Still on Assignment
Mississippi is the “Southernmost” state in Dixie. For six decades I’ve chronicled this state as a journalist (and I’m still doing it), spanning its most turbulent years of racial and economic change since the Civil War.
After graduating in journalism from Tulane University and seeing Navy combat in World War II, I was sent by The New Orleans Times-Picayune to take over the paper’s one-man Jackson, Mississippi, news bureau in 1947. On my arrival here, I had no idea that in a decade, long-somnolent blacks in Mississippi who accounted for nearly 40 percent of the population, would challenge white supremacy and demand their long-denied right to vote and become part of the decision-making process. When I came to Jackson, I assumed my job would be covering the governor, the legislature, and the state’s gothic politics.
Instead, I would soon find myself covering a full-blown social revolution and dealing with a historic conflict of a white-dominated society with the nation’s accepted norms of justice and minority rights. Even a somewhat moderate governor like J. P. Coleman, who opposed denying blacks’ voting rights, told one national reporter in the late 1950s he didn’t believe state schools would be desegregated during his lifetime. How wrong he was.
When I had conversations with them, both William Faulkner and James Meredith were wrong in thinking there would be no violent resistance on the oak-lined campus of Ole Miss, the state’s hallowed pristine-white university, when the first black student attempted to enroll. During a winter evening of drinking with Faulkner at his Oxford home in 1959, the Nobel Prize-winning author told me he believed white students would peaceably accept desegregation of the university.
A year before a bloody riot erupted when federal marshals accompanied him to the Ole Miss campus on September 30, 1962, Meredith told me in his first interview with a newsman he was confident there would be no uproar when he registered at the university. As history tells, angry Ole Miss students attacked federal marshals escorting Meredith with rocks and fiery missiles, triggering a night-long riot—fed by dozens of nonstudents armed with guns—that was finally suppressed after President Kennedy dispatched some 15,000 troops to the campus.
Long ago I discovered Mississippi is an extraordinarily quaint society, deeply influenced by a devotion to the lost cause of the Confederacy, and amazingly not too far removed from the rawness of the frontier. Even after all these years, I truthfully admit that I can’t fathom the depths of Mississippi’s soul.
No matter that I am a native of neighboring Louisiana, born just 50 miles below the Mississippi-Louisiana state line, I’ve always been viewed as an outlier here, somewhat suspect because of my sympathy for the cause of black people, possibly also because I’m a Roman Catholic in a predominantly Baptist state. And, of course, because I am a liberal and a yellow-dog Democrat, an unapologetic disciple of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who white Mississippians once worshipped but today as they flock to the Republican banner regard as the devil incarnate. It’s no coincidence that this abject reversal in political and public opinion began after Lyndon Johnson and Congress enacted the 1965 Voting Rights Act which enfranchised many thousands of black citizens for the first time since Reconstruction.
In my six-decade-long career here, I’ve witnessed everything from electric chair executions to riots and demonstrations and seen the joy of rural folks when the first telephone service came to their community. I’ve watched rough-hewn cops club African-American citizens marching for voting rights and listened incredulously as leather-lunged politicians railed against legalizing the demon rum.
Racial demagogues have come and gone in the years I’ve been here. The most unforgettable vitriolic figure I ever saw actually was dead, his stubby body in a coffin, the defrocked U.S. Senator and former governor named Theodore G. Bilbo, who had died of cancer. His funeral which brought almost every up-and-coming Mississippi politician to the piney woods of Pearl River County, was my first news assignment when I became the Times-Picayune‘s statehouse correspondent in August, 1947.
Bilbo’s racist rhetoric on the floor of the Senate had made him the most despised lawmaker on Capitol Hill. Many who gathered for Bilbo’s funeral believed his death would close a dark chapter in Mississippi’s history and bring a new era of enlightenment to this benighted state. Until this day, I wish that were so.