Back in 1990, after my junior year in college, I held a summer internship at The News and Courier in Charleston, S.C. I got what I considered a big break: I was asked to write a profile of Harvey Gantt, who was running for Senate against the legendary Jesse Helms of North Carolina.
The storyline was compelling. Gantt was an MIT-trained architect, but also a key figure in the civil rights movement. He was a native Charlestonian, the first black student admitted to Clemson University and the first black mayor of Charlotte — and his opponent, Sen. Helms, had made his name editorializing against racial integration.
I wandered into the newspaper's library — called the "morgue" — to seek out the assuredly yellowing clippings about Gantt's days as a student pioneer three decades earlier.
I looked for articles about him. I figured they might be filed under "Gantt, Harvey." No luck. "Civil rights." Nada on Gantt.
Clemson? Nope. Integration? Nothing doing.
I finally found the articles I was seeking under these words: "Negro Agitation."
That's right. "Negro agitation."
I thought about that startling moment as I was reading the new book, The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle and the Awakening of a Nation. It's written by two southern journalists, Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff.
That's where I first learned of Harry Ashmore, the executive editor of the Arkansas Gazette. Along with a handful of other editors — such as Ralph McGill and Gene Patterson of The Atlanta Constitution, Hodding Carter Jr. of the Delta Democrat-Times in Greenville, Miss., and Buford Boone of The Tuscaloosa News in Alabama — Ashmore made the case that the South needed to reconcile itself to racial integration. He thought it was the right thing to do; and that it was coming, regardless.
The position was not without risk. The late Ira Harkey Jr. was editor of the Pascagoula Chronicle in Mississippi. He angered his readers in the early 1960s with editorials against racial violence. One white reader wrote in to say "I hope you not only get a hole through your office door but through your stupid head." (The letter was written by Iona Lott, mother of the No. 2 Republican in the U.S. Senate, Trent Lott — still of Pascagoula.)
Many white editors, however, lined up on the other side from Ashmore and Harkey. There was James J. Kilpatrick of the Richmond News-Leader. And there was Thomas R. Waring Jr., a talented editor at The News and Courier in Charleston, who had previously worked at the New York Herald Tribune.
Waring ultimately became one of the leading journalistic voices defending segregation in the South, as he insisted in print that South Carolina's schools would not become racially integrated — "law or no law, no matter what decisions federal courts shall hand down."
In 1951, a panel of three federal judges in South Carolina heard a case challenging "separate but equal" schooling for black and white students. Two judges joined in a ruling that said the state had to increase its funds for black schools to ensure that instruction really was equal. The lone dissenter complained that segregation was "an evil that must be eradicated," and he added, "segregation is per se inequality."
As Klibanoff and Roberts recount in The Race Beat, that dissenting federal judge was J. Waties Waring — the uncle of The News and Courier's Tom Waring. The family ties be damned — the judge became one of the editor's favorite targets. Tom Waring wrote in the paper's editorial that his uncle's stance would lead to "the exterminat[ion] of the White race."
I was reminded of thumbing through The News and Courier filing system when I read about the Warings quarreling over the future of their home state. It's not a fair way to assess today's Post and Courier (as the newspaper is now known). It's not even a true reflection of the paper I worked at that summer 16 years ago. But it does shed light on how the paper reacted to a divisive chapter of our history — and gives further perspective on how remarkable editors like Harry Ashmore were.