Monday, April 10, 2017

Bill Minor, a courageous journalist who kept his "eyes on Mississippi" for 70 years

 
(Bill Minor with friends celebrating his 90th birthday at a party in Jackson, Mississippi, a few years ago)

OXFORD, Miss. – Over the intercom in the Mississippi Capitol pressroom in Jackson one day back in 1984, a House member harangued his colleagues on the floor over a stalled bill. “When are we ever going to enter the 20th century?” the politician cried.

“Never!” our mentor and senior Capitol press corps member, Bill Minor, shouted into the wall speaker.

We younger reporters all got a good laugh out of that but perhaps a little apprehension, too. Minor had been covering Mississippi since 1947. Maybe he wasn’t joking.

That memory came back to me late last month when I learned of Bill Minor’s death at the age of 93. He was indeed a mentor, a comrade-in-arms, a hero to me then and now. I began my journalistic journey in Mississippi in late 1981 around the same time Minor published the farewell edition of his amazing alternative newspaper, The Capital Reporter. I still have a treasured copy of that edition.

“The Ten Most Powerful: Who are the movers and shakers in Jackson?” was the top-of-the-fold headline. In an editorial inside, Bill wrote of the paper’s unabashed “sympathetic treatment of the underdog” and his “hope that there will be others to take up the slack in keeping the pressure on public officials” as well as “those in the private sector who enjoy the public trust.”

Bill wrote with authority. He had been a frontlines warrior ever since his first big story in the state, the funeral for Mississippi’s ranting, racist U.S. Senator Theodore Bilbo. From there he had gone on to cover practically every major event in the state’s bloody civil rights-era history. As a reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Capital Reporter editor, and later statewide syndicated columnist, he suffered the slings and arrows—death threats, cross burnings, smashed windows, even a stolen typesetting machine.

A compelling collection of Bill's columns and writings appeared in 2001 under the title Eyes on Mississippi: A Fifty-Year Chronicle of Change (J Prichard Morris Books).

I was proud to be part of a new generation of journalists in Mississippi taking up his challenge, and I kept in close touch with Bill over the years to see how we were doing. Not always so good, he would sometimes lament.

Too much of “our journalism is unfortunately go along, get along,” he told an audience of students and professors at the University of Mississippi in 2004. “To be a journalist is to be prepared to take a risk. Newspapers are the closest to my heart. … I see us engaged in an endless war. This is not just a cozy little political sideshow, it is serious business. … Journalists are still the first eyes and ears of the nation, but it takes reporters out there on the ground. There’s no substitute for reporters on the ground.”

He didn’t let the professors in the audience off the hook either. He recalled one who lost his job for exercising “academic freedom” and standing up for civil rights in the 1960s, former Ole Miss history professor James Silver. “James Silver, a great old professor here back in the day any professor who spoke up against the system was run out of the state.”

 I was fortunate to come to Mississippi at a time when a lot of the legends were still alive. I once interviewed James Silver and also civil rights crusader and journalist Hazel Brannon Smith. I’ll never forget talking with another legend from that era, reporter Homer Bigart, and I actually worked for the great Claude Sitton in my native North Carolina before coming here.

However, none of them impressed me more than Bill Minor, a Louisiana native who could have easily left Mississippi for a glorious career in Washington, D.C., but instead chose to stay.

“I used to yearn for Bill to come to Washington and take on such sacred cows as Russell Long and Jim Eastland,” New York Times and former Mississippi newspaper and wire reporter John Herbers once wrote. “But he may have succeeded better, as a reporter, by staying in Mississippi. I know of no other state that has been transformed as much. And as the eyes and ears for many outside the state, as well as in, he may have contributed more to that transformation than any other journalist.”

Over the past years Bill and I would catch up on life and politics with a phone call every few weeks or at an occasional gathering. I loved those conversations, which usually included a good bit of grousing over the politics of the day and the fact that dammit, Mississippi was still trying “to enter the 20th century” more than a decade into the 21st! Then we’d have a good laugh and talk about the latest hell he had given a deserving politician.

This column appeared recently in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Mississippi.

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