I love the land of my birth. I do not mean just America as a country, but Mississippi, the state in which I was born. ... I have hopes of the future when we will not have to hang our head in shame or hold our breath when the name Mississippi is mentioned, fearing the worst. But, instead, we will be anticipating the best."
— Medgar Evers, Feb. 10, 1963
"I have never heard of Donna Ladd until this election. Is she black? Married to a black? Ties to the black community?"
This was one of thousands of angry comments we've seen over the last decade about the Jackson Free Press and various staff members. As a confident, outspoken newswoman I, of course, am the target of much of the ire, including many outright lies. It's part of the job, and I knew what I was getting into to start a real newspaper in the middle of Mississippi. At various points, even our friends got mad at us because we didn't carry water for them. That is what the "free" in our name stands for: free from influence.
But this particular comment struck me with its retro tone. It was a throwback to our city's difficult past, a time when an African American activist like Medgar Evers joined forces with a previously popular (among whites) newspaper editor like Hazel Brannon Smith to put out the paper we named this one after: the Mississippi Free Press. Then, as still happens now, many whites were infuriated and fearful of a determined man like Evers who would look death in the eye and talk back to it.
And a white woman like Smith? She was a traitor to the so-called community's ideals—an n-lover, which is what that statement about me above, posted on a local hate blog with no dissent, implies. But the two of them, with others black and white, came together for a common goal: to not only counter the inadequate and institutionally racist media that allowed segregation and corruption to flourish, but to tell basic truths that weren't told in other media.
Without the facts, people cannot make good decisions for themselves. They cannot come together in social or activist forums; they can't celebrate what's great about their community while tackling what's not so great. And they cannot unite against the traditionally powerful forces that want to control their communities, the kinds of forces that demand things to be their way or the highway, allowing no challenges.
Evers knew that racism was not about simple bigotry, but about control: Who controls what, including media, is vital to citizens' access to opportunity and resources. And Mississippi was known then for having the most racist media in the country—from The Clarion-Ledger and the Jackson Daily News to its TV stations.
When WLBT, the local NBC affiliate then and now, repeatedly refused to air all sides of the 1957 Little Rock school-segregation crisis, his understanding about control inspired Evers to lead the charge to change one-sided programming on television. Back then, WLBT employed no black people and barely covered the black community, much less with positive coverage, which wasn't unusual for media around the country. (Evers was right: Years later, after the campus riots including at Jackson State, a federal report warned that anti-black media coverage helped fuel the crises.) Like The Clarion-Ledger, WLBT came out against admitting James Meredith into Ole Miss using the racist "state's rights" excuse to justify its position.
It took decades, but eventually the campaign to demand that WLBT diversify under the Fairness Doctrine—brought by a determined coalition of blacks and whites—worked, but by then Evers was just a precious memory. (Or it worked until Frank Melton arrived in 1984 and started union-busting and firing many blacks, but that's another story.) Read "Changing Channels: The Civil Rights Case That Transformed Television" by Kay Mills for a fuller picture.
I don't know if it was called media literacy then, but Medgar Evers clearly understood the need for it. He knew inherently that a bought-and-paid-for press couldn't report the stories the community—including whites who had been taught racist myths from birth—needed to improve itself.
In the Mississippi Free Press' first editorial Dec. 16, 1961, three months after I was born, Evers and the team editorialized: "This newspaper holds certain beliefs that are characteristic of free Americans. We believe that all men should be free—no man a slave. We believe in freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom of movement and freedom from intimidation. These, among others, are the rights of all Mississippians, regardless of creed, color or religion."
I'd like to say that we have come so far, nearly 52 years later, that such an editorial is no longer needed. Instead, this newspaper's coverage of our entire community draws a comment such as the one above about me: "Is she black? Is she married to a black?" The answer, of course, is that I am neither, but my community and readership are black, white and other races. Why should I have to slant my coverage in order not to offend?
Bizarrely enough, the comment was in response to criticism of the JFP for trying to ask questions about the short-lived write-in email campaign for Ward 1 Councilman Quentin Whitwell, the only white Republican on the council, to try to beat Chokwe Lumumba, a black man many whites fear. The thinking, it seems, is that we would only try to find out who was counting on black voters to stay home, as the email made clear, because I must be "married to a black." I know; it doesn't make sense, but it was part of the smear or, frankly, intimidation effort against the JFP last week because we dared pursue a potentially important story.
Instead of returning our calls, Whitwell and others (helped along by the supposedly more enlightened Clarion-Ledger) tried to make it about us. That came just days after we heard about a small group of people who were targeting our business because we did not endorse the guy they wanted for mayor.
That happens every four years during city elections when we don't go along with one or another program. It happens when we investigate important stories like Two Lakes when no other media outlet bothers. It happened when, for the longest time, we were the only media daring to tell the truth about Frank Melton. We've done that coverage despite intimidation efforts, and we will continue because it's our job.
If there's anything I've learned from my years as a journalist, it's the sad fact that it is our job to find and share information that people don't think they need or don't know that they need, yet. Seldom do people welcome investigative journalism as it's happening. And there is always someone who will try to intimidate and insult us out of doing it.
That's why the memories of men and women like Medgar Evers, Hazel Brannon Smith, Ida B. Wells and Hodding Carter Jr. keep me motivated. For one thing, nothing that happens now compares to what they went through. But more than anything, they showed the dignity of doing journalism in the midst of hateful efforts to keep them silent. I personally owe these truth-tellers so much for showing that we must keep our eye on the prize: telling the truth in anticipation of our state becoming the best it can be.
I'll leave you with my motto, which I stole from Hazel Brannon Smith: "I ain't no lady. I'm a newspaperwoman." Believe it.