Wilson F. “Bill” Minor, a Mississippi reporter, columnist and muckraking newspaper owner who helped bring the civil rights movement to the forefront of national attention, died March 28 at a hospice center near the capital city of Jackson. He was 94.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said a son, Paul Minor.
From 1946 to 1976 Mr. Minor was the Jackson bureau chief of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, placing him at the heart of the national debate on civil rights and brutal conditions in the Jim Crow South.
One of his first big stories was covering the funeral in 1947 of U.S. Sen. Theodore G. Bilbo (D), a symbol of racial intransigence for two generations and who had written a book that year titled “Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization.”
Over the next several decades, Mr. Minor chronicled racial conflict and the rise of the civil rights movement: the renegade Dixiecrat breakaway from the Democratic Party during the 1948 presidential election; the lynching of black teenager Emmett Till for allegedly whistling at a white woman in 1955 and the trial and acquittal of the two white men who later admitted killing him; the enrollment of James Meredith, the first black student at the University of Mississippi in 1962; the slaying of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963; the murders of three civil rights workers near Philadelphia, Miss., in 1964; burnings of African American churches; and many beatings and lynchings.
While working for the Times-Picayune, Mr. Minor also was a stringer for The Washington Post, the New York Times and Newsweek, helping visiting journalists with information and contacts and occasionally getting bylines in those publications.
Hank Klibanoff, co-author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Race Beat,” quoted the Times reporter Claude Sitton as having said Mr. Minor was “the one guy you could trust” in his coverage of racial turmoil in Mississippi.
Author David Halberstam once called him “the unique conscience of the state.”
During his 30 years with the Times-Picayune, Mr. Minor set “an aggressive investigative standard that ensured he would have a lifetime of sources who trusted him to get the story right,” Klibanoff wrote in a 1997 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer magazine.
In 1973, Mr. Minor spent $5,000 on a suburban Jackson weekly, renamed it the Capital Reporter and used it as a vehicle for investigative reporting and exposes. Its motto: “Once a week, but never weakly.”
When the New Orleans paper shuttered its Jackson bureau in 1976, Mr. Minor focused full time on the Capital Reporter. He said someone smashed the windows and stole the typesetting machine after a story about a district attorney who “was tied up to a sort of local Mafia type,” he told the Los Angeles Times. Other times, he said, he spotted bullet holes in the glass.
The paper endured advertising boycotts from businesses that opposed what they perceived as the publication’s liberal bent. Lack of advertising income killed off the Capital Reporter in 1981, and its death was cause for lament in journalism circles, if not the courthouse and the statehouse. The syndicated columnist Jack Anderson said the Capital Reporter’s demise “must not pass unnoticed by those of us who value a newspaper’s dedication to truth and public integrity.”
Mr. Minor wrote a syndicated newspaper column, “Eyes on Mississippi,” for more than three decades. His last column was published on Nov. 24, 2016, critical of the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to be U.S. attorney general for allegedly addressing a black federal prosecutor as “boy” and labeling the NAACP a communist organization.
Mr. Minor was a recipient of Harvard University’s Louis Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism in 1966 and Columbia University’s John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism in 1997.
Wilson Floyd Minor was born in Hammond, La., on May 17, 1922. His father was a newspaper linotype operator, a craft that has since become obsolete, and Bill Minor ignored his father’s advice not to work for a newspaper.
As a teenager, he covered high school sports for the Times-Picayune, sometimes using carrier pigeons to deliver his copy to the newspaper when telephones were hard to get to, Paul Minor said.
He graduated from Tulane University with a journalism degree in 1943, then served in the Navy during World War II. He joined the Times-Picayune full time after the war.
One of his first stories was about the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations, which he termed a “mini-Gestapo group” for its secret arrests and other abuses. A half-century later, told the Los Angeles Times that A.J. Liebling, the New Yorker magazine’s media critic, sent him a long telegram asking why his story wasn’t being picked up by the wire services.
“Basically, he wanted to know if I was real,” Mr. Minor joked. Liebling became one of the first journalistic “outsiders” who came to rely on Mr. Minor’s in-depth knowledge of the state.
Survivors include his wife of 73 years, Gloria Marks Minor of Jackson; three sons, Paul Minor of New Orleans and Jeffrey Minor and Douglas Minor, both of Jackson; six grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
Growing up amid the turmoil of the civil rights movement, the Minor family had its share of telephone death threats and cross burnings at home. Neighborhood children were sometime forbidden to play with the Minor children. “We were different,” Paul Minor said. “We were Catholic. We were liberal.”
In “The Race Beat,” Klibanoff and co-author Gene Roberts wrote that Mr. Minor always tried to keep “the struggle for racial advancement a story he covered and not a cause he believed in.”
This was sometimes difficult. During street protests in Jackson after the murder of Evers, Mr. Minor witnessed demonstrators being beaten — including one where the whack of the police club on a young man’s skull made what Klibanoff and Roberts called “as clear a sound as Mickey Mantle connecting for a home run.”
The incident so unnerved Mr. Minor that he felt he had to get away because “he could not rationalize or stomach what he had witnessed,” the authors wrote. “He made his way to the quiet of the Roman Catholic St. Peter’s Cathedral. Crossing himself he entered a pew inside the church, knelt, and began praying for reason and calm to replace hatred and violence. A priest came beside him, spoke with him, gave him communion and encouraged him not to lose his resolve.”
Then Mr. Minor went back out on the street.
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