It was a nasty black eye dealt to Alabama journalism last week, worn on the face of the entire state.
The counterpunch Alabama journalism threw back, however, was that of a champ.
The words matter
Writers normally are driven by the desire to inform or influence their readers with writing that evokes emotion and inspires action, positive change, or maybe even the restoration of justice.
Back when working on a master’s degree-required thesis for one such inspirational writer and teacher, historian Hardy Jackson, I spent countless hours doing research on the influence of Alabama’s editorial writers during the tumultuous summer of 1919.
It was Alabama’s centennial year, but it also was the year our soldiers began returning home from World War I. Black American troops in Europe, standing proud in their uniforms, had become accustomed to celebration and being treated as heroes, only to return home to the instant reality of a South that remained very much segregated and spiked with hate.
Riots and lynchings rocked the nation that summer, much of it centered on racial tensions, uncertain economic conditions, and the fear of a changing society.
My work examined the role Alabama’s editorial writers played in influencing that society.
Sadly, instead of taking a brave stand at an opportune time that perhaps could have jumpstarted the effort to humanize and improve black-white relations decades sooner, most of the editorials only fueled the fires of discourse.
KKK still means hate
1919 was only 54 years after the end of the Civil War.
2019 is here, 154 years after the Civil War.
We’ve seen a lot of blood, sweat and tears flow in this state in the effort to understand shared human dignity and the right to live a life of equal opportunity.
Yet, here we are in the 21st Century, and still a newspaper editor in southwest Alabama is consumed enough with racism, hatred and resentment to write such things as:
“Time for the Ku Klux Klan to night ride again….
“Slaves, just freed after the civil war, were not stupid. At times they borrowed their former masters’ robes and horses and rode through the night to frighten some evil doer. Sometimes they had to kill one or two of them, but so what…”
Regarding Democrats in Washington, “Seems like the Klan would be welcome to raid the gated communities up there. They call them compounds now.”
That came from just one editorial out of several written by Goodloe Sutton of The Democrat-Reporter in Linden that carried messages such as calling on the hate-group KKK to ride again.
A deliberate edit
Now enter the good guys.
Auburn University student Chip Brownlee, already an accomplished young journalist who writes for the student newspaper – The Auburn Plainsman – and several other publications from time to time, put eyes on one of Sutton’s editorials a week or so ago.
He realized right away either the date on the newspaper was off a hundred years, or perhaps that he had found a brazen example of an Alabama anti-journalist bigot abusing his responsibilities on such an influential platform instead of revering it as a noble calling to make better a world filled with evils.
Instead, the master racist had become one of those evils, silenced by the power of an exceptional apprentice.
A simple Tweet quickly roared through social media like a cyber wildfire. Other journalists joined in the growing chorus of rebuke.
Anthony Cook – a good friend, fellow Auburn graduate, editor of The Anniston Star and president of the Auburn University Journalism Advisory Council – quickly called a vote that led to the council revoking a community journalism award presented at Auburn several years ago.
The University of Southern Mississippi journalism program took similar steps, and the Alabama Press Association voted to censure Sutton and suspend his newspaper’s membership in the state’s leading journalism organization.
Finally on Friday afternoon, the message seemed to be getting through, as The Democrat Reporter, led by the Sutton family for more than half a century, announced a new publisher-editor would be leading the paper, effective immediately.
A deserved censure
It was deeply disappointing for other journalists in Alabama to learn of Sutton’s soot.
It was a welcomed, collective sigh of satisfaction to see that it would not be condoned.
It was an encouraging sign of hope to see that our journalism future still has dedicated guardians.
Troy Turner is editor of the Opelika-Auburn News. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.