Book gives mixed marks on local civil rights coverage


A book published in 2002 that chronicles how daily newspapers in Mississippi covered the Civil Rights Movement gives mixed marks to The Hattiesburg American.

Author Susan Weill, who received her Ph.D. in communication from the University of Southern Mississippi in 1998 and released her doctoral research as a book, “In a Madhouse’s Din: Civil Rights Coverage by Mississippi’s Daily Press, 1948-1968,” wrote the book after spending more than two decades as a working journalist.

In general, The American, like most of the state’s newspapers, largely ignored or under-reported many of the crimes committed against Civil Rights workers and volunteers.

They published at least two locally-written stories about the October 1963 “Freedom Election” with Dr. Aaron Henry.

Much of the time, the newspaper published wire stories about civil rights activities in other parts of the state, but largely ignored what was happening in Hattiesburg.

Weill wrote that the newspaper “failed to report comprehensively about local events, but did cover a few” including an incident in June 1964 when two cars owned by Civil Rights workers were shot full of holes while they were parked outside the Hattiesburg “Freedom House,” located at 507 Mobile.

“Then, until nearly two weeks later, when three volunteers were beaten with an iron pipe, and the story was picked up by the wire services, no other incidents were reported.”

According to volunteers’ records, however, many occurred.

On the other hand, Weill wrote that The American was “one of the few Mississippi daily newspapers that offered civil rights workers a chance to tell their side of Freedom Summer.”

Rather than cover it with local writers, editors left it up to the wire service to cover a mid-July incident in which three volunteers – including a visiting Rabbi from Ohio – were attacked by two men with iron pipes as they walked in an uninhabited area.

Hollis Watkins, a veteran of the state Civil Rights movement, said it was commonplace for local newspapers to turn a blind eye.

“There was not only fear among the black community, but the white community, too – including small business owners,” he said. “Most newspapers didn’t want to say or do anything to be viewed as being antagonistic. There was a definite power structure and newspapers were asked to dance to the same tune as everyone else.”