Kentucky Newspaper Regrets Neglect of Civil Rights Movement
July 4, 2004
By Linda Blackford & Linda Minch, Herald-Leader
CLARIFICATION: It has come to the editor's attention that the Herald-Leader neglected to cover the civil rights movement. We regret the omission.
John Carroll, the editor of the Los Angeles Times, who edited this newspaper from 1979 to 1991, recently proposed a correction like the one above during a speech on journalism ethics. Today, as the nation celebrates its liberties and marks the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, this report looks back at the hidden history of Lexington's civil rights struggle -- and how this newspaper covered it. Or failed to.
Nearly every detail is fuzzy in her memory now of that summer day in 1960 when Audrey Grevious took part in one of Lexington's first lunch counter sit-ins. But she vividly recalls one thing: the cold, wet shock she felt as a waitress poured a glass of Coca-Cola all over her, while the whites standing behind her hissed, "Nigger!"
Kay Grimes Jones remembers a night in 1960 at the Ben Ali Theater, where she and others stood in line, fruitlessly waiting to buy tickets for the "whites only" section. A crowd of whites jeered and spat on them. "That's when I decided to help out in other ways," said Jones, who'd studied non-violence as a member of the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE. "I wasn't sure I wouldn't spit back."
The Rev. Thomas Peoples remembers the searing summer of 1968, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Peoples, head of the local NAACP, joined city officials in a police car, driving around Georgetown and Deweese streets, begging people to stay calm as cities across the country exploded in rage.
These memories have made it into master's theses and oral histories as stories of Lexington's rich civil-rights struggle.
But until now, they'd never made it into the local newspaper.-
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.
"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."
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.
The orders came down from Fred Wachs, the papers' general manager and publisher, who generally supported desegregation but favored a cautious approach.
"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 morning paper associated with the Democratic party, and the Leader, the afternoon Republican paper, did publish national stories about the civil rights movement. Both printed bold front-page headlines of the 1963 church bombings in Birmingham, Ala., and the 1965 Selma march.
But both took a pass on similar drama in their own back yard: injustice, conflict, courage, rebellion -- the elements that reporters dream of today.
And though neither paper bothered to cover it, Lexington was ahead of the national curve.
Old CORE reports found by University of Kentucky historian Gerald L. Smith describe two sit-ins at a local restaurant on Rose Street called the Varsity Village in July 1959 -- well ahead of nationally publicized sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C., the next year.
On July 11, Smith says, five whites and five blacks sat down at the restaurant's counter, despite the manager's cursing. They stayed for two hours without being served and left about 1 p.m., each of them leaving a 25-cent tip.
By the next year, Lexington's civil rights movement, led by the mostly young people of CORE and the local NAACP branch, was more visible.
"Lexington's movement may not have been as big as other places, like Louisville," Smith said. "But it was very, very committed."
On Feb. 27, 1960, 25 people, white and black, walked quietly into the H.L. Green and Co. department store on Main Street and took up all the seats at the lunch counter.
They asked for menus and were refused, as squad cars and police hovered outside. White customers stared; some whispered obscenities. But no one was hurt, and no one was arrested. After about two hours, the protesters left.
In many ways, this was a momentous event for Lexington, a peaceful Central Kentucky town that prided itself on bourbon and bonhomie, provided you were white. If you were black, you encountered injustice more reminiscent of the Deep South: separate schools, parks, washrooms and theater seats. Good jobs were few; chances for advancement were even fewer.
So as people began to challenge that way of life, how did the newspapers respond? With a short story on an inside page in the Sunday edition, a story so brief it didn't even have a reporter's byline.
That was major coverage compared to many instances. Reporter Robert Horine, who started at the Leader in 1958, remembers going to one of the first sit-ins at S.S. Kresge's on Main Street.
"I talked to several of the people seated at the counter, and I had a story for Sunday's paper," he said. "When I got back, the editors said, 'Absolutely not.' We were not going to publish any news about sit-ins or civil rights demonstrations."
When accounts were published, they were typically brief and appeared one-sided:
- CORE protesters stood for two hours at the Kentucky Theatre in a vain attempt to get tickets in April 1961. The Leader's headline said, "Kentucky Theatre Employee Injured During Stand-in."
- During another stand-in at the Kentucky, Audrey Grevious, who was then the head of the local NAACP branch, and others stood behind a chain. A manager held one end of the chain and, for two hours, flicked it across Grevious' shins.
He never looked her in the eyes. She just kept humming, Yield Not to Temptation. That detail was never mentioned in the papers.
She had to be helped out, and she says she still gets pain in her shins.
- Later in April, 200 people marched down Main Street. The Herald covered it with a short article on the front page. The bottom half of the story discussed arrests.
Editors, CORE at odds
Local CORE leaders met with city officials early on in the struggle, trying to explain their motives. Grevious recalls a similar meeting with Herald and Leader editors.
"I don't remember specifics, but I do remember storming out of there," she said recently. "So that's when we knew they weren't going to bother with us at all."
Bill Hanna, who worked at the Leader in a variety of jobs, including city editor, said he thought the journalists of the day did an adequate job. Back then, he said, papers focused on hard news rather than long, explanatory stories.
"I don't think there was a great civil rights movement here," he said. "Sit-ins and things were covered. Probably we could have done more, but I feel it was adequate."
Nonetheless, historical accounts show it was hard for movement participants to get access to the papers' opinion pages.
According to George Wright's book, A History of Blacks in Kentucky , the Herald and the Leader wouldn't publish letters from CORE members.
Wright wrote that Herman Phelps, then managing editor of the Leader, said: "We refused to publish these letters because we felt that they might have a tendency to intensify racial discord."
Leader editorials criticized CORE. One said, "In the attempts in Lexington to open lunch counters to Negroes, CORE has gone beyond its avowed dedications to 'nonviolent social action,' and has interfered with the peaceful conduct of private business."
Several former newspaper staffers said these attitudes reflected the views of publisher Wachs, who ran both papers for Lexington's Stoll family.
Wachs, a Covington native, was an active member of the Republican party and an ardent fund-raiser for the Shriner's Hospital.
He was part of a group of men, like Ed Dabney, the president of First Security Bank, who "were the grandfathers of the community," said Ed Houlihan, director of the Lexington History Museum. "They would encourage people to run for mayor and city council, and to a certain degree, they would decide what happened."
Wachs used the paper to try to achieve what he thought was best for his community, many of his contemporaries said. A photo of horse racing always appeared on the sports page. A reference to the harmful health effects of cigarette smoking might be spiked from a story.
But Thomas Peoples, the 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 lines.
"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.
Blacks turned elsewhere for news.
"If you wanted to find out what was going on, you had to read The Courier-Journal or, most importantly, the Louisville Defender," said UK's Smith.
The Defender was a black newspaper. The Courier-Journal, then owned by Louisville's liberal Bingham family, covered civil rights in Louisville and often reported on Lexington as well.
Mills, the former Herald editor, noted that the Lexington papers' approach resembled that of many other papers in the South but did not compare well at all to The Courier-Journal's approach.
A few other newspapers, such as The Tennessean in Nashville and The Atlanta Constitution also covered civil rights in depth.
Big Eastern papers such as the New York Times helped create a national audience for the struggle in the South. But papers like those in Lexington probably helped prevent many people from understanding, and perhaps supporting, the movement, experts say.
Newspapers have a duty to "give voice to the voiceless," said Laura Washington, a professor at DePaul University and a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. "And in this situation, the voiceless were African Americans who were trying to reach the general public."
Some stories are now lost
By 1964, most restaurants, stores and movie theaters in Lexington had desegregated. In those early days, Lexington experienced little of the violence seen in more Southern cities. Most credit that accomplishment to Police Chief E.C. Hale, who had met with CORE members and was considered sympathetic to the movement.
Abby Marlatt, a white UK professor active in the struggle, said she believes the papers' lack of coverage delayed inevitable progress.
"If the papers had been a positive influence, it would have made a difference in bringing about change more rapidly, with possibly less ill will," she 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. Chain ownership brought a new corporate emphasis on diversity.
P.G. Peeples, the president of the Urban League, said that in recent years the Herald-Leader has helped highlight problems, such as the racial achievement gap in local schools.
"Our fight for equity has been enhanced by the Herald-Leader," he said.
But others say they believe the papers did irreparable harm by failing to provide that first rough draft of history -- the details that slip from memories as years ago by.
"Silence can be a pretty frightful thing," said state historian and Georgetown College professor James Klotter. "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."