Mr. Jenkins, who also worked for two years as the No. 2 press official in the Carter White House, would come to say he had a “ringside seat to the history of our times.” But “the most significant story I ever wrote,” he said after announcing his retirement in 1991, “was a routine story I wrote in 15 minutes and that didn’t even carry a byline.”
The article ran April 5, 1960, on Page 9 of the Alabama Journal — the afternoon counterpart of the Montgomery Advertiser — and detailed a recent full-page advertisement in the Times in which “60 prominent liberals” appealed for legal defense contributions for King.
Mr. Jenkins noted minor inaccuracies in the ad’s description of efforts to intimidate civil rights demonstrators, setting off a dizzying chain of events that culminated in the 1964 Supreme Court decision New York Times Co. v. Sullivan
, a landmark ruling that supported freedom of the press.
He was 89 when he died Oct. 24 at his home in Baltimore. The cause was complications from congestive heart failure, said his wife, Bettina Jenkins.
A tall, courtly Southerner, Carrell Ray Jenkins was born in Sylvester, Ga., on Sept. 25, 1930. His mother was a homemaker, and his father sold tractors for International Harvester while growing cotton, corn and tobacco on the family farm.
Mr. Jenkins seemed destined for an agricultural career himself before coming down with tuberculosis as a boy, leading doctors to fuse the bones in his left knee. While continuing with his daily chores — wringing the necks of chickens, castrating pigs with a dull knife — he also plowed through a set of Charles Dickens novels and focused on writing, encouraged by a teacher.
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Read the obituary (Charles Sykes/AP)
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He became the first in his family to graduate from college, receiving a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia in 1951, and joined Georgia’s Columbus Ledger newspaper that same year. Mr. Jenkins was assigned to what was then considered “the dog beat of the paper” — covering Phenix City, Ala., where GIs from nearby Fort Benning flocked to gambling halls and brothels such as Ma Beachie’s Swing Club and Cliff’s Fish Camp.
“Being young and single,” he later wrote, “I had a singular advantage over the other reporters: I participated in the vice by night and I exposed it by day.”
Mr. Jenkins was beaten while covering a 1952 municipal election. Two years later he found himself in the middle of one of the country’s hottest stories, when Albert L. Patterson, the Democratic nominee for Alabama attorney general, was assassinated in Phenix City after promising to crack down on corruption.
The state government brought in the National Guard, and 144 people were prosecuted in connection with the city’s politically connected underworld. More than 80 were convicted or pleaded guilty. And in a twist of fate that inspired a Hollywood film, “The Phenix City Story,” Patterson’s son, John, was elected attorney general in his place and later became governor.
Mr. Jenkins covered the story alongside Ledger colleagues such as Tom Sellers and editor Robert W. Brown, who wrote front-page editorials. In 1955, the Ledger and its Sunday edition, the Ledger-Enquirer, were awarded the Pulitzer for public service, a top honor in American journalism that is given to a publication rather than to individual reporters.
The judges wrote that the newspaper’s “complete news coverage and fearless editorial attack . . . were effective in destroying a corrupt and racket-ridden city government,” adding that “it covered the whole unfolding story of the final prosecution of the wrong-doers with skill, perception, force and courage.”
Mr. Jenkins was only 24 when the Pulitzer was awarded. He went on to write about the black community in Columbus, which was generally ignored by the newspaper, before being named city editor of the Alabama Journal in 1959. Within a year, he would write his 12-inch story on the King ad, which he spotted while eating a bologna sandwich, examining a tattered copy of the New York Times that had been passed among the Journal’s editors.
His article prompted an outraged editorial from the Montgomery Advertiser, which pounced on the inaccuracies in the ad to call for the Times and the advertisement’s backers to determine whether their names were “married to a slanderous lie.” Soon after, Montgomery police commissioner L.B. Sullivan demanded a retraction and sued the Times, alleging libel.
Other politicians (including Gov. Patterson) sued as well, and the case landed in the Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously for the Times and restricted public officials’ ability to sue for defamation, establishing the standard of “actual malice.”
Mr. Jenkins, meanwhile, rose to become the Journal’s managing editor and then editorial-page editor, a position that he also held at the morning Advertiser before being named executive editor of both newspapers in 1978.
He edited a Pulitzer-winning 1970 series by Harold Eugene Martin about the use of Alabama prisoners for pharmaceutical experiments and once estimated that he cost the Advertiser and Journal $500,000 in revenue for running liberal editorials opposing Wallace, the segregationist Alabama governor.
“I don’t want to sound pretentious, but the editorial page ought to be the repository of the conscience of the community,” Mr. Jenkins later told the Evening Sun.
He joined the newspaper in 1981, after working in the Carter administration as a special assistant for press affairs — a position that later led him to joke, “The White House is a good place to have been, not to be.” Under Mr. Jenkins, the editorial and op-ed pages of the Evening Sun “improved dramatically,” Publisher Michael J. Davies said in 1991, when Mr. Jenkins announced his retirement. The Evening Sun, an afternoon sister paper of the Baltimore Sun, folded three years later.
In retirement, Mr. Jenkins wrote occasional op-eds and a book, “Blind Vengeance” (1995), on the 1989 bombing campaign of Walter Leroy Moody Jr., who murdered federal judge Robert S. Vance and civil rights lawyer Robert E. Robinson. (Moody was sentenced to death and executed last year at 83, becoming the oldest inmate put to death in the modern era of capital punishment.)
Mr. Jenkins’s account of the bombings drew on a legal training he pursued in the years after covering the Phenix City trials, taking night classes at the Thomas Goode Jones School of Law, now part of Faulkner University in Montgomery. He received a law degree in 1977 and was also a Nieman journalism fellow at Harvard University. In 1985, he won the Scripps Howard Foundation’s Ernie Pyle Award for human-interest reporting.
In addition to his wife of 63 years, the former Bettina Cirsovius, a German immigrant who lives in Baltimore, survivors include three children, Sam Jenkins of Memphis, Mark Jenkins of Montgomery and Nancy Jenkins-Chafin of Richmond; and four grandchildren.
While Mr. Jenkins’s editorials and essays ranged widely, he often returned to civil rights, writing for many years — and for several publications — of his frequent interviews with King in the basement of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery.
On one 1959 visit, he told the civil rights leader of five distant ancestors who had been “poisoned by a slave” on their plantation near Bridgeboro, Ga., according to notes in a family Bible. “And yet,” King told him, “you and I can hold this respectful talk — you, the son of slave owners, and I, the son of slaves who once lived together in the Red Hills of Georgia. Isn’t that reassuring?”
“As we parted he asked if there was anything he might do for me,” Mr. Jenkins wrote in a 1985 Evening Sun op-ed. “I told him that I had heard many of his speeches, and that if one day he would drop in what he had said about the sons of slaves and sons of slave owners from the Red Hills of Georgia, I would be honored. He said that he would.”
Four years later, Mr. Jenkins was driving home from the March on Washington when he listened on the radio as King neared the end of his speech. It had been a long day, and Mr. Jenkins had decided to go home early, before King took the microphone and declared, “I have a dream that one day on the Red Hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
“He had kept his promise,” Mr. Jenkins wrote, “and I wasn’t even there to hear it.”