Little Rock Editor Faced Down Segregationists

Harry Ashmore, 1960; story image

hide captionHarry Ashmore poses in 1960, after he had left the Arkansas Gazette to be the top editor at Encyclopedia Britannica.

Corbis

Scroll down for a reporter's perspective from David Folkenflik, and an excerpt from The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation.

Roy Reed

hide captionFormer Gazette reporter Roy Reed recalls that Ashmore would take reporters across the street from the paper to the Little Rock Club, where he would "give them his version of the... school desegregation story, day in and day out."

David Folkenflik, NPR

In September 1957, the racial integration of a high school in Little Rock, Ark., became a flashpoint in the fight for civil rights. A number of heroes emerged there — not least the students themselves. But another figure, largely forgotten today, played a crucial role in the school's integration.

That fall, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus sent out armed troops to block black students from enrolling at Central High. Harry Ashmore, executive editor of the Arkansas Gazette, challenged Faubus in an unusual front-page editorial.

It was a lonely mission, as most of the white establishment refused to support desegregation of the schools. But Ashmore continued to challenge his readers, weighing in seemingly daily with editorials. The community rebelled with a boycott, costing the paper $2 million, or $14 million in today's money — a tremendous amount for any newspaper, much less one of the Gazette's size. Ashmore also received physical threats.

Ernest Green, the first black student to graduate from Central High, recalls, "Obviously, we all appreciated any support we got because white support at that time had just gone underground."

And, Green said, that's why the newspaper's support was particularly welcome — and controversial: "The Gazette was target of a lot of venom and bile and opposition from a lot of people."

Ashmore believed Gov. Faubus was standing between Arkansas and a prosperous, peaceful future. The editor considered himself a moderate on race, but he thought integration was inevitable.

Annie Abrams, one of many black residents active at the time of the crisis, says the Gazette was a lifeline.

"I've never not had the Gazette delivered to my house," Abrams says. "It was welcomed here. It was treasured here."

Ashmore remains legendary among his former colleagues for the dryness of his wit and the unrelenting gaze of his editorials. He talked slowly, wrote quickly and drank readily. And he was no saint. His own newsroom had no black reporters; the only black person at the Little Rock Club, where Ashmore would lay out the story for visiting reporters, was the man serving the drinks.

Former NBC reporter Sander Vanocur says Ashmore provided hope for moderates and federal officials that Faubus did not speak for all Arkansans.

"I think it saved Little Rock," Vanocur says. "Without a place to rally around, you don't have traction, as it were."

In 1958, Harry Ashmore won the Pulitzer Prize for his editorials. The Gazette won a second Pulitzer for public service. The prize committee noted that the paper's "fearless and completely objective news coverage, plus its reasoned and moderate policy, did much to restore calmness and order to an overwrought community." The Gazette shut down in 1991.

Ashmore left Little Rock in 1959, as the crisis was moving to a close. He became editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica and wrote on issues of race, education and peace from his new home in Santa Barbara, Calif.. He died there in 1998.

Kitty-corner to Central High, the National Park Service is building a new visitor's center to commemorate integration there. For the first time, the school will devote a display specifically to Harry Ashmore.

For Southern Papers, a Divisive Beat and History

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.

Excerpt: 'The Race Beat'

Cover

Day and night for weeks, reporters and editors for the Arkansas Gazette and its afternoon competitor, the Arkansas Democrat, buzzed around the city with a sense of high purpose and the adrenaline rush of a hot story that was drawing a national audience. Both the Gazette and the Democrat, which in those days could still find room on the front page for stories about $57 robberies, devoted massive space to their desegregation coverage.

Each paper churned out a dozen or more stories in the first days, most of them staff-written, for the next day's editions. Virtually every day, stories and photos about the school dominated the eight-column front of the Gazette, the front of the first section, and the general local news pages. On many days, at great cost, both papers would add pages, for which no advertising was purchased, to devote the equivalent of two to three full pages to the story. The daily mix included news from the White House, the governor, the mayor, and the streets. Small sidebars noted historical milestones or quirks. The papers gave summaries of editorial opinions from around the state and the world, as well as full texts of rulings by judges and speeches and press conferences by the president, the governor, and the mayor. The papers also carried a half-dozen race-related and school desegregation wire stories from elsewhere in the South.

Both newspapers' editorial pages were consumed by the issue. The Gazette, which added space for letters and printed as many as twenty-five on some days, explained to its readers that the tilt of its published letters was against Faubus because that was the tilt of the letters it received. The Democrat published mostly pro-Faubus letters because that was the overall bias in its mailbox.

Both had supported the Brown decision in 1954. Leading up to the opening day of school, both supported the compromise desegregation plan; the Democrat called it "exceptionally favorable." But the Gazette and Democrat were quickly perceived as representing two separate and opposing camps.

