The 1957 integration crisis at Little Rock Central High School (the 50th anniversary of which is this week) contains within it a little-remembered tale of journalistic heroism.
Opinion: A tribute to three guys you never heard of
The larger story created many heroes. If you don’t know the basics here’s the two-paragraph version followed by the forgotten tale of journo-heroism:
Nine African-American teen-agers endured torrents of threats and abuse for trying to attend the all-white school that federal Judge Ronald Davies (Minnesota-born, by the way) had ordered to admit them (this was three years after the Supreme Court, in Brown, had supposedly ended de jure segregation of public schools).
Resistance to school integration was fierce. Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus pandered to it by ordering out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the students from entering the building (under the guise of keeping the public order). Under tremendous pressure (and after considerable shilly-shallying) President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in the 101st Airborne to escort the students into the school. They got in. Congressman Brooks Hays of Little Rock deserves mention among the forgotten heroes. His efforts to work out a peaceful end to the crisis cost him his seat when he was challenged by a segregationist write-in challenger who announced his candidacy eight days before the next election. That will give you a sense of how strong the anti-integration sentiment was running in Little Rock, and it sets up the courage shown by the journalists.
In this climate, the state’s biggest paper provided the most neutral, factual coverage of the legal, political, moral and public safety issues while editorially calling for compliance with the federal court’s order to allow the integration to proceed.
The Arkansas Gazette was owned by J.N. Heiskell, who was 85 that fall and had already run the paper for more than 50 years. As a younger man, he spent three weeks as an interim appointee to the U.S. Senate. By 1957, he still held the title of editor but had turned day-to-day operations of the business side over to his son-in-law, Hugh B. Patterson, Jr., and of the newsroom to a southern progressive named Harry S. Ashmore, whom he had recruited.
The Gazette had not been an overtly pro-integration newspaper. It would not have been the dominant state paper if it had. But when the crisis hit, Ashmore and Patterson convinced old man Heiskell to back their approach to the news coverage and the editorial page stance.
In the atmosphere of Little Rock at the time, the argument that they were only advocating for the rule of law didn’t fool anyone. Gazette journalists were threatened and spat upon. I worked for the Gazette in the middle 1970s. Plenty of the veterans of 1957 were still around. I remember the stories.
There was another paper in town, the Arkansas Democrat, and it displayed an attitude toward the crisis much more in line with views of the white majority. A readership and advertising boycott was organized to punish the Gazette.
The estimates I’ve always heard were that the Gazette lost about 25 percent of its circulation and about a third of its advertising.
The Gazette didn’t buckle. That took an ownership that was willing to put guts and principle ahead of its obvious economic interests.
Nowadays, when most newspapers are owned by publicly traded chains, it is sometimes argued that publishers and editors wouldn’t have even the legal authority to take a stand like that, that they have a fiduciary obligation to put the paper’s bottom line above their concept of the proper role of journalism and could be sued by the shareholders if they pulled a stunt like Heiskell and Ashmore and Patterson did. Maybe so; I don’t know, but that’s partly because you don’t see anyone trying it.
If he was willing to bet the franchise on it, nobody could tell old man Heiskell what he couldn’t do with his newspaper, because it was his newspaper.
The Gazette won two Pulitzers in the next round. Harry Ashmore won the editorial writing award:
“For the forcefulness, dispassionate analysis and clarity of his editorials on the school integration conflict in Little Rock.”
And the Gazette as an institution won in the Public Service category:
“For demonstrating the highest qualities of civic leadership, journalistic responsibility and moral courage in the face of great public tension during the school integration crisis of 1957. The newspaper’s fearless and completely objective news coverage, plus its reasoned and moderate policy, did much to restore calmness and order to an overwrought community, reflecting great credit on its editors and its management.”
There’s a bit of a fib in that citation. The Gazette’s coverage didn’t restore calmness. But the citation got it right about the leadership, journalistic responsibility and moral courage.
Amid today’s hand-wringing over the corporatization of the news, it’s sometimes implied that this kind of thing happened often in the days of family ownership. Funny thing, though, this is the only case like it I know. We’re talking about a major metro daily sustaining the loss of 25 percent of its readers and 33 percent of its advertising to take a stand.
If you know some more cases like that, please list them below. It will make me feel better.