On May 18, 1954, the day after the Supreme Court handed down its Brown v. Board of Education decision, the editorial page of the Daily Press sounded this note of resignation:
"Racial segregation in the public schools of our state is definitely on the way out, whether we like it or not. When it will make its final exit, we are not willing to predict at this time. But integration is coming and we might as well prepare ourselves to make the best of it."
April 9, 1968. Martin Luther King Memorial march through downtown Newport News. Daily Press Photographer (and later Photo Chief) Jim Livengood at right.
And The Times-Herald, the afternoon newspaper then published by the same company, similarly editorialized that day:
"The customs of more than a century are being changed under the Court's decision. The longer the time given for adjustment, within reason, the less trouble there will be in making necessary adjustments."
But that acceptance, grudging or not, of the "necessary adjustments" was not always to be found in the pages of the Peninsula's newspapers. In the years preceding Brown, and in the subsequent decade and a half before legally established school segregation made its "final exit," the papers' editorial attitudes toward integration more often ranged from skepticism to outright opposition.
Newspapers are often mirrors of the dominant forces in their societies. The Daily Press and The Times-Herald - locally owned and operated - were not exceptions.
Most of the time, the newspapers' attitudes on race in the pre-integration era were those typical of the white elites who led Virginia then. They were not anti-black, per se. In their editorials, they condemned lynchings and encouraged racial harmony, expressed satisfaction at blacks' economic progress and supported fair play for some black individuals who suffered public wrongs - as those things were then defined by the white majority.
But such views always were strictly confined within the existing system of racial segregation, committed to a firm social bar between blacks and whites, with whites unquestionably on top.
Furthermore, they appeared in newspapers where everyday aspirations, accomplishments and social lives of black citizens either got short shrift or were ignored.
"We never expected anything positive from the paper in that era," says Mary Christian, dean emeritus of Hampton University's school of education and a House of Delegates member from Hampton from 1986 through 2003.
News in black and white
A look at some of the newspapers' commentaries in the pre-Brown decades gives a flavor of the world in which Virginians of the 1950s and '60s - those who would grapple with the racial upheavals of that era - grew up and were educated.
For example, a Daily Press editorial in 1936 praised the construction of a "colored recreation building" at Newport News Shipbuilding, declaring it displayed "a fine spirit existing between the white and Negro race, but also the confidence of the white man in the Negro's ability to develop definite talents inherent in his race."
Another editorial the same year struck the same note of racial cordiality mixed with paternalism. It wrote approvingly of Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) beginning a degree program for music teachers, calling music one of the "natural abilities" of the black race.
"Not in imitation (of whites) but in adaptation of his peculiar gifts, lies the future of the Negro race," it declared.
The editorial writer continued musing about race in this passage evidently meant to be complimentary: "Southern whites who have had the rare opportunity of looking in upon the real soul of the Negro, have wished that the world might have the benefit of more of his philosophy. In the midst of the mad whirl of life we sometimes pause a moment to observe the patient Negro on the outside wondering what it is all about and why the white man punishes both body and soul in his living. The Negro's inclination to let the morrow take care of itself and not pile up eventualities that may never occur; his willingness to wait for the things he desires most, in confidence that eventually they will come about; his helpfulness to others; all of these aptitudes of his race we might know more of with profit."
In 1937, the paper praised the retiring principal of a black elementary school, saying he "has succeeded in a manner many a man of paler skin might well emulate." Interestingly, it also acknowledged some injustice in the system, noting the principal had not made much money, "particularly in view of the salary discrimination which still exists against the Negro educator."
In 1938, it criticized Virginia's governor for opposing a federal anti-lynching law. The same year, though, it repeated the Old South's classic defense of slavery, that it brought blacks out of the jungles of Africa into the light of civilization, "transporting the Negro in three hundred years through a state of development with which his white brother struggled for something like 2000 years or more."
In 1943, when three black school principals and three teachers were fired by the Newport News School Board with no cause given, the papers gave extensive coverage to the resulting protests and to blacks' claims that the educators were dismissed because they had pressed for black teachers to receive equal pay giving to white teachers. The papers also campaigned editorially for the School Board to present its reasons for public scrutiny. (One of the fired principals was Dr. L.F. Palmer, the highly respected principal of the city's black high school, Huntington High after whom Palmer Elementary School was named.)
And on several instances the newspapers urged that, under the proclaimed "separate but equal" policies of the time, public facilities for black Virginians should be indeed equal - or at least adequate.
In 1948, the Daily Press approved of a court decision ordering Surry County to improve its woefully substandard black public schools. "Pure justice, it seems to us, would dictate parity regardless of race," its editorial said. "The argument often is made that the Negroes pay only a minor portion of the tax revenue in a locality and that they therefore are entitled to less in public education. That is a fallacious theory. It is not, for one thing, in line with democratic practice. Its application would operate among the Caucasians themselves to the advantage of the affluent while denying the child from a family in poor circumstances even an elementary education."
