Ira B. Harkey Jr., a retired journalist and editor in Pascagoula and New Orleans and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in 1963, died this past weekend in Kerrville, Texas. He was 88.
When Harkey received the Pulitzer, he had been editor and publisher of The Chronicle Star, now The Mississippi Press, for 14 years. He has also worked at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.
Harkey’s eldest son, Ira III, said his father died of complications from Parkinson’s disease at Parsons House in Kerrville, where the former journalist had lived for the past two years.
“He was a great man. He was intimidating. He had his way, and he did it his way,” said Harkey III, who lives in Ocean Springs.
The Pulitzer was awarded for Harkey’s editorial writing during the integration of the University of Mississippi. His editorials were recognized as courageous and devoted to the processes of law and reason during the integration crisis in Mississippi in 1962.
“His work was the most significant and important of the time,” said Jerry St. Pe of Pascagoula, a former reporter for The Chronicle Star. “He not only influenced me professionally, but personally. He was not just the publisher of a newspaper, he had the skills and the tools of the trade to reach the people in ways others just couldn’t back then.
“It was not just about getting the paper out each day. It was about the people who read the paper each day. He rolled up his sleeves and he wrote.”
St. Pe remembers the magnitude of what Harkey was trying to accomplish.
“If you really stop and think about it, it’s amazing,” St. Pe said. “Right in the height of the civil rights movement – in 62 and 63 – here was this little, small town newspaper winning a Pulitzer prize.”
Harkey’s editorials called for the peaceful admittance of James Meredith to Ole Miss and evoked outspoken criticism across the state, as well as violence.
He was vilified for his editorials, his life threatened, and the newspaper and its advertisers boycotted. A cross was burned in front of the newspaper office. A rifle was fired into the front door, and a shotgun blast took out his office window before the FBI was called.
A cross already had burned in front of his home after the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling.
Harkey detailed the events in his autobiography, “The Smell of Burning Crosses,” in 1967.
“I wasn’t surprised that the community or Mississippi newspapers didn’t rejoice with me when I won the Pulitzer,” he said in a 2003 interview with the Sun Herald newspaper. “I think they hated me even more for being recognized by the Yankees at Columbia University, who they also called Communists.”
Harkey sold the newspaper after bringing it from a weekly to a twice-a-week paper and then five-day publication. He later taught journalism at Ohio State University, then worked at the University of Alaska before joining the staff at Columbia University.
Harkey, who served in the Navy in World War II, came over from New Orleans and bought the Pascagoula paper in 1949.
Funeral services will be 3 p.m. Tuesday at First United Methodist Church in Kerrville, and at 3 p.m. Friday at the chapel and the family tomb in the Lakelawn-Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans.