MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
I'm Robert Siegel.
And for our next story we cast back to September 1957. It was definitely not a more innocent age. The segregationist governor of Arkansas sent out troops to block black students from enrolling at Central High School in Little Rock.
Mr. ORVAL FAUBUS (Former Arkansas Governor): Units of the National Guard have been and are now being mobilized with the mission to maintain or restore the peace and good order of this community.
NORRIS: Little Rock became a flashpoint in the fight over civil rights. It demanded the attention of the nation and a reluctant President Eisenhower. A number of heroes emerged, not least the students themselves. But there was another now largely forgotten figure who played a crucial role in the integration of Central High.
NPR's David Folkenflik visited Little Rock to learn more about a newspaper editor who paid a price for refusing to pander to his readers.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Today, of if you visit the intersection of Daisy L. Gatson Bates Drive and Park Street on the west side of Little Rock, you'll come across what looks like a Mobil gas station.
Ms. SPIRIT TRICKEY (National Park Ranger): The roofing, the actual front of the building is exactly what you would see in the 1950s. The gas even still reads $.22 a gallon and $.25 a gallon.
FOLKENFLIK: Spirit Trickey is a National Park Ranger and the restored gas station is actually a museum marking the integration of Central High.
Unidentified Man #1: You can see from here some of the action occurring down here.
FOLKENFLIK: The lone phone here served as a makeshift filing center for reporters covering the crisis and the angry mobs not a hundred yards away. The late Harry Ashmore was executive editor of the Arkansas Gazette at the time. When Governor Orval Faubus prevented the enrollment of the black students, Ashmore challenged him in a rare front page editorial.
And Ashmore and the owners of the Gazette found themselves very much alone. Their main competitor, the smaller Arkansas Democrat, took advantage of the opportunity and drew white readers away.
Mr. HARRY ASHMORE (Former editor, The Gazette): But we finally were about the only opposition left. The other newspaper, which had been supporting the school board, immediately abandoned it and they grew fat on our blood when we got boycotted.
FOLKENFLIK: That's Harry Ashmore himself in a 1982 interview with CBS. The once dominant Gazette dropped from a circulation of 100,000 to 83,000. Ashmore thought segregation had to die, but he defended the pace of racial progress in his native South in a nationally broadcast radio debate back in 1948.
The executive director of the NAACP challenged Ashmore after that debate by saying you're a six foot tall, blue eyed blond. A certified Confederate WASP. You've been in combat. What are you afraid of? Not much, as it turned out.
Mr. BILL LEWIS: Oh, goodness. You know, people tell me almost every day how much they miss the Gazette. And I think what they're saying is they miss Harry Ashmore.
FOLKENFLIK: Former Gazette reporter Bill Lewis at a gala in Little Rock celebrating a documentary about the paper's history. The Gazette shut down in 1991, but 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.
Unidentified Man #2: Hey Jim, how are you?
FOLKENFLIK: Retired Gazette photographer Jim Prescott was there, too. For Prescott, Ashmore's name summons the night of September 2, 1957. Governor Orval Faubus was defying the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that separate but equal schooling was unconstitutional.
Mr. JIM PRESCOTT: The night that Faubus sent the troops, Mr. Ashmore was in the city room and he's just pacing back and forth and he's saying what is he up to, what is he going to do.
FOLKENFLIK: Ashmore decided he would confront the governor in the pages of his newspaper.
Mr. ROY REED: “Thus, the issue is no longer segregation versus integration. The question has now become the supremacy of the government of the United States in all matters of law. And clearly the federal government cannot let this issue remain unsolved no matter what the cost to this community.”
FOLKENFLIK: That was Ashmore's front page editorial the next morning. It was read there by former Gazette reporter Roy Reed. Ashmore weighed in almost daily with editorials and the community rebelled. A boycott cost the paper $2 million - that's roughly $14 million today - a tremendous amount for any newspaper, much less one of its size.
Mr. ERNEST GREEN: Obviously, we all appreciated any support we got because white support at that time had just gone underground.
FOLKENFLIK: Ernest Green was the first black student to graduate from Central High.
Mr. GREEN: The worst thing that anybody white could be called at that period of time was a nigger lover, that they would have any sympathy for our interests or our involvement. And the Gazette was a target of a lot of venom and bile and opposition from a lot of people.
FOLKENFLIK: Threats were called into the newsroom and Ashmore's home, but he tried to shrug it off.
Mr. ASHMORE: I'd been an infantry colonel in World War II in Europe. So I wasn't really intimated by Mr. Faubus and his troops at all and the blustering of the citizen's council that I was sure that was essentially hollow. The only real physical danger was the preachment of this kind of hatred - and the countryside was full of wandering segregationists and you never knew when one was going to go around the bend.
FOLKENFLIK: Despite the threats, Ashmore and a handful of other Southern editors still actively pushed for desegregation. Their story and those of other reporters who covered the civil rights movement is chronicled in a new book called “The Race Beat.”
Coauthor Hank Klibanoff says Ashmore led the Gazette to become the paper of record for the Little Rock crisis.
Mr. HANK KLIBANOFF (Author, “The Race Beat”): They made a substantial commitment to provide page after page after page of stories, of sidebars, of transcripts of every single press conference and of every single speech.
FOLKENFLIK: As a result, the paper won the enduring loyalty of many black readers. The Gazette was a lifeline for them and in a different way, it was also indispensable for journalists descending from out of town.
Mr. REED: That was one of his hangouts.
FOLKENFLIK: Former Gazette reporter Roy Reed points to the abandoned home of the Little Rock Club.
Mr. REED: That was one of the places where Harry Ashmore would take visiting reporters to have drinks and where he would give them his version of the school desegregation story day in and day out. And Harry spent many an evening there pouring down gin martinis.
FOLKENFLIK: In an oral history, Governor Faubus was resentful that Ashmore's Gazette had succeeded in defining the story for the national media.
Mr. FAUBUS: Oh, that was the headquarters for all the foreign press. They came there and they were brainwashed and given all the background and everything their way, before they ever saw me.
FOLKENFLIK: Ashmore was no saint. His own newsroom had no black reporters and the only black person at the Little Rock Club was the man serving the drinks. But former NBC reporter Sander Vanocur says Ashmore provided hope for moderates and for federal officials that Faubus did not speak for all Arkansans.
Mr. SANDER VANOCUR: I think it saved Little Rock, because without a place to rally around, you don't have any traction, as it were.
FOLKENFLIK: In 1958, Harry Ashmore won the Pulitzer for his editorials. The Gazette won a second Pulitzer for public service.
Mr. PAUL GREENBERG: The Gazette was kind of an umbrella that protected all the other little newspapers like the (unintelligible) commercial.
FOLKENFLIK: Paul Greenberg is as conservative as Ashmore was liberal. But Greenberg also won a Pulitzer for advocating racial integration a decade after Ashmore did.
Mr. GREENBERG: We could say the outrageous things we thought because people who picked up the daily Gazette had been softened up.
FOLKENFLIK: 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. He died there in 1998.
But Ashmore's influence quietly remains in Little Rock. Each afternoon, kids of all races scream from Central High. A new visitor's center is being built nearby to commemorate integration there. For the first time, it'll devote a display specifically to Harry Ashmore.
David Folkenflik, NPR News.
NORRIS: To learn more about Harry Ashmore and coverage of the civil rights era, please go to NPR.org.