The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The irony of complaints about Nikole Hannah-Jones’s advocacy journalism

The White press helped destroy democracy in the South. Black journalists developed an activist tradition because they had to.

The Hussman School of Journalism and Media’s Carroll Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Eamon Queeney for The Washington Post)

In the mid-20th century, Walter Hussman Sr. transformed a handful of small newspapers in southern Arkansas into one of the South’s most profitable media companies. His son, Walter Hussman Jr., joined the family business in the 1970s and helped it gain control of two historically important Southern newspapers — the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette. Now, as local and regional news outlets struggle to survive, the younger Hussman is giving back. He is donating $25 million to the University of North Carolina’s school of journalism and media, a generous investment in the future of journalism that should have cemented the Hussman family’s honored place in Southern media.

But Hussman’s objection to the school’s hiring with tenure of Black journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones highlights a different legacy, one that pitted Southern newspapers like the Gazette and the Democrat against African American journalists like Hannah-Jones.

Hussman reportedly worried that Hannah-Jones’s investigative work appeared to be “trying to push an agenda.” And it is. But her agenda — to focus broad public attention on the enduring impact of slavery, Jim Crow and anti-Black racism — is merely a continuation of the long legacy of the Black press and its battle to save democracy in the United States.

This tradition flourished in the critical decades after the Civil War, when the promise of a pluralist, multiracial democracy appeared within reach. This opportunity created a pitched battle between Black journalists, who demanded a fair and just “New America,” and many of their White counterparts, particularly those in the South. Editors and publishers of newspapers like those Hussman’s family later bought worked closely with business and political allies to eliminate what they viewed as the threat of Black suffrage and to build the Jim Crow political economy that came to dominate Southern society.

Far from objective, the work of the Southern White press and its allies destroyed democracy in the South for nearly a century and crafted a racial hierarchy that infected modern America and endures today.

After the Civil War, the former enslavers who dominated the Democratic Party in the South launched their campaign against Black political equality using the only institutions they still controlled: their newspapers. Those papers — which included the Gazette and the Democrat in Arkansas — did more than support Democratic Party propaganda in print. White editors and publishers in the South were committed political actors who were deeply engaged in all aspects of the party’s campaigns to oust the biracial Republican governments that emerged during Reconstruction.

In Mississippi, for example, the offices of Ethelbert Barksdale’s Jackson Clarion also served as an arms and ammunition depot for White militias that carried out murderous raids on Black communities. At the same time, the Clarion’s news pages blamed the violence and chaos on the “weakness” of the Republican government.

In the 1880s, after White violence precipitated the collapse of Reconstruction, Atlanta Constitution editor Henry W. Grady hailed the emergence of a “New South” where the races lived in harmony and business opportunities abounded. Often considered a racial moderate, Grady actually led a Democratic Party ring that protected a convict lease system that rounded up Black men, women and children, often on trumped-up charges, and funneled them into railroad construction and other dangerous work.

In the 1890s, when a collapse in cotton prices fueled a populist backlash among poor farmers and briefly raised hopes of biracial political coalitions in the South, the Democrats and their business allies again turned to the White press. In Alabama, editor and politician William Wallace Screws received a secret subsidy from the Louisville & Nashville Railroad to prop up his financially ailing Montgomery Daily Advertiser, the state’s largest newspaper. In return, Screws launched a vicious campaign against a populist insurgency that had united White and Black farmers and industrial workers against the railroads, mining interests and big planters who controlled the state. Frustrated populists claimed the Advertiser used the battle cry of white supremacy to “crush debate” and to “prevent discussion of economic ideas.”

In North Carolina, the situation was even worse. Josephus Daniels used his newspaper, the Raleigh News & Observer, as the propaganda organ for the Democratic Party’s violent campaign to destroy a fragile alliance of Black Republicans and White Populists, a biracial coalition that had gained control of the governor’s office, the state legislature and the municipal government in Wilmington. The Democrats took back power through fraud and violence at the ballot box, and a rampaging White mob in Wilmington destroyed the offices of a Black daily newspaper, murdered dozens of the Black residents and forced hundreds of others to flee the city.

This attack on a Black newspaper was no coincidence. The Black press had spent decades fighting against the campaigns by White newspapers and their allies, determined to force national public attention on the rise of Jim Crow and its impact on American democracy.

Most of this emerging Black public sphere emanated from the North — T. Thomas Fortune at the New York Age, W. Calvin Chase of the Washington Bee, Mary Church Terrell of the National Association of Colored Women. Black voices delivered similar messages in the South, but at heightened risk. White mobs and militias, often inflamed by the White press, silenced some of the South’s most potent Black journalists. Among those forced to flee for their lives were Jesse Chisholm Duke in Alabama, Ida B. Wells in Tennessee, Alex Manly in North Carolina and J. Max Barber in Georgia.

The White Democrats won their quest to shape the New South, and their newspapers enjoyed the spoils of victory. Like the Gazette and the Democrat, they lived long and prospered across the 20th century. As the age of professional journalism emerged after World War I, most White Southern newspapers declared their allegiance to the new norms of objectivity and impartiality. But while they claimed not to push an agenda, they continued the battle on behalf of white-supremacist rule and anti-Black racism.

In the 1920s, most Southern newspapers supported a revived Ku Klux Klan and its insidious call for “pure Americanism.” In the 1930s, they supported Southern lawmakers who demanded the exclusion of Black workers from participation in Social Security and other New Deal programs. And after World War II, when Black civil rights activism gained traction, White journalists like James J. Kilpatrick in Richmond and Thomas R. Waring in Charleston led the charge for “massive resistance” to integration. Only late in the long and disastrous reign of Jim Crow did Harry Ashmore at the Gazette, Ralph McGill at the Atlanta Constitution and a few other Southern journalists begin to temper their papers’ support for segregation and second-class citizenship for Black Americans.

This history highlights why African American journalists have been compelled to advocate for Black equality. They have often carried out their campaigns in the shadow of a much larger White press that was fighting for just the opposite. And as Hannah-Jones has shown in her reporting, the success of those White journalists decades ago has ramifications today, as the legacy of Jim Crow continues to shape fundamental inequalities in American society. Ironically, then, the history of newspapers eventually owned by the Hussman family explains why Hannah-Jones has an agenda today, and why she is carrying on the rich tradition of the Black press.