Harry Ashmore (1916 -1998)
Vol. 20, No. 1, 1998 p. 34
“So we stand: tied to the past and clutching at the stars!” Harry Ashmore closed his acceptance speech as recipient of the 1982 Lillian Smith Book Award with a passage beginning with these words from the famed Georgia writer.
Ashmore was born in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1916 and had his awareness of black problems shaped as a summer laborer on a cotton farm and through observing the treatment of black regiments in Europe during World War II. He returned to the South after the war to become editorial page editor for the Charlotte News and in 1947 executive editor of the Arkansas Gazette. In 1957, Ashmore and the Gazette won the first double Pulitzer Prize for pro-integration editorials published during the desegregation of Little Rock.
In Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South, Nashville author John Egerton places Ashmore among the company of talented editors and publishers in the South to “follow the middle path of pragmatic progressivism.”
In 1954, Ashmore led an influential study of inequality in Southern education that became known as The Ashmore Report, commissioned by the Ford Foundation Fund for the Advancement of Education and published as The Negro and the Schools. “It was reported that when Chief Justice Earl Warren left Washington for California at the end of the 1954 term he carried under his arm a copy of The Negro and the Schools,” wrote John A. Griffin in the November, 1991 issue of Southern Changes.
In the 1960s, he left the South to lead the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in California, continuing his work with the Southern Regional Council, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and other national organizations.
His life work of more than ten books brought him the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1996. He analyzed conditions for black Americans outside the South in The Other Side of Jordan, wrote An Epitaph for Dixie, and most recently, Civil Rights and Wrongs: A Memoir of Race and Politics, 1944-1996. His Smith award winning book was Hearts and Minds: The Anatomy of Racism from Roosevelt to Reagan.