A few weeks ago, the Laurel Leader-Call of Jones County, Miss., published a front-page article on what it called a “historic wedding.” In the process, the small-town paper took its own place in history and added a new chapter to the state’s proud tradition of independent journalists standing up to local prejudice.
The article, headlined “Historic Wedding: Women wed in Laurel through smiles, tears,” reported the union of two Jones County women, Jessica Powell and Crystal Craven. According to the Leader-Call, the women were the first to hold a same-sex wedding celebration in the county.
Despite the headline, the story focused more on Craven’s battle with cancer than on the politics of same-sex marriage. It mentioned only in passing that Mississippi does not recognize such marriages. The tone of the article was factual, giving a brief background of the couple’s courtship, along with details of the ceremony. An accompanying picture showed Powell and Craven cutting their wedding cake.
The wedding article generated more Facebook comments than any other story published by the paper since it established its Facebook page. Readers called the paper to complain, and at least 15 cancelled their subscriptions. According to the paper’s owner, Jim Cegielski, several readers claimed that the story was inappropriate for children, while others accused the paper of supporting “an abomination against God.”
In an intelligently written editorial, Cegielski defended the paper’s decision to print the story. “The job of a community newspaper is not pretending something didn’t take place or ignoring it because it will upset people,” he wrote. “No, our job is to inform readers what is going on in our town and let them make their own judgments.” The wedding was a newsworthy event, and so the paper covered it, with as much objectivity and as little bias as possible. Like the article itself, the editorial stated no position on whether same-sex marriage should be legal.
Cegielski’s editorial caught the attention of the national news. Soon, the Leader-Call had gained twice as many subscribers as it had lost, many of them out-of-state residents subscribing solely to express their support. Cegielski has been rightly praised for standing up for the reporter who wrote the original story and for supporting Powell and Craven’s right to have their story heard.
There was another time when Mississippians looked to their local newspapers for confirmation of their own biases and hatred. During that time, too, there were a few reporters and editors who stood against the tide.
As the civil rights movement took hold in the 1950s and ’60s, Mississippi newspapers, most notably including the Jackson Daily News, gave voice to a culture of intolerance, violence and denial. The editorial page regularly excoriated “mixers” and “agitators,” such as the Freedom Riders. Stories of aggression and brutality against African-Americans and civil rights leaders were buried or downplayed, and any positive coverage of achievements by blacks was missing entirely.
The Daily News’ path was the one of least resistance. It was the path most papers across the state followed – but not all. Five of the brave Mississippi editors and journalists who stood up against violence and hatred were profiled in a 1994 dissertation on the subject; their names were Hazel Brannon Smith, J. Oliver Emmerich, Ira B. Harkey Jr., P.D. East, and Hodding Carter Jr.
These editors and journalists faced libel charges, beatings, cross burnings, and other attacks and intimidation for their work. Some were dedicated civil rights supporters who called for a complete end to segregation. Others were themselves proponents of segregation who simply believed in standing against violence and corruption. But all believed that a journalist’s job is to inform public opinion, not simply to parrot it. Together, they offered a small measure of support to those who were otherwise invisible in the state’s news coverage.
The Laurel Leader-Call itself played a role in challenging the dominant culture of oppression in pre-civil-rights-era Mississippi. A 1954 article in the paper, a response to the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, expressed the hope, “We are going to make history in Mississippi. We are going to be an example to the world. Even temper must prevail… the solution to the problems must be worked out in the spirit of Americanism and true Christianity.” Even earlier, in the 1890s, a Jones County newspaper, the Laurel Chronicle, became the first white-owned newspaper in the state to run a column expressly praising the positive contributions of black residents.
These early voices of tolerance were no match for the tide of bigotry that flowed across the South and beyond in the decades after the Civil War. By the middle of the 20th century, Mississippi’s racial mores were so calcified that it was an act of courage when Emmerich, an editor who held progressive views, began using courtesy titles such as Mr. and Mrs. when writing about black individuals.
The Leader-Call’s coverage of Powell and Craven’s wedding follows in that tradition. Perhaps at some point, the paper’s editorial page will also come out in favor of equal marriage rights for every Mississippi resident. For now, it is enough that the paper is willing to report the news as it happens, and to defend its decision to do so.