is not pretty: black editors “caught in a no-man’s land, where they dared not criticize local whites,” following a policy–as Pittsburgh Courier columnist George S. Schyler put it–of “generally avoiding nine-tenths of the real news and practically all of the possible topics crying for comment.”

Thompson presents an accurate, understated account of the tragic ups and downs of Mississippi black citizens as witnessed through their press: the Post-Reconstruction deal-with-the-devil between North and South, the systematic denial and withholding of rights, the Great Exodus which left the state robbed of the potential both of those who were run out as well as those who remained, and the Civil Rights era. Whatever evil could be concocted against blacks, it was surely practiced at one time or another in Mississippi. The scars and the acts remain to this day in a state still reeking of abject poverty, inept and corrupt political leadership, and extremely deep racial divisions that impede justice as well as progress.

The black Mississippi press was one of muted voices and muddleheaded policies and politics. For example, according to Thompson, in the heyday of the most heinous racist acts, some black editors and publishers believed that the “better elements” of both races could come together and solve the problems presented by the black and white underclass.

The politics of the black press reflected the conservatism of the white press and political establishment. Some black editors took the same positions against black aspirations and interests as their white counterparts. The Jackson Advocate was against the Montgomery bus boycott, against troops enforcing the desegregation of Little Rock schools, and opposed to the civil rights movement in general. The paper’s editor, Percy Greene, was anxious about acts that created “a deepening of the animosities towards the Negro and a widening of the gulf between responsible Negroes and Whites.”

Extreme fear by blacks resulted in such strange logic as that of the Mississippi Enterprise of Jackson, which urged blacks to pay their taxes as a sign of participating in government and “an insurance against slavery.”

Sectioning off chapters by decades, Thompson notes growth and decline in the number of black papers. He also deals with radio (no black owners until the 1980s), magazines that appeared abruptly and disappeared almost as fast, pamphlets and bulletins by religious organizations, colleges, and fraternal groups. Thompson reports on advertising, circulation, number of pages; his book also contains healthy appendixes and identifies every publication he could find, as well as television and radio stations. He deals somewhat with television–white-owned, anti-black, and anti-civil rights from the beginning well into the 1970s.

Among many contenders, Thompson singles out as particularly racist and harmful by its location in the state capital and by its wide circulation throughout Mississippi, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. Black papers harshly and justifiably criticized by Thompson include the Jackson Advocate, The Enterprise of Jackson, the Greenville Delta Leader, the Meridian Digest, and the Natchez News-Leader.

The Advocate maintained an almost anti-black tone, was opposed to the movement, the NACCP, and Martin Luther King, Jr.. It took the money it needed to survive from outspoken racists, including the State Sovereignty Commission, established to “maintain the status quo and destroy the civil rights movement.” During the greatest period of need, the Advocate and other black papers turned their backs on their readers. This sorry experience fostered an abiding distrust of black papers in the communities they were suppose to serve. Thompson names as moderate white publishers Helen Brannon Smith of the Lexington Advertiser; John Oliver Emmerich of the McComb Enterprise; Hodding Carter, Jr., and Hodding III of the Greenville Delta Democrat-Times; Bill Minor of the Capital Reporter, Ira Harkey of the Pascagoula Chronicle, and P. D. East of the Petal Paper. Ultimately, the movement had to produce its own publications, which included Freedom’s Journal and the Mississippi Free Press, as well as the Kudzu, a white underground paper that supported civil rights.

And change did arrive. Percy Greene died in 1977 and his paper eventually did an about-face. Gannett bought the Clarion-Ledger and other Mississippi papers. WLBT’s license was lifted from white owners and given to majority black ownership, giving Jackson its first black-owned radio station in 1984.

Still, by the mid-1980s, when Thompson’s story ends, there were only four black papers in all of Mississippi.

Paul Delaney is chair of the Department of Journalism at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.