Ashmore's editorials remained steadfast throughout. They did not dwell on whether integration was good or bad — though The Negro and the Schools was the benchmark study in showing the failure of the dual education system. Ashmore instead focused the issue almost solely on the Supreme Court's interpretation of the law, the importance of obeying the court, and the utter futility of defying the federal government and courts.

Ashmore portrayed Faubus, in his "naked defiance," as the politically motivated captive of a "small and militant minority of whites." He outlined repeatedly how Faubus's words and actions contradicted his own prior commitments and how they attempted to rearrange the facts of recent history to fit his actions. When Faubus complained that the federal court was trying to force desegregation "overnight," Ashmore"s editorial, "Mr. Faubus Also Needs a Dictionary," noted that the Little Rock plan had been in the works for three years; the plan was designed "to accomplish the minimum integration over the longest period of time permissible," it was the subject of about two hundred speeches around town by the superintendent of education, and it fit Faubus's earlier call for voluntary, locally controlled desegregation as perfectly as any plan could.

When Faubus claimed that Ashmore and the Gazette "had misrepresented, slanted, distorted and colored the news in reference to me and Little Rock," Ashmore was able to examine his newspaper's own reporting and point out that the Gazette had published a verbatim transcript of every speech and news conference and public comment made by Faubus, and virtually every word he had uttered at any time other than in his sleep. "Indeed, the chances are that if the governor himself wants to find out what he actually said on some of those occasions, he will have to consult the files of the Gazette, which is the only complete source of record in existence."

A single Faubus speech could give Ashmore fodder for days, and the editor frequently offered two editorials on the subject each day. He hit Faubus head-on, not from behind, refusing time and again to poke fun at the governor, though opportunities to do so abounded. Faubus's thinking became increasingly murky and paranoid as the days went by, and he frequently made statements that contradicted either themselves or the truth, or both. He expressed concern, for example, that the White House had tapped his phones and that the feds were going to come into the Governor's Mansion and arrest him.

In the beginning, Ashmore resisted the easy shots, choosing instead to examine the marrow of Faubus's position. There was no evidence whatsoever, Ashmore wrote, that the city, when Faubus called out the National Guard, had been about to erupt in violence — and he cited the long list of people who had testified to that in federal court, including the mayor, police chief, school superintendent, school principal, and chairman of the school board. It was Faubus, Ashmore wrote, who had "invited violence and disorder." Faubus, in response, frequently attacked Ashmore as an "an ardent integrationist" whose reporters were "agents of an integrationist newspaper."

Faubus deeply resented the fact that Ashmore was the first person many visiting journalists met and that Ashmore seemed to influence them so easily. It grated the governor that Ashmore and his colleagues would file their stories or editorials, then gather for long evenings of drinks and banter at the private Little Rock Club, where Negro waiters served them. The journalists joked that they were "the battle and bottle scarred" heroes of Little Rock. To Faubus, it was not a joke. He accused Ashmore and Hugh Patterson of luring the newsmen into their web "to indoctrinate them with a biased and prejudiced viewpoint toward me."

Ashmore, in response, was having increasing difficulty not holding Faubus up as a ludicrous but dangerous figure. When Faubus claimed to have discovered a plot by the Gazette's publisher to place a psychiatrist at one of Faubus's press conferences and report his findings to the Gazette's readers, Ashmore wrote that Faubus had again come up with a pinch of fabricated spice that "he delights in dropping into the political pot when it shows signs of simmering."

"Although a few of our readers have suggested that Mr. Faubus may be suffering from some aberrations," Ashmore added, "this newspaper has never been that charitable in its own view. We believe Mr. Faubus knows exactly what he is doing — and we suspect we have earned his wrath because through accurately reporting his devious course step by step, we have shown precisely where he is taking the people of his state in the furtherance of his political ambitions, and the terrible price all of us are going to have to pay as a result."

What's more, Ashmore said, it was unthinkable that the nation would let a governor invent an excuse to mobilize the National Guard, then use it to block a court order. This was the road to anarchy. Where was President Eisenhower in all of this? Ashmore wanted to know. He was keenly aware that Eisenhower had not liked the Brown decision, but the Supreme Court had ruled. Would it be obeyed? "The issue is no longer segregation vs. integration," the editor wrote. "The question now has become the supremacy of the government of the United States in all matters of law. And clearly the government cannot let this issue remain unresolved, no matter what the cost is to the community." Other liberal southern editors, such as Ralph McGill in Atlanta and Jonathan Daniels in Raleigh, shared many of Ashmore's concerns and expressed them in print. It would make it easier for the White House, when finally it acted, that southern editors had joined their northern colleagues in wanting the law upheld.

Ashmore contrasted Faubus's actions with those of Governor Luther Hodges of North Carolina, who had taken no stand either way as schools desegregated in Charlotte, Greensboro, and Winston-Salem on the same day Negro students were blocked in Little Rock. "The North Carolina governor simply said that 'North Carolinians do not like lawlessness' and made it quite clear that anybody who had other ideas would promptly be dealt with," Ashmore wrote. He pointed out that hecklers and a white boy who threw a stick at a Negro girl in Charlotte had quickly been "taken in hand" by local authorities and that the second day of school desegregation had been peaceful. "That," the editor wrote, "is how it could have been in Little Rock."

The Arkansas Democrat went the other way. From the moment Faubus thwarted the desegregation plan, the Democrat modified its earlier thinking. While the paper found opportunity to criticize Faubus, it drifted, after a period of sounding lost at sea, into the camp of states' rights. In its news pages, the Democrat was more inclined to publish rumors of hysteria, violence, and the potential for them both, stories sometimes planted by Faubus's forces to justify placement of the Guard. But the Democrat didn't duck the story. It, too, turned over acres of newsprint to produce a prodigious number of articles. And the Democrat had one thing the Gazette didn't have.

Through the paper's longtime political writer, George Douthit, the Democrat had access to Faubus. As the crisis opened, Douthit wrote a story portraying Faubus as a heroic figure working under enormous stress. On the first Sunday after school opened, the Democrat published the first of three exclusive interviews with Faubus. Another exclusive in the Democrat during the first week showed Faubus inside the Governor's Mansion running the government calmly and with great self-assurance. The Democrat also wrote a feature about a young Dutch girl who was attending school in Arkansas and who wanted to meet Faubus. She had heard many negative things about him in the European press, the article said, and she wanted to see for herself if he was as bad as portrayed. The story then provided a notable little detail: the Dutch girl was staying in the home of a Little Rock family: Democrat political writer George Douthit's.

Ashmore felt the Democrat was pandering to the governor and to popular opinion, taking advantage of the Gazette's decision to take the unpopular route, and getting fat on the Gazette's blood. The Gazette and Ashmore paid a price for their aggressive coverage and editorials. They became as much a target as the nine Negro students, and certainly a more accessible one. In 1957, the Gazette held a strong lead in circulation over the Democrat, owning 53 percent of the daily market and 55 percent of the Sunday subscribers. A year later, it had lost nearly 14 percent of its circulation daily and Sunday, as well as its lead over the Democrat. The Gazette's weekday advertising revenues dropped by nearly 13 percent from 1956 to 1958, and Sunday's fell by more than 8 percent. The paper lost more than $2 million. The Democrat's weekday ad revenues increased by 3 percent from 1956 to 1959, while its Sunday revenues jumped by nearly 10 percent.

Though Heiskell, Ashmore, and Patterson stood up to the pressure, they felt compelled at times to clarify — or perhaps muddle — their position. When the newspaper saw a copy of a letter that urged a boycott of businesses still advertising with the Gazette, Ashmore went so far as to write, "The Gazette has never advocated integration. The Gazette has never called for the breaking down of our segregation laws. The Gazette has consistently supported every legal effort to maintain the social patterns of segregation, and will continue to do so."

Personal threats became quite common for Ashmore. His home phone would ring constantly with warnings that snipers were trailing him, and his mail was filled with vile threats. He and Hugh Patterson would find some relief in telling the story of the subscriber who had written that she was so distraught by the Gazette's editorials that she had lost seven pounds. She urged the paper to keep it up for three more pounds.

While both the Gazette and Democrat provided better ongoing coverage of the Negro community than many southern dailies during ordinary times, neither newspaper broke through the protective cocoon that Bates, the NAACP, and the students' parents wove around the students. The cocoon allowed the Negro press inside, where it assumed its customary front-row seat at events the mainstream press never saw. Notably absent from the Gazette and Democrat were authoritative, consistent reports explaining what the students might do or how they, their parents, or the Bateses were reacting to developments. When the papers carried a response from Daisy Bates, rarely were more than two paragraphs printed. Both papers misspelled the names of the students early in the coverage, and neither devoted any time or space in the first days to providing profiles of the courageous students or an explanation of what they and their families were experiencing. When the newspapers did finally carry profiles, the Associated Press typically provided them, and they were short, shallow, and not prominently played.

What Moses Newson, Alvin Nall, and other Negro reporters couldn't get from the high school scene, they more than made up for with their access to the Negro community. They were part of the regular gatherings of the nine students, their parents, and Negro leaders and lawyers. Anyone wanting to know more about the Negro students and how they felt could turn to the stories written by Negro journalists. Encamping at the Bateses' home, the reporters got the story of the fear, travail, and determination that marked the lives of the students and their families. The New York Post's Ted Poston immediately began churning out a series of profiles, "Nine Kids Who Dared." Only through reading this series would one know, for example, that Gloria Ray wanted to be an atomic scientist.

Excerpted from The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle and the Awakening of a Nation, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff. Copyright © 2006 Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff. Excerpt is published by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.

Books Featured In This Story

The Race Beat
The Race Beat

The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, And the Awakening of a Nation

by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff

Hardcover, 518 pages | purchase

close

Purchase Featured Books

  • The Race Beat
  • The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, And the Awakening of a Nation
  • Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: