The Meridian Star

I’ve routinely read the daily paper since about age 12, but I didn’t read the daily paper in Meridian.  There was no point.

The Meridian Star was Meridian’s daily paper in 1964, when I arrived.  The news that it reported then was of the whites, by the whites, and for the whites.  In the world reflected by the Star of the early 60’s sports existed only at white high schools and colleges, engagements and marriages were only between white couples, school dances and social clubs were enjoyed only by white people, all achievements, all scholarships, all businesses were those of Lauderdale County’s white citizens.  Whites were sometimes victims of crimes, blacks rarely, even if they were beaten or shot.

Looking at the Meridian Star, if you didn’t know better, you would assume  that the black men who lived in Mississippi were a criminal underclass and black women and children scarcely existed.  Black men earned a photo in the paper when they committed (or were suspected of committing) a crime against a white person, and those photos were demeaning or frightening mug shots. Black people accused of committing crimes were invariably identified by race, but not white suspects or criminals.

The Star followed the conventions of many Southern newspapers of the time by referring to white women as “Mrs.”  Black women were never called “Mrs.”; they were identified in the first reference by first name and last name (“Mary Jones”) and in subsequent references as “the Jones woman.” Black men were identified with an uncapitalized reference to their race: “John Jones, a negro.”

Like most other Mississippi newspapers, the Star had done little to prepare its readers for the political and economic changes that were sweeping the country.  Peaceful and orderly desegregation in other states was generally ignored, as were the voices of protest and the voices of Mississippi’s own black leaders.  The  general pattern was to ignore civil rights gains and activities unless and until they erupted into violence or crossed the border into Mississippi, and then to describe them in the terms of emergency or hysteria we would nowadays use for a tsunami or major earthquake.

In June 1964, the Meridian Star  suddenly found itself with a civil rights event it could not ignore, as news media from around the world flocked to Neshoba and Lauderdale counties to report on the disappearances of Chaney/Goodman/Schwerner. For a few weeks it did its best to assure its readers that life would go on as usual, with Page 1 headlines such as these:

24 June.  “Could This Be a Publicity Hoax?”

25 June.  “May Be  Hoax”

30 June.  “Still No Trace of Missing Men. It’s Possible They Left State”

As the summer of 1964 passedthe Star  reported and echoed Governor Paul Johnson’s call for businesses and citizens not to comply with the newly enacted federal Civil Rights Act.  There were very occasional stories about Freedom Summer when violence or arrests occurred:

8 July. “Mixers’ House Wrecked by Blasts” (McComb)

9 July. “Invaders Arrested in Columbus”

but none about the actual voter registration work, freedom schools, and Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, nothing about the civil rights activity that was going on in Meridian.

In the spring of 1965, back in Cambridge for a semester of college, I connected with a group of Harvard Crimson staff members who were in the process of founding the Southern Courier, a newspaper with the motto that it would “Tell it like it is.”  Although I had no experience in journalism, I was keen to get back to the South as soon as I could, and I joined the fledgling paper as it started publishing first in Atlanta, and then in Montgomery, AL.  In 1966, I came back to Meridian to open the Mississippi bureau of the paper filling a void of reporting left wide open by the Star’s omissions and one-sidedness.  I will write more about the Southern Courier in a future post, but, for the purpose of this post, suffice it to say that the Courier was unique in the state at the time for reporting on and running photographs of black community life — football games, church news, schools, black businesses, black artists and musicians — as well as the violence and arrests and the occasional successes of the ongoing civil rights movement in Mississippi and Alabama. The Southern Courier had nowhere near the resources of a conventional newspaper like the Meridian Star, and it folded a few years later,  but for a few years, it told stories and printed images of people who had been invisible up until that time in the newspapers of the Deep South.

Based on my memories, visiting the Star  was definitely not up there on my list of priorities when I went back to Meridian in October, but Roscoe Jones was anxious for Mark Levy and me to talk with the editor of the Meridian Star, which continues to be published daily in the same downtown building where it was housed back in the 60’s.  I went to the appointment expecting a brief interview with the usual questions we became accustomed to when the horde of national news reporters descended on town in 1964: Why did you come? Weren’t you scared? Where did you go to college? What did your parents think?

Mark Levy, Roscoe Jones, Gail Falk, Fredie Carmichael. October 2011

To my amazement, our interview with the paper’s youthful editor Fredie Carmichael lasted two hours and quickly became a conversation.  Now in his early 30’s, Fredie grew up and attended school in rural Lauderdale County. He told us that in 2008 he realized Obama’s election was a kind of culmination of the civil rights movement of the 60’s, and, as news editor, he decided to look up what had happened in Meridian during Freedom Summer.  He could find virtually nothing in the newspaper’s archives or anywhere else about the freedom movement in Meridian except accounts about the murders of the Neshoba County three. He was chagrined that such a pivotal chapter in the city’s history should be so minimally documented, and he was hungry for anything and everything we could tell him about Freedom Summer. Mark and I agreed that  little has been published about the civil rights movement in Meridian; most written accounts have focused on the SNCC areas of COFO, whereas, Meridian was staffed by CORE.  When I thought about it later, this void was the main reason I decided to start this blog.

Fredie told us that after his fruitless search into the paper’s archives, he wrote an editorial apologizing for the Meridian Star’s historic failure to cover the civil rights movement and the lives and concerns of the region’s black citizens.  It is a remarkable editorial, and I urge you to read it.  Here is the link. http://meridianstar.com/editorials/x681147654/We-honor-and-we-apologize

Fredie’s energy and curiosity and his openness to new ideas seemed to us to be the best possible testament to change and the benefits of school integration in Mississippi.  Fredie attributes many of his insights into racism to a black friend he got to know on his high school basketball team. Needless to say, with Fredie as its editor, today’s Meridian Star is full of news about all of the region’s citizens, black and white. In this age of struggling newspapers, it is a lively, interesting readable and responsive paper, far better connected than my hometown paper in Vermont to electronic and social media.

And here’s a twist I never expected when I started to write this post.  Poking around the Star’s website, I came across the Editor’s blog, Fredie’s blog.  I learned that, several weeks after we connected in October, Fredie went off this December with a church group to Port au Prince for a week of hard work building houses for earthquake victims in Haiti.  He found himself spending his days with black Haitians poorer and more disfranchised than any he had ever known.  He was filled with love and admiration for the joy and hope of the children he met, the spirit and perseverance of the adults.  He said he hoped he would never forget.  He sounds just like me in 1964!

Note: For more information about the Mississippi press in the 1950’s and 1960’s, including profiles of a few crusading journalists of the time, such as Hazel Brannon Smith, Hodding Carter II and III, J. Oliver Emerich, and Ira B. Harkey, see the website of David Davies: http://ocean.otr.usm.edu/-ddavies and Susan Weill’s In a Madhouse’s Din: Civil Rights Coversage by Mississippi’s Daily Press.

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Comments

  • Robert Barasch  On January 11, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    Thank you, Gail, for this report. It is encouraging to hear about the “new” Meridian Star. Having watched the recent primary debates, I am appalled at the not-so-subtle continuation of racist attitudes by people who are not Southenrers and never were.

  • freedomsongs11  On January 11, 2012 at 5:06 pm

    You’re so right, Bob. Racism no longer lives mostly in the South, ifnitmever did.

    • Susan Follett  On March 15, 2012 at 7:18 pm

      Gail, Bill Scaggs recently pointed me to your blog. I have just read every fabulous word, from the 11/17/11 post through the 3/02/12 post. How wonderful to hear your first-hand account of the times I have researched and written about in my historical novel THE FOG MACHINE! Thank you for sharing your memories of the town and times in which I grew up. I’ve chosen this comment (from Robert Barasch, with your response, on 1/11/12) to reply to because it underscores something I address in my writing: prejudice is not a southern thing, not a black-white problem. It occurs in myriad ugly forms in every corner of our country and world. It is intensified by a scarcity mentality that pits humanity against itself in times of economic hardship. Therefore, prejudice may appear to be worse in places where educational access is lower, minority populations are higher, and economic disparity is the norm.

      • freedomsongs11  On March 16, 2012 at 2:08 am

        Thanks for your comment, Susan. I look forward to reading your book. Are you from Meridian? I am always curious about how the 60s looked to the white moderate residents of the town as the onlynwhitempeople who would talk tomusnthen were Klans,en andnothermout-there racists.

      • Susan Follett  On March 16, 2012 at 12:31 pm

        Yes. Would love to talk. Please email me.

  • fredieeditor  On January 11, 2012 at 6:30 pm

    Gail, you are far too kind. We appreciate your words. But more importantly, we appreciate your friendship. We look forward to seeing you again. I can’t wait to share all of this information and all of these stories with our readers this summer.

  • freedomsongs11  On January 11, 2012 at 8:40 pm

    Back in the ’60s I was a young AP reporter stationed in Bluefield, W.Va., on the WVA-VA border. My “office” was a desk in The Bluefield Daily Telegraph newsroom (the Daily Toiletpaper was an AP member and provided us with space). My recollection of the daily toiletpaper was much the same as Gail’s of the Star. It was a terrible, racist rag whose owners (oh, well, i won’t get into that). Anyway, there undoubtedly were quite a few newspapers in the country back then that were much like the Star.

  • Hijo  On January 12, 2012 at 12:41 am

    24 June. “Could This Be a Publicity Hoax?”

    25 June. “May Be Hoax”

    30 June. “Still No Trace of Missing Men. It’s Possible They Left State”

    These are amazing. Was this response coordinated? Or, I suppose, was it too hard for people to believe that the police had just participated in a politically motivated murder? I suppose that disbelief and denial are cornerstones of any sort of repression.

  • cefalk  On January 27, 2012 at 5:01 pm

    Could you scan and put into the blog any of the articles from the Southern Courier? Also, not being familiar with the organization of civil rights work, it would be interesting to hear more about why what happened in Meridian has not been as well documented (till now).

  • S. Pearl Sharp  On September 17, 2012 at 4:51 pm

    Ms. FAlk,
    Thank-you for your column. I’ve been trying to identify any voter registration activity in the small town of Lauderdale, about 20 miles north-east of Meridian.
    Was all the activity of Freedom Summer in Meridian, or did it branch out to
    nearby areas like Lauderdale?

    • freedomsongs11  On September 28, 2012 at 6:59 pm

      Hi Pearl. I know that the voter registration activities were out in the county, and not restricted to Meridian. However, I was not part of that activity, and so I am not sure what areas they covered.

  • kurikulum 2013  On November 15, 2014 at 4:47 am

    Hi! I’ve been reading your weblog for some time now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from Kingwood Texas! Just wanted to mention keep up the great work!|

    • freedomsongs11  On November 15, 2014 at 3:13 pm

      Thanks. I’m on break from writing but hope to get back to it.

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