Newspapers typically work to point out society’s ills, publishing both expository reporting and sharply worded editorials to spotlight problems in the world, and hopefully effect change.
But with the opening Thursday of the new museum and memorial in Montgomery, Ala., about the South’s wrenching history of lynchings, readers of the city’s local paper, the Advertiser, were greeted by a different tack.
Inspired by the museum’s spirit of reckoning, the newspaper used its front page for an editorial that looked within, writing critically and unflinchingly about its own role in promulgating a system of violent white supremacy through the reporting it published more than 100 years ago.
“Our shame,” the headline read. The first words? “We were wrong.”
“On the day when people from across the globe come to our capital city to consider the sordid history of slavery and lynching and try to reconcile the horrors of our past, the Montgomery Advertiser recognizes its own shameful place in the history of these dastardly, murderous deeds,” the editorial read. “The Advertiser was careless in how it covered mob violence and the terror foisted upon African Americans from Reconstruction through the 1950s. We dehumanized human beings. Too often we characterized lynching victims as guilty before proved so and often assumed they committed the crime.”
Part of stories the newspaper published this week about lynchings, the editorial was joined by a news article that reported the many ways in which the paper upheld racial stereotypes, undermined victims of mob violence and, ultimately, worked in subtle ways to uphold a brutal system of racially motivated terrorism.
The two pieces formed a moving moment of self-reflection in a country still grappling with the deep racial wounds left by its history, and drew attention from far and wide.
The newspaper said that more than 360 African Americans were killed by mobs in Alabama between 1877 and 1950, but reporters sifting through archival records found that the Advertiser treated lynching with “detachment buoyed by racial stereotypes.”
Though the Advertiser of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had paid lip service to the evil of lynchings and extrajudicial violence, its attitude could be summed up as: “opposition to lynching in the abstract; indifference to the violence within our gates,” reporters found.
A 1919 editorial, which followed the kidnapping and murder of two men who had been accused of assaulting white women, evinced this contradictory line of thinking.
“All right-thinking people deplore lynchings,” the paper wrote, but “as long as there are attempts at rape by black men, red men or yellow men on white women there will be lynchings. Lynchings will end in America when there are no longer attempts at assault. A volume of moralizing will not affect this primal, immovable fact.”
In its review of the piece Thursday, the Advertiser noted that it had not provided “a shred of evidence the murder victims were guilty,” when the editorial was published nearly 100 years ago.
“The Advertiser advised blacks to ‘walk circumspectly,’ ” it noted in its review. “Whites, the paper counseled, should ‘be above the petty brutality of tyrannizing over a more or less helpless inferior.’ ”
The news writing fell short as well, the paper found.
A story about a man who had been killed by a group of white men in 1893 began with the exclamation: “He has been caught!”
The headline about the man’s burial said he had been “planted,” which the paper wrote this week made it sound “as if he was something less than other men, as if he was a shrub.”
And the paper sneered at Northern newspaper coverage that cast a critical eye on lynchings in the South, “employing whataboutism like a cudgel and viewing alleged media bias as a greater problem than mob killings,” in an echo, perhaps, of contemporary media currents today, where expository coverage is increasingly smeared as biased by partisan media outlets.
Frederick “Bro” Krift III, the newspaper’s executive editor, told The Washington Post that the idea for the two pieces about the Advertiser’s own role in the history of lynchings arose naturally while planning coverage for the opening of the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
“If you have a museum and a memorial that is going to be asking people to be thinking about their position and their relationship to the past, I didn’t think we could point fingers and be talking about other people without talking about ourselves first,” Krift said. “They say you have to look to your past to understand where you’re going to get to a better place. And that includes us in the media.”
Krift said he believed that a strong message could be sent by looking inward and admitting fault, in a culture torn by partisanship and the blaming of others.
“In some ways, it can’t always be finger pointing. That’s what editorials do,” he said. “If there was ever going to be a solution to what we were doing and what we’re trying to resolve, one of those would be owning up to where we came from. If you bring that into a community, than maybe people start thinking about it within themselves and what they can do.”
The 41-year-old editor, who took over the helm of the newspaper in 2016 after stints in Texas and Pittsburgh, said they didn’t know exactly what they would find in their research but had a hunch that it would not reflect well on the previous era’s editors and reporters.
Founded in 1829 as the Planter’s Gazette, the newspaper was the “leading newspaper of the new Confederate states by 1861,” according to its history. After the war, it was helmed by Confederate veteran Major William Wallace Screws.
Krift said what reporters found in the archives showed how feelings of racial superiority had bled into the coverage.
A man lynched in 1896 on the accusation that he had shot a police officer was referred to as a “cowardly, murderous negro,” even as the writer acknowledged questions about his guilt.
The newspaper’s research, which involved digital searches as well as archival research at the Alabama State Archives nearby, also led to other projects.
Brian Lyman, the reporter who wrote the story that documented how the paper had failed in its coverage of the era, ended up finding material during a search of the archives that he later used to write another piece in the series. The 7,000-word story, about four white men who were convicted in 1901 for lynching a black man — a rarity that wouldn’t be replicated in Alabama for 80 years — emerged from a headline about the trial and a crumpled-up court transcript.
Krift said the examination served as a warning about the insidiousness of credulous and biased media coverage to this day.
“I think what we have to think about consciously is how we characterize people regardless of what they’re accused of,” he said. “And though it’s really hard in the modern era where you have your resources stretched, to take your time to really understand what occurred and make sure you get it right, and that every person has humanity.”
The paper did go on to win a handful of Pulitzer Prizes on topics that touched on race and criminal justice: in 1927 for editorial coverage that was sharply critical of the Ku Klux Klan and in 1970 for an investigative series that exposed a commercial scheme of using state prisoners for drug experimentation. But the newspaper says that its coverage of the civil rights movement, such a central part of Montgomery’s history, was similarly tone deaf and misguided.
The paper still has work to do: African Americans make up 59 percent of the city’s population but three of its 18 newsroom staffers.
This week, the coverage has made a big splash.
Krift said the calls and encouragement have poured in. He told the story of a subscriber who had gotten hold of him at his desk on Thursday, calling to complain that her newspaper had gotten soaked in a downpour. She didn’t want a refund; she told him the edition was important to her and she wanted a copy of it. He drove over to her house to drop off five dry copies, and then went back to the newspaper’s office.
“I could tell that it mattered to her,” Krift said. “And it mattered to me. The newsroom has invested so much of itself into this.”