The part that our newspaper played in a time of challenge and crisis was responsible for my being here on this occasion, and so I have thought that I should recount some newly-written history. After a United States court ordered nine Negro children admitted to Little Rock Central High School we assumed that if disorder developed it could be dealt with by the school authorities; or by the city police if their aid should become necessary.
But the governor of Arkansas created a dangerous and menacing crisis, and I am convinced that he acted with political purpose — specifically to generate an emotional issue for a campaign for a third term, which only one governor had been able to win in the years following the Civil War. Without consulting the local authorities and over the protest that members of the School Board made when they learned of his plan, he surrounded Central High School with armed men of the Arkansas National Guard., on the plea or the pretext that such action was needed to avert violence; and on the same plea or pretext the Guardsmen were ordered to prevent the Negro children from entering the school. This defiance of the court set the stage for disorder. As