Photo courtesy Ellen Ann Fentress
OXFORD—Over the intercom in the Mississippi Capitol pressroom one day back in 1984, a House member harangued his colleagues on the floor over a stalled bill.
"When are we ever going to enter the 20th century?" the politician cried.
"Never!" our mentor and senior Capitol press corps member, Bill Minor, shouted into the wall speaker.
We younger reporters got a laugh out of that but perhaps a little apprehension, too. Minor had been covering Mississippi since 1947. Maybe he wasn't joking.
That memory came back to me last week when I learned of Bill Minor's death at the age of 93. He was indeed a mentor, a comrade-in-arms, a hero to me then and now. I began my journalistic journey in Mississippi in 1981 around the same time Minor published the farewell edition of his amazing alternative newspaper, The Capital Reporter. I still have a copy of that edition.
"The Ten Most Powerful: Who Are the Movers and Shakers in Jackson?" was the top-of-the-fold headline. In an editorial inside, he wrote of the paper's "sympathetic treatment of the underdog" and his "hope that there will be others to take up the slack in keeping the pressure on public officials" as well as "those in the private sector who enjoy the public trust."
Bill wrote with authority. He had been a frontlines warrior ever since his first big story in Mississippi, the funeral of ranting, racist U.S. Sen. Theodore Bilbo. From there, he had gone on to cover practically every major event in the state's bloody civil rights-era history. As a reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Capital Reporter editor, and later, a statewide syndicated columnist, he suffered the slings and arrows—death threats, cross burnings, smashed windows, even a stolen typesetting machine.
I was proud to be part of a new generation of journalists in Mississippi taking up his challenge, and I kept in close touch with Bill over the years to see how we were doing. Not always so good, he would sometimes lament.
Too much of "our journalism is unfortunately go along, get along," he told an audience of students and professors at the University of Mississippi in 2004. "To be a journalist is to be prepared to take a risk. Newspapers are the closest to my heart. I see us engaged in an endless war. This is not just a cozy little political sideshow. It is serious business. ... Journalists are still the first eyes and ears of the nation, but it takes reporters out there on the ground. There's no substitute for reporters on the ground."
He didn't let the professors in the audience off the hook. He recalled one who lost his job for exercising "academic freedom" and standing up for civil rights in the '60s, former Ole Miss history professor James Silver—"a great old professor here back in the day any professor who spoke up against the system was run out of the state."
I was fortunate to come to Mississippi at a time when a lot of the legends were still alive. I once interviewed Silver, and also civil-rights crusader and journalist Hazel Brannon Smith. I'll never forget talking with another legend from that era, reporter Homer Bigart, and I actually worked for the great Claude Sitton in my native North Carolina before coming here.
However, none of them impressed me more than Bill, a Louisiana native who could have easily left Mississippi for a glorious career in Washington, D.C., but instead chose to stay.
"I used to yearn for Bill to come to Washington and take on such sacred cows as Russell Long and Jim Eastland," New York Times and former Mississippi newspaper and wire reporter John Herbers once wrote. "But he may have succeeded better, as a reporter, by staying in Mississippi. I know of no other state that has been transformed as much. And as the eyes and ears for many outside the state, as well as in, he may have contributed more to that transformation than any other journalist."
Over the past years, Bill and I would catch up on life and politics with a phone call every few weeks or at an occasional gathering. I loved those conversations, which usually included a good bit of grousing over the politics of the day and the fact that, dammit, Mississippi was still trying "to enter the 20th century" more than a decade into the 21st! Then we'd have a good laugh and talk about the latest hell he had given a deserving politician.
Joe Atkins is a veteran journalist, columnist, and professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi. His blog is laborsouth.blogspot.com and he can be reached at [email protected].