Monday, July 5, 2004

Newspaper apologizes for ignoring rights fight

Herald-Leader looks back on news coverage in 1960s

The Associated Press

LEXINGTON - The Sunday edition of the newspaper for Kentucky's second-largest city features a prominent clarification at the top of its front page, apologizing for its failures in covering the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

The notice in the Lexington Herald-Leader accompanied a set of stories titled "Front-page news, back-page coverage" that included a spread of black-and-white pictures taken by an independent photographer.

"It has come to the editor's attention that the Herald-Leader neglected to cover the civil rights movement," the clarification read. "We regret the omission."

The newspaper said the report was important as the nation marks the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Beneath the clarification were photographs of a Main Street march and a lunch counter sit-in taken by Calvert McCann, now 62. Many of his pictures had gone undeveloped until last year, when University of Kentucky historian Gerald L. Smith was researching a book.

McCann worked at a photography store where only whites were allowed to work the counter and decided to capture on film his friends' efforts toward desegregation.

"If it had not been for Calvert, we wouldn't have a visual record of this moment in Lexington's history," Smith said.

The newspaper's main story began with anecdotes about segregation from participants in Lexington's civil rights movement that were being reported in the paper for the first time. The city had two newspapers, the Herald and the Leader, until 1983 - a decade after Knight Ridder purchased them.

"The people in charge of recording the 'first rough draft of history,' as journalism is sometimes called, ignored sit-ins and marches, or relegated them to small notices in the back pages," wrote the reporters, Linda Blackford and Linda Minch.

The Louisville Defender, a black newspaper, and the Courier-Journal of Louisville covered the civil rights movement in the state, including Lexington. Meanwhile, the Herald and the Leader relegated most news about blacks to a column called "Colored Notes."

It was compiled by the newsroom's only black employee, Gertrude Morbley, until 1969.

"Of course, it was terribly racist," said Audrey Grevious, a former leader in Lexington's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "But that was really all the news we had. Without that, we wouldn't have known anything that was going on."

Former employees of the newspapers say management tried to downplay the civil rights movement. The rare march or protest that made front-page news usually involved arrests of demonstrators and was described like a police report.

Robert Horine, a Leader reporter starting in 1958, remembers going to one of the first sit-ins.

"I talked to several of the people seated at the counter, and I had a story for Sunday's paper," he said. "When I got back, the editors said, 'Absolutely not.' We were not going to publish any news about sit-ins or civil rights demonstrations."

The orders came from the papers' general manager and publisher, Fred Wachs Sr., who died in 1974.

His son said he supported desegregation but favored a cautious approach.

"He didn't like the idea of some of these rabble rousers coming in and causing trouble," Fred Wachs Jr. said. "He tried to keep that off the pages."

The newspaper's Sunday report gave examples of its brief and one-sided coverage. Editors wouldn't publish letters from members of the Congress of Racial Equality, and editorials were critical of the organization.

"They catered to the white citizenry, and the white community just prayed that rumors and reports would be swept under the rug and just go away," said Thomas Peoples , a former NAACP leader.

Still, the papers did publish national stories about the movement, such as the 1965 march in Selma, Ala.

Lexington didn't see the violence that other Southern cities did. Most credit that accomplishment to Police Chief E.C. Hale, who had met with members of CORE and was considered sympathetic to the movement.

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