The Welcome Voice of an Unwelcome Change
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
It seems like a small thing by today's standards to place the title Mr. or Mrs. before someone's name. But to put that title before a black person's name in the newspaper in Mississippi in the 1950s took a great deal of courage.
Ira B. Harkey, Jr., did just that as publisher, owner and editor of The Chronicle Star in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Harkey died on Sunday at the age of 88. During the height of the civil rights struggle, he used his newspaper to push for integration. His editorials earned him a Pulitzer Prize and his son, Ira Harkey, III says they also earned a caustic response.
Mr. IRA HARKEY, III: The labor unions and the local sheriff organized goons to try to, you know, boycott all of his advertisers and he went through hell. Oh, we had crosses burned in front of our house. But he ended up living with an FBI agent and he joked about it - I had a gun but thank God, I never had to use it because I probably would have shot my foot off.
He was an amazing man. He was ahead of his time in that regard.
NORRIS: Did your father have a hard time filling his newsroom with people who were willing to withstand the criticism and the threats?
Mr. HARKEY: You mean, hiring staff writers?
NORRIS: Hiring staff writers who were willing to walk out on a limb along with him?
Mr. HARKEY: Some were, and some weren't. I know he got a lot of criticism from certain ones. Certain staffers were in support, although quietly maybe.
NORRIS: In 1963, he won a Pulitzer Prize.
Mr. HARKEY: Right.
NORRIS: And not long after that he decided to sell the paper. Why did he sell the paper and how hard a decision was that for him?
Mr. HARKEY: I think it was a pretty hard decision because he always said that he didn't really feel like he had changed any minds in the town, that he had been of no value whatsoever in changing the minds of people.
NORRIS: If I can just quote something from his memoir, The Smell of Burning Crosses, he wrote that he "could not bear to exist in the vacuum of ostracism that remained in the force after victory."
Mr. HARKEY: Right.
NORRIS: "I could not function in the silence of total isolation, as if I were underwater or in galactic space." It sounds like it was quite difficult for him afterward.
Mr. HARKEY: It was. He considered himself, or the town and the county -probably the whole state, who disagreed with him, considered him a pariah. He felt that he was a pariah.
But it's interesting that in the 80s, he was invited back to town, this was the first time he had returned to Pascagoula since he left in '63, to speak at the Rotary Club. And I know this to be a fact because I was in the audience. But in the audience were some of the people that had been against him. But he got up and he said I know you people probably would be more interested in me answering your questions. And so rather than make a longwinded speech, he opened the floor to questions and I swear, everybody in the room almost, you know, had questions, even some of his enemies.
And it turned out to be a wonderful, wonderful experience for him and it really - his spirits were lifted and it turned out pretty well when he did come back. And I'm glad for him and I'm glad it happened. I think a lot of attitudes have been changed and we'll miss him. It's going to be a, you know, a tremendous loss and not just for his family but for all who benefited or knew him.
NORRIS: Did they applaud him?
Mr. HARKEY: Yeah. They did.
NORRIS: What was it like for you?
Mr. HARKEY: Well, I just - I think I had goose bumps. That's what it meant to me.
NORRIS: Well, Mr. Harkey, thank you so much for sharing your memories with us.
Mr. HARKEY: Well, I appreciate it.
NORRIS: That's Ira Harkey, III, remembering his father. Ira B. Harkey, Jr., died on Sunday. He was 88.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.