Surry and other rural localities affected by the court decision, it concluded, would find that better education for all "is one of the best investments they ever made, both sociologically and economically."
Then came Brown v. Board of Education. As black leaders began their long legal fight to end school segregation and Virginia's politicians lined up behind the policy of "massive resistance," the newspapers sided with the status quo. They could support "equal" schools, but they still insisted on "separate."
In 1956, the Daily Press cast the struggle as a states' rights question: "The issue here isn't segregation. It's whether any federal division can override the powers the states kept for themselves when they granted federal power to the federal government."
The same year, when the governor closed Seashore State Park after a federal judge enjoined the state from operating the park for whites only, a Daily Press' editorial blamed black leaders for the dilemma:
"Indications grow that the whole system of Virginia state parks may be thrown on the market and that everyone concerned -white and Negro alike - may be deprived of their use ... That may be one thing the Negro petitioners overlooked when they sued to have the Seashore Park thrown open to all comers. One of the parks has been set aside for use by members of their race. If the parks are closed, they will lose even this bit."
In 1959, the Daily Press found the state's resistance insufficiently massive when a governor's commission recommended a policy of "containment" or token integration. That commission also suggested granting whites scholarships to non-sectarian private schools and leaving to local choice whether to withhold support from public schools, while saying "we believe at this time a majority of the people of Virginia is unwilling to have the public school system abandoned."
The editorial scornfully called the token-integration idea "nothing but acceptance of the Supreme Court's dictatorial ukase." It added, "the people will be justified in asking why not a popular referendum, with just one single, uncluttered question on the ballot: Do you prefer public schools with an attempt at controlled integration, or do you prefer no public schools at all in your locality?"
A newspaper's editorial stances, of course, are just a part of the identity it presents to the public. A paper's choices of what it puts in its news columns is equally, if not more, significant.
The papers appeared willing to print news stories that involved blacks - though, with few blacks in political or business leadership positions through the 1960s, they appeared far less frequently than whites did.
And, in view of the intense interest in the desegregation fight, it's striking that the Daily Press reported on a 1961 desegregation milestone with understatement. In the final paragraph of its Sept. 6 news article about the beginning of the public school year in Hampton, it simply said:
"Hampton High School was quietly desegregated Tuesday when Robert Aaron Rice Jr., 15-year-old Negro, attended the opening day program there."
Curiously, the papers seem to have missed the significance of bit of big local news: the Green v. New Kent decision of 1968. In that important case, the Supreme Court ruled that "freedom of choice" plans adopted by several school boards, including New Kent County's, were inadequate.
Such plans said students could choose what school to attend. But since white students in New Kent unanimously chose to remain at their school, and few blacks dared to transfer to the white school under those circumstances, the effect was the perpetuation of a dual school system.
Yet there was no coverage of the decision in the Daily Press the next day; the afternoon Times-Herald carried mention of the decision on an inside page, buried within the "jump" of a wire-service Supreme Court roundup article (which was headlined by a decision on the legality of burning draft cards).
More revealing, perhaps, is the evolution of blacks' appearance in softer news coverage, in feature stories and on the social and what were then known as the women's pages.
Up to the 1960s, black faces were rarely seen in those sections. The wedding-announcement pages featured photos of white brides only. The pages that were tailored to teens and were a weekly feature in both papers carried regular features from the white high schools. News from black schools was not completely absent from the papers, but it was much more sporadic and brief. On the sports pages, black high school athletics got more coverage, but still nowhere near as much as of the white schools.
"It was felt very deeply by the black community," Christian, the HU dean, says about that lack of coverage. "Someone would get a degree, finish college, start a business ... you just felt that you had no avenue to publicity."
This made it harder for blacks growing up then to aspire to success, she says. "You had to constantly reinforce the children. You could tell them, 'You can be it,' but they'd never see it."
A slow transition
The people who held top management positions at the newspapers back then are all dead now. But news staffers whose careers date back to those times recall the gradual transition that began around the end of the 1960s - around the same time that saw school integration become the rule.
"At both papers, you could say, a new crop of management came about at that time," recalls Frank Simmons, who first came to work at the local paper in 1960, became The Times-Herald's managing editor in the 1970s and eventually executive editor of both papers in the 1980s.
Beginning late in the 1960s, and gradually increasing through the 1970s, features about black social activities - and black brides - start showing up.
Christian's recollection is that when blacks' special events did begin to appear in the paper, they were run in obscure places. A photo of her receiving her doctorate was placed on the obituary pages, she says, and that of a colleague's academic appointment appeared among the want ads. "We would joke about that," she says.
School integration itself seems to have led to an increased appearance of black citizens in the news columns. The With black students and staff now at the formerly white schools that got the most attention from the newspapers, articles about their activities got more coverage.
A contributing factor may have been that, up until that time, the two newspapers had all-white news staffs. Each paper hired its first black reporter in the 1970s.
"Both papers were very much segregated," says Larry Wickline, who came to work for the Daily Press news staff in 1961. "The community was very much segregated." Wickline held several posts in the newsroom, lastly as Daily Press Sunday editor, before leaving in 1984.
Discriminatory practices such as segregating the obituaries and always identifying black persons by race in news stories were unexceptional when he arrived at the paper, he says. "We certainly weren't the only newspaper in the region that did that."
Thad Madden Jr., who became The Times-Herald's first black reporter in 1977, recalls that when he was growing up in Newport News in the 1960s, there was a perception in the black community that the newspaper was unsympathetic.
"You assumed the newspaper was going to reflect a certain viewpoint," says Madden, who now works in corporate public relations in Maryland.
Apart from that, he says, "I can't recall hearing people talk about it (the paper). I don't know whether we just wrote it off, or whether you just assumed the paper was not interested in you."
But when he came to work at the paper, he adds, "The people I worked with and for did not express any negative opinions."
Simmons, who hired Madden, says that when he began his editor's tenure, the only blacks in the newsroom were "copy runners," go-fers who performed clerical tasks.
The papers' highest-ranking executive during much of this period was Dorothy R. Bottom, who held the titles of vice president and editor. Upon her death in 1990, the Daily Press obituary praised her many community services, while noting that "she also maintained the typical Southern prejudices of her day. She opposed federal regulations in general and civil rights regulations in particular."
"The newspapers had long reflected prevailing attitudes toward race relations," the obituary went on. "Like many other newspapers in the South and the rest of the country, the Daily Press and The Times-Herald downplayed news of the black community. This practice, however, was changed in the early 1970s."
Her son, Raymond B. Bottom Jr., says "judging it with a broad brush, the papers were very conservative at the time," as was most of white Virginia's leadership.
Ray Bottom was the papers' corporate board chairman from 1981 to 1989, but he was not involved in news or editorial operations then or during the previous decades.
Some other Virginia newspapers, he notes, were far more active about promoting segregation, such as the Farmville Herald, which led the movement to close Prince Edward County's schools rather than integrate.
"In retrospect, I don't think they were very much different from the way everybody felt at that time about integration," Bottom says of the Peninsula newspapers.
That was true of many papers in the region - the Richmond News-Leader was an especially ardent champion of segregation, with the editorials of James J. Kilpatrick providing the ideological rationale for massive resistance - though not all. The Norfolk Virginian-Pilot campaigned editorially against massive resistance, earning its editor a 1960 Pulitzer Prize.)
After he became managing editor in the 1970s, Simmons says, "we started actively to try to recruit black employees. We wanted to be sure we covered all aspects of the community."
Sometimes it wasn't easy, he says. "When we first started efforts to improve coverage in the black community, some of the black leaders then were suspicious. They weren't used to people asking hard questions.
"The white politicians didn't like reporters asking snotty questions, either, but they were used to it."
As for hiring black journalists, he says: "One of the difficulties in the early days of recruiting black reporters and editors was finding well-qualified people, which was difficult because of the past situation in the educational system. And everybody (in journalism) was trying to recruit them. Our salary structure didn't match what they could get in other places."
Retired Daily Press chief of photography Jim Livengood, who started on the then-all white staff as a photographer in 1959, recalls good relationships with black newsmakers then.
He remembers being sent to photograph black schools' football games during segregation - but not a whole lot else.
"We just didn't get the assignments," he says. "Nobody was covering those schools."
When photographers did cover events in black communities, he says, they were welcomed. "They wanted the coverage, they wanted us there."
Covering civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s, he recalls, "I was never threatened. I never got the feeling they were mad at the newspaper."
The papers received occasional complaints from the 1980s onward from people offended that blacks seemed to appear in disproportionate numbers in non-news feature photos, such as those of youngsters at play. The reason, photographers explained to other staffers, was simply that more black kids were to be seen outdoors playing sports.
Old-timers' newsroom lore includes tales - perhaps apocryphal - of various Daily Press top executives ordering items in or out of the news columns, even having people they didn't like (including blacks) cropped out of news photos. And Christian says she recalls at least one instance of a black person being cropped out of a photo, evidently to keep the paper from running a photo of an interracial group.
But ex-editor Simmons says there was no such interference while he was running the Times-Herald newsroom in the '70s.
"I never had anybody tell me I couldn't run a story, or I had to run a story, or I had to hire somebody."
He also says there was "a very strong wall" at that time between the editorial page and the news operation, with the opinions of one not influencing the news coverage of the other.
"The reporters were more liberal than the ownership," according to Will Molineux, who worked in the Daily Press' Hampton and Williamsburg news bureaus in the 1960s, and was an editorial page editor in the 1980s and '90s. "They reported the news pretty straight. You had your contacts in the black community, and you respected them."
The civil rights battles took place against the background of the Cold War, and the Daily Press editorial writers, like some other publications', claimed to smell a whiff of Communism on the battlefield. The day before the celebrated 1963 civil rights March on Washington, a Daily Press editorial scorned the event as "a purely political carnival for which the Kennedys, Jack and Bobby, are responsible."
While acknowledging that blacks "have a number of absolutely correct grievances," it complained that the grievances were presented as "demands." As for that list of demands - desegregated schools, voting rights, federal anti-discrimination laws and the like - the editorial said "it might properly be called 'The Moscow Charter' or the 'Lenin Doctrine.'"
But those who blamed Communists, the federal government or a small cadre of agitators for racial unrest misinterpreted what was happening, according to black leaders.
"The people in the black community were very much in favor of desegregation of the schools," says Philip Walker, the lawyer who filed a landmark desegregation lawsuit against Newport News back in the 1950s. "The vast majority of black people, if not all of them, were in favor of it."
In the early 1970s, the school integration struggles entered their final phase, brought on by the court-ordered busing plans that particularly convulsed Newport News.
A Daily Press editorial in 1971, as the busing order was about to take effect, expressed a widespread sentiment when it damned the busing as damaging to children, parents and the community: "Neither race benefits one whit by it, and just about everybody can see that."
Anti-busing protest, it said, "has never been properly read by either journalists - who persist in using desegregation terminology long after the aim of the courts had become integration - or government officials." The editorial also scolded anti-busing parents for not having begun the protests earlier: "Things would not have advanced as far as they have had people been concerned when somebody else's ox was being gored."
Busing, it went on, "is undermining the sense of loyalty to institutions which need such loyalty to survive."
Eight years later, in a 25th-anniversary reflection on Brown v. Board of Education, The Times-Herald's editorial page still maintained that busing was a bad idea. "Millions of gallons of gasoline have been burned up in the most ridiculous subsequent effect of Brown in 1954, the requirement that millions of kids be bused away from the school down the street to some other school," said the 1979 editorial, 25 years ago this month.
That editorial gave mixed reviews to the rest of Brown's legacy as well. It agreed that "too many racial gains have been made to think of overturning the law," but it complained of "faceless bureaucrats who swarmed through the Department of Health, Education and Welfare turning the blanket authority of the Civil Rights Act to those who rewrote the laws to suit their own purpose."
It also asserted that the quality of public school education had sharply declined post-Brown, and "so long as there is a federal finger in the classroom, it will continue to suffer."
Eventually, though, the papers' editorial stance shifted. A 1995 editorial opposed attempts to end "forced busing" in Newport News, saying: "The commitment to maintain racially balanced high schools reflects the larger commitment of Newport News residents to live and work together as one community."
Concern over the state of Virginia's schools continues to this day, certainly, and the rightness and effectiveness of busing for integration remains disputed in some quarters. In the main, though, consensus opinion of the civil rights revolution has slowly evolved from defiance to reluctant acceptance to substantial agreement. (Last year, the Virginia General Assembly formally expressed regret for the 1959-64 closing of Prince Edward County's public schools to avoid integrating, and urged Virginians to "celebrate in all appropriate ways the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision.")
And the Peninsula's newspapers, as management and staff passed to newer generations for whom Jim Crow was history, moved with the larger society.
The Daily Press newsroom is more diverse today. Of the 149 newsroom employees, 23 are African-American, according to current Editor Ernest C. Gates. Six others are listed as Hispanic or Asian.
Of the 23 blacks on the news staff, three are supervising editors or associate editors, 15 are reporters or copy editors, and five are in support positions (editorial assistants or librarians).
"We're determined to cover the whole community, and an essential part of that is having a diverse staff to reflect the diversity of the community," Gates says.
The Daily Press has shown "a great improvement, in terms of inclusion," in Christian's estimate. She adds, though, that she still thinks the paper's sensitivity to racial issues and interaction with the black community could be better.
Perhaps as good a marker as any of the change was 1989. That year the Daily Press, like most of the state's newspapers, endorsed the candidacy of Douglas Wilder to be governor of Virginia - the state's, and the nation's, first elected African-American governor. Explaining its choice, the Nov. 5 editorial opined that Wilder was the candidate best equipped to handle the state's rapid growth.
The endorsement made no mention of race.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times