EDITOR DANIEL CLIFTON
The Picayune celebrated its 27th anniversary April 17. It pretty much went unnoticed until employee Crissy Alderman posted a photo of the very first edition, dated April 17, 1991, on her Facebook feed.
It got me thinking that if we, the people who work at The Picayune, barely noticed the anniversary, did anyone else? Does printing a paper filled with general news or community events really matter? After all, it’s here one week and gone the next.
Then, Dan Alvey, the founder and co-owner of The Picayune along with Lee Alvey, reminded me that journalism really does matter by uttering one name: Linda Brown.
Dan attributed his passion for the news business, with all its highs and lows, to Brown, who passed away March 25 of this year. At the time of her death, Linda Brown Thompson was 75, but her legacy started in 1951, when she was an elementary school girl in Topeka, Kansas.
Her dad simply wanted her to attend a nearby school, but she couldn’t. The Topeka school board made her take a bus to another school some distance away.
You see, the school in the Browns’ neighborhood was for white children, and Brown was black.
Her father, Oliver Brown, wasn’t one to let things go because “that’s just the way things are.” He wanted what all fathers want: the best for his child. And the best education, as he could see it, was at the “whites-only” campus. In the 1950s, many places across this country adhered to the idea of “separate but equal.” In other words, as long as the black kids were getting an equal education to the white kids, school districts didn’t have to integrate. The thing was, as Mr. Brown asserted in the lawsuit that became known as Brown v. Board of Education, black children weren’t getting an equal education.
Nowhere near it.
He sued the Topeka school board under the 14th amendment’s “equal protection” clause to allow his daughter to attend the all-white campus. That lawsuit was joined by several others. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with Brown and his allies, finally ending the terrible practice of segregation in schools and elsewhere.
But not really.
Though the Supreme Court’s ruling should have ended segregation, the practice lived on. In 1957, one of the biggest showdowns over segregation happened in Little Rock, Arkansas, when then-Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus took a strong stance against desegregation. When courts ruled that nine black students could attend Central High School in Little Rock, Faubus tried to do everything in his power to stop it.
He even called in the Arkansas National Guard to block the school entrance to the students, who would become known as the “Little Rock Nine.”
During this time, a big part of American society — including newspaper editors — supported segregation. Maybe many didn’t like segregation and thought it was wrong, but in their silence, they basically condoned the practice. Those who dared speak out against segregation faced backlash.
But Harry Ashmore, the editor of the Arkansas Gazette in 1957, thought differently. In fact, in 1951, three years before the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, Ashmore gave a speech about civil rights at the Southern Governors’ Conference, knowing his views could cause problems for his newspaper.
As Gov. Faubus’s showdown with the federal government loomed in Little Rock, Ashmore advocated for desegregation and urged officials to allow the Little Rock Nine to attend Central High School.
But Faubus wasn’t backing down.
National Guard troops turned back the nine black students from the campus on Sept. 3, 1957.
Can you imagine being one of those nine? As they walked up to the school, people yelled at them, called them names, hurled insults, and threw things, maybe even spit on them. Yet, they walked that gauntlet.
Dan Alvey pointed out that these nine students and Linda Brown are the true brave ones — the heroes — of this story, and their courage serves as a reminder of what it means to stand up to powerful people and institutions. However, he added, one reason he went into journalism was because of newspapers like the Gazette and editors like Ashmore.
Ashmore knew he was taking a risk by standing against segregation and Gov. Faubus. He and Faubus, up to this point, had actually been good friends — maybe great friends. Faubus owed part of his political career to Ashmore, who helped him defeat incumbent Francis Cherry in the 1954 gubernatorial election. Cherry mounted a vicious smear campaign against Faubus, which so offended Ashmore that he not only threw his support behind Faubus but ghostwrote a speech for Faubus that helped him overcome Cherry’s attack and win the race.
However, the day after the Little Rock Nine were denied entrance into the school, Ashmore penned an editorial, “The Crisis Mr. Faubus Made,” and printed it on the front page of the Arkansas Gazette.
Eventually, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock and federalized the Arkansas National Guard, taking it out of the governor’s control, to make sure the nine students could get to the school.
Ashmore’s stance cost the paper about 17,000 subscribers, going from 100,000 to 83,000 in a matter of weeks. Estimates put the monetary loss at about $2 million in 1957, equal to $13 million today.
Despite the financial loss, the Arkansas Gazette leadership held firm, believing it was more important to be on the side of right.
The Gazette would rebound and become regarded as one of the best newspapers in the country. And Ashmore’s editorial would earn a Pulitzer Prize the following year, but no one in the newspaper’s offices could have known that in the weeks and days leading up to the Little Rock Nine crisis.
Ashmore, the Gazette’s publisher, and the newspaper’s owner just did what they thought was right.
It’s one of the tenets Dan Alvey followed throughout his newspaper career and to which he continues to adhere. He has never asked a reporter or editor to “kill” a story, even when business and government leaders told him it might be in the paper’s “best interest.” He and Lee Alvey have stood by those convictions despite the possibility of losing money, and even friends.
“Do what’s right, no matter the price,” Dan would say.
This isn’t to say papers get it right all the time. We get it wrong — I get it wrong — at times. And I and the rest of the staff don’t expect to change the world as we cover upcoming events, interesting people, and other community news, but we might help a reader or an organization, even just a bit.
Several years ago, I wrote an article about a woman who had turned 100 years old. The story was published, and I moved on to the next one.
About a year later, I received a phone call from a friend of the woman’s family letting me know she had passed away. When the family was going through her belongings, they found her Bible. Inside, they found the article. She had apparently thought enough of it to cut it out and tuck it in between the pages of her Bible.
It didn’t change the world, but it seemed to matter to her.
And maybe that’s the takeaway, not just for me and The Picayune, but for all of us.
Even though we sometimes feel our positive efforts go unnoticed or seem to make little to no difference, they do have an impact. When a teacher writes a note on a child’s paper complimenting her on her hard work, that student feels a little more confident going out into the world. When a grocery store cashier helps an elderly person work through the credit card reader with a smile on his face, it matters to that customer. When you smile at the harried fast-food clerk who just got put through the wringer by the previous customer and say “thanks,” and mean it, it helps.
I’ll never win a Pulitzer Prize, and most of us won’t be part of a lawsuit that makes sweeping changes across the country, and that’s OK, but it’s good to have people like Linda Brown, Harry Ashmore, and the Little Rock Nine who take those risks, step out regardless of the repercussions, and change our world.
And you know what? When they took those stands, they probably weren’t aiming to change the world, only to make their lives and the lives of the people around them better.
Here’s to you Linda Brown Thompson, and your father, Oliver Brown. You and he changed our world just because he wanted you to have a good education, a very, everyday desire of parents. And you inspired many more people, like Dan Alvey, who continue to try to change their communities and the world around them.
Thanks for showing us to do what’s right, regardless of the cost.