For more than 30 years, Hodding Carter was down there in the cauldron—where the moderates were practically none and the lash of hostility was felt day after day.
But as editor and publisher of the Greenville, Mississippi Delta Democrat-Times for most of this period, on various questions of human rights he had the singular courage and the editorial ability to wind up and let fly.
In 1937, for example, townspeople resented his paper’s unusual running of a picture of the great track star Jesse Owens, who was visiting in the area, and other stories about black achievements.
“Get this straight, everyone of you,” Carter wrote. “We were brought up on a Louisiana farm. To our knowledge, every member of our family, as far back as any of you in Greenville can trace that mythical attribute called ancestry, has been of the South, has fought for it, and loved its ideals and its foibles as well. But we personally have never felt so unsure of our status as a white man that we had to bully a negro, to return courtesy with rudeness, or to make him think that he was a despicable beast who could sense neither kindness nor gratitude nor trust.”
Indeed, woe be it to Southern moderate editorialists with Yankee origins. If one had not been able to tell critics that one’s grandfather, John Smith Martin, a Confederate lieutenant, had walked back to Chattanooga from Richmond after the Civil War, matters would have been worse.
Ann Waldron, a Southern journalist and author who now lives in Princeton, N.J., has written an extremely valuable, balanced account of Hodding Carter. From a freshman at Bowdoin who moved out of his dormitory because the college’s only black was there, he became a foremost interpreter of the South from the point of view of broad racial sensitivity.
Carter was about as moderate as a Southern Mississipian could be. His state was the most rural, poorest, and with the highest percentage of blacks. In 1947 he reaffirmed his belief in segregation, saying he had “never advocated or believed in any movement for “social equality, ” or the mass enfranchising of the Negroes of Mississippi.”
By the landmark year 1954, when the United States Supreme Court ruled against public school segregation, he had evolved to support of the black vote. But he remained convinced, by the intensity of feeling, that desegregation could lead to another Civil War. All the same, he urged Southerners to be cool, saying that that court had been left with little alternative by the grossly unequal quality of Southern schools. Later he said that the court had been morally bound to issue its decision.
The noted Henry Watterson said that a great newspaper editor must have great scholarship, unlimited courage, and 51 per cent of the stock. When the 1954 decree came, many papers opposed it, and an astonishing number backed away from the issue. Some paramount editorial voices were stilled; importantly because their owners had financial concerns. One looks back with no little pain at the realization that extremely few Southern metropolitican dailies stayed with the Supreme Court all the way from the start.
For a good part of the time, Hodding Carter had 51 per cent of the stock. He flailed away at ignorance and indecency with what in the early part of his career seems an avidity for controversy. In later days, he was constantly worried that attempted boycotts, threats, and constant criticism might cause him to lose the Delta Democrat-Times.
Editorials and sometimes news stories, Waldron writes, “were partisan, personal, fervent, and emotional. Hodding was never reflective, analytical, or detached,” she observes. Yet the book is full of insights based on thought and striking home. A number of times, for example, Carter wrote and said “. . . It is an absurdity to denounce a race for its ignorance, at the same time denying the denounced race adequate information with which to overcome its lack of knowledge.”
Carter worked untiringly for Greenville, on and off the newspaper. He served on more than a dozen boards and other groups. Sometimes it was touch-and-go, but essentially he staved off social ostracism—he and his attractive wife Betty. And Waldron writes that Greenville became “the most liberal town in Mississippi.”
Earlier, and nine years after Carter came to Greenville, the town became involved in a knockdown-dragout fight that says quite a bit about the difficulties.
It was decided to have a war memorial to World War II servicemen. And someone must have thought it natural to include black soldiers. Protests developed. A well-to-do, conservative planter declared that over his dead body would his son’s name go up on the board with the names of “those niggers.”
Carter’s editorial said in part:
We fail to see any threat to White Supremacy or to segregation or to any other of the issues so useful to rabble rousers in placing the names of the Negro servicemen on the roll. . . .
And then we might ask ourselves this: How in God’s name can the Negroes be encouraged to be good citizens, to feel that they can get a fair break, to believe that here in the South they will some day win the things that are rightfully theirs—decent housing, better educational facilities, equal pay for equal work, a lifting of health standards and all the other milestones along an obstacle-filled road—if we deny them so small a thing as joint service recognition?
From 1941, when he was in the service, until his death, at age 65, in 1972, he was plagued with increasing blindness, first in the right eye, then in the left. That he accomplished so much is remarkable. His Pulitzer Prize, among other honors, came in May 1946, for editorial writing “on the subject of racial, religious, and economic intolerance.” Blessed as time went on with the ability to get away periodically to homes in Maine and in New Orleans, he wrote constantly for The New York Times magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, and many others.
Many of us were not as fortunate. My children once calculated that I wrote 10, 000 editorials over a 17-year period, plus a personal column thrice and then twice a week. Sometimes it was difficult not to get to the position of a Daily Oklahoman editorial writer, who once told a seminar that when 10 a. m. came, he started writing—whether he had anything to say or not. My predecessor Alfred Mynders on the editorial page of The Chattanooga Times wrote his column seven days a week, and all of us filled the yawning hole seven days a week. A great many of the pieces, of course, concerned civil rights.”Integration” was the one word to be avoided.”Desegregation” was used instead.
Hodding Carter used a number of devices we all used, especially on the lecture circuit, such as pointing out, with high legitimacy, the discrimination and often the hypocrisy in the North.”It’s not hard to sit. . . in New York and say what’s wrong with the South. It is hard to do it as an ordinary Southerner. You’ve got two strikes on you to start. Your fellow white Southerners hate you for it. You’re scalawag, a nigger-lover in their eyes. Your Northern reformers deride you for not going far enough. And you’re suspected by Negroes everywhere because you’re Southern and White.”
Carter’s feeling for the minority was so strong that, after a trip to South Africa, he sided with the Afrikaners in that long struggle.
He had no use for the young blacks and whites who came into the South from elsewhere during voter registration drives and other undertakings. He felt that would only worsen matters.
Lest anyone forget, especially since the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision was this past May, the toll was great. In Mississippi, for example, on one day, April 24, 1964, crosses were burned in 64 of the state’s 82 counties. During the next month six black churches were burned. Between January and August, 30 blacks were murdered by whites.
The period took its own toll on Hodding Carter. He had alcohol and other problems. Ann Waldron concludes that the sum total of his ordeal killed him. But his works and his spirit are a significant part of the record of this historical time.