By: Greg Mitchell
In one of the most remarkable newspaper articles published anywhere on July 4, The Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader essentially apologized for its poor, or absent, coverage of the local civil rights movement of the 1960s.
In a major report, staff writers Linda Blackford and Linda Minch of the Knight Ridder paper declared flatly:
“The people in charge of recording the ‘first rough draft of history,’ as journalism is sometimes called, ignored sit-ins and marches, or relegated them to small notices in the back pages.
“The omissions by the city’s two newspapers, the Lexington Herald and the Lexington Leader, weren’t simply mistakes or oversights, according to local civil rights leaders and former employees of the newspapers. The papers’ management actively sought to play down the movement.
“The rare march or protest that made front-page news usually involved arrests of demonstrators and was described in the terse, clipped tones of a police report. …
“That stance was not unusual among newspapers across the South. But from today’s perspective, many experts agree that the decisions made at the Herald and the Leader hurt the civil rights movement at the time, irreparably damaged the historical record and caused the newspapers’ readers to miss out on one of the most important stories of the 20th century.”
Although the paper did not clearly state why it chose to revisit the past, the writers opened their story by observing that John Carroll, editor of their paper from 1979 to 1991, and now editor of the Los Angeles Times, recently suggested that many papers might consider running a “clarification” explaining why their coverage of the civil rights movement was faulty. The Lexington paper, just last week selected as one of E&P’s “10 That Do It Right,” decided to run the story to mark both Independence Day and the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“It was a standing order that an effort at a dining room or restaurant or march would not get Page One coverage, that it would go inside,” said Don Mills, an editorial page writer in 1968, who later became editor of the Herald. “The management’s view was that the less publicity it got, the quicker the problem would go away.”
These orders came from Fred Wachs, the papers’ general manager and publisher. “He didn’t like the idea of some of these rabble-rousers coming in and causing trouble,” Fred Wachs Jr. said of his father, who died in 1974. “He tried to keep that off the pages. But he supported school desegregation, and they wanted it done without any problems, and I don’t think we had any problems here.”
The Herald, the Democratic morning paper, and the Leader, the afternoon Republican paper, did publish national stories about the civil rights movement, but ignored local angles.
Thomas Peoples, a former NAACP leader, said that when it came to excluding civil rights coverage, Wachs wasn’t protecting his town so much as his papers’ bottom line. “They catered to the white citizenry, and the white community just prayed that rumors and reports would be swept under the rug and just go away,” he said.
In 1973, the Knight Newspapers group, which later became Knight Ridder, bought the Herald and the Leader. Ten years later, the two papers merged, bringing changes in coverage and promotion of diversity.
The Leader’s mea culpa on July 4th concluded with quote from state historian James Klotter: “Silence can be a pretty frightful thing. The effect is that the story hasn’t been told, the acts of courage and the acts of resistance and all those things that made up the civil rights movement in Lexington at that time. Those stories still remain too hidden from the public view, and over time, they will be lost.”