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Louis Jaffé’s Tormented Plea for Justice

ISSUE:  Autumn 2003
Editor for Justice: The Life of Louis I. Jaffé. By Alexander S. Leidholdt. Louisiana State University Press. $49.95.

By the early 1920s, as historian John Kneebone notes in his study of white Southern journalists at the height of Jim Crow, most newspapers in the region had become “sensitive to the dangers of racial conflict” and sought “to publicize improvements and decrease public tensions.” Despite this general awareness, only a handful of journalists, largely from the growing urban areas of the South, recognized a need for actual reform. Although few in number, these journalists proved significant enough to prompt Will Alexander, the executive director of the South’s leading interracial organization throughout the 1920s and 1930s, to remark in 1952 that “the best newspapermen in the South have for the last 30 years been the most constructive single influence in changing racial patterns.” Without a doubt, Louis Jaffé, the editor of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot from 1919 until his death in 1950, stood at the forefront of those that Alexander had in mind. Finally, more than a half-century after his death, Jaffé has found his biographer.

In Editor for Justice, Alexander Leidholdt provides a long overdue account of Jaffé’s struggle to transform race relations in Virginia in the years between World War I and the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Skillfully synthesizing Jaffé’s public utterances, primarily in the form of his editorials, and his most intimate and heretofore unavailable personal letters, Leidholdt weaves together a portrait of an intensively private man whose own personal demons bore directly on his commitment to fighting racial injustice. In several instances, Editor for Justice would have benefited from more rigorous editing; Leidholdt occasionally falls prey to a fascination with his sources and includes facts that simply are not necessary. On balance, however, he has produced a compelling narrative that is well worth the read.

As Leidholdt makes clear, Jaffé’s difficult first marriage and accompanying health problems consumed substantial reservoirs of his time and energy with the result that Jaffé never developed the national reputation enjoyed by other leading Southern journalists. In fact, Jaffé confined his words almost exclusively to the editorial pages of the Virginian-Pilot and rarely published for a regional or national audience (a 1927 article in the Virginia Quarterly Review marks a rare exception). By contrast, Jaffé’s two most prominent contemporaries in the Old Dominion, Douglas Southall Freeman, who guided the Richmond News Leader from 1915 to 1949, and Virginius Dabney, the lead voice of the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 1936 to 1969, did enjoy national reputations: Freeman as a prize-winning biographer of Robert E. Lee and George Washington; Dabney as an author of Southern Liberalism and other books on the region, and as an essayist who contributed widely to national publications. Though less well-known than either Freeman or Dabney, Jaffé did far more than his fellow journalists to call white Virginians to recognize the injustice inherent in their devotion to white supremacy.

Unlike most of his contemporaries and readers, who proudly displayed their credentials as natives of the South (and not a few paid obeisance to the Lost Cause of the Confederacy), Louis Jaffé remained an outsider to the region in important ways. Not only was Jaffé born in Detroit in 1888, but his parents were Lithuanian Jews who fled the eastern European pogroms of the mid-1880s. Confronted with rising anti-Semitism in Detroit in the mid-1890s, the Jaffés moved to Durham, North Carolina, where they barely made ends meet operating a series of retail stores that catered mostly to blacks and poor whites. After four successful years at Trinity College (now Duke University), Jaffé still felt himself an outsider. “I am always conscious,” he remarked in the midst of World War I, “that racially a fine but unmistakable line separates me from my non-Jewish friends.”

Jaffé’s heritage remained a constant source of turmoil for the better part of his life. In fact, Leidholdt’s most poignant and wrenching passages trace Jaffé’s difficult accommodation with Christian society. A year after his arrival in Norfolk in November 1919, Jaffé married Margaret Davis, the daughter of a prominent Norfolk family, in an Episcopal ceremony that his Orthodox parents and brother did not attend. Despite Jaffé’s own conversion to Christianity several years later, Margaret never came to terms with her husband’s Jewish roots. Showing signs of increased mental instability, she began to spend longer and longer periods of time away from Norfolk, denying Jaffé a meaningful relationship with their son. By the time the couple divorced in 1936, Margaret’s own anti-Semitism was not difficult to discern.

Leidholdt argues, with good reason, that Jaffé’s own experience as an outsider contributed to his forceful advocacy on behalf of African Americans. From the moment he assumed control of the Virginian-Pilot’s editorial page, Jaffé denounced the resurgent Ku Klux Klan with more tenacity than any other editor in Virginia. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, he condemned the failure of city leaders to provide adequate, much less equal, educational and recreational facilities for African Americans; vigorously opposed a state law that defined race according to a “one-drop” rule; and editorialized against the state’s Public Assemblages Law, the most restrictive segregation law in the nation of its kind. After inept local authorities failed to respond to a series of lynchings, Jaffé almost single-handedly moved a reluctant Governor Harry Byrd to sign a bill that made Virginia the first state in the nation to declare lynching a state, rather than merely a local, crime. For his leadership in the antilynching campaign, Jaffé received the Pulitzer Prize, the first Virginian to win journalism’s highest honor.

Despite such advocacy, which far exceeded that of any other editor in Virginia, Jaffé’s views with regard to blacks were never fixed, but rather evolved over time. In fact, in the early 1920s, Jaffé spoke the same deeply paternalistic language favored by more conservative white elites who sought to manage the pace of change in the state’s race relations. “The wise leadership of both races is working along lines that promise solution,” noted Jaffé in a 1922 editorial cited by Leidholdt. “The clear-sighted colored people know that the white people in the South are their true friends and that this friendship, coupled with mutuality of interests, promises fair dealing.” Such trite claims of friendship dominated elite discourse throughout the era of segregation, but produced few results, as blacks throughout Virginia and the South too painfully understood.

Unlike so many of his peers, however, Jaffé came to recognize the emptiness of paternalistic gestures. The persistent failure of local and state officials to address issues of concern to African Americans, and the general support these officials received from the bulk of the white electorate, led Jaffé to speak with greater urgency and forcefulness. In a letter written at the height of the Great Depression, Jaffé implored the young editor of Danville’s newspaper to recognize that a “sympathetic attitude” to the problems faced by African Americans “is not enough.” Instead, explained Jaffé, white newspaper editors had an obligation to attack “rightable wrongs.” Jaffé’s attention to specific grievances, and in particular his willingness to use his editorial page to speak out publicly, won him the trust of many African Americans in Norfolk, and helped cement a close relationship with P. B. Young, the editor of Norfolk’s black newspaper.

Jaffé’s advocacy, however, did have limits. Throughout Editor for Justice, in fact, Leidholdt emphasizes that Jaffé’s determination to alleviate the iniquities faced by African Americans “did not translate into a direct attack on segregation. Instead, like white liberal journalists throughout the region, he urged gradualism, a steady and concerted march toward racial progress within the context of separate but equal.”

Leidholdt is certainly right in this assessment. Jaffé did not publicly call for an end to segregation: nor, for that matter, did any other white Southern editor at the time. But Jaffé’s brand of gradualism did differ from that of his more well-known peers in fundamental and nuanced ways that Leidholdt does not always fully explore. On the surface, Douglas Southall Freeman, Virginius Dabney, and Louis Jaffé evinced similar views about the proper relations between blacks and whites in the segregated South. Each publicly condemned lynching and other physical manifestations of racial discrimination, urged their readers to provide equal facilities, especially with regard to recreation and education, and yet never questioned the desirability of segregation itself.

While writing editorials that, for the most part, advocated the same course of action, these three editors differed in their personal commitment to segregation. Freeman (who was never a liberal, despite Leidholdt’s claim) never considered that segregation was wrong, only that its application was often extreme. Dabney, a decade-and-a-half younger than Freeman and Jaffé, emerged in the 1930s as one of the most consistent and persistent advocates for the equitable treatment of African Americans, and rejected a core tenet of white supremacy, the horizontal color line, which mandated that all whites were superior to all blacks. Instead, Dabney envisioned a vertical color line, one that allowed whites and blacks to live parallel lives, equal yet divided, each with their own intraracial hierarchy. Although far ahead of most white Virginians in the 1930s in terms of recognizing the inherent worth of African Americans, Dabney, too, proved unable to envision a world without segregation.

Jaffé never openly called for an end to segregation either. A realist who understood the flawed but deeply held convictions of his readers, Jaffé once described the Virginian-Pilot’s editorial page “as radical as a right-thinking, Christian community will permit us to be without canceling their subscriptions.” Consequently, he acknowledged that “some of the wrongs . . . are not rightable—not in this generation, at least.” “But many of them are,” he continued in words that laid bare his approach. “The problem is to discern them, identify them, conduct a sound reconnaissance to determine whether they can be righted without a fight so bitter that it will leave the atmosphere more poisoned than ever, and then strike and keep on striking until the resistance gives away. And when that is done, to repeat the operation with another objective. Over and over again. Endlessly.”

As P. B. Young noted in an obituary cited by Leidholdt, Jaffé stood apart from other white Southern editors in that his commitment to racial change did not wane when it became evident in the 1940s that African Americans intended to settle for nothing less than the full abolition of Jim Crow. In fact, with each passing decade, Jaffé not only recognized with heightened clarity the inherent incompatibility of segregation with democratic ideals and institutions, but he accepted the inevitability of, and even looked forward to, the day when segregation ceased to sap the moral fiber of an entire region and its people.

Timing, however, remained crucial to Jaffé. During World War II, for example, Virginius Dabney authored an editorial in the Times-Dispatch that advocated an end to segregation on busses and streetcars as the only means of reducing the heightened racial friction that resulted from a war-related increase in the number of riders. Numerous scholars, including Leidholdt, have interpreted Dabney’s editorial as an attempt to restore his damaged credentials as a liberal reformer. As forces inside and outside the South began to challenge the region’s racial order with greater vehemence, native Southerners such as Dabney recoiled defensively. In the process, Dabney revealed that he was far more Southern than liberal: for Dabney, segregation as an institution was not negotiable. But in a letter asking Jaffé to support his editorial, Dabney implied that he envisioned the abolition of segregation on common carriers not as a means of restoring his reputation, but as a calculated attempt to protect segregation where it counted most: in the public schools.

Jaffé privately expressed support for the eventual abolition of segregation on common carriers, but explained to Dabney his belief that such a move, at the time, would only exacerbate the very tension that Dabney hoped to reduce. In February 1950, however, just weeks before his sudden death of a heart attack, Jaffé publicly supported a bill in the Virginia legislature that would have accomplished exactly what Dabney had proposed during the war. Denouncing the means by which the bill was killed in committee, Jaffé made clear that he now favored the abolition of segregation on common carriers.

Jaffé’s premature death makes it impossible to know how he would have responded to massive resistance, the white South’s defiant rejection of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. But perhaps it is instructive to note that Virginius Dabney remained silent throughout the crisis. He bitterly resented the Supreme Court’s decision, but also recognized massive resistance as a futile gesture doomed to failure. Douglas Southall Freeman had retired in 1949 and died in 1953, a year before the Brown decision, but his successor, Jack Kilpatrick, conjured up the mirage of interposition, and, in the process, provided intellectual sanction to the most ardent supporters of massive resistance. Among Virginia’s major dailies, only the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, ably led by Lenoir Chambers, Jaffé’s deputy and successor, opposed massive resistance. For his efforts, Chambers received the Pulitzer Prize, a fitting epitaph to the life of Louis Jaffé.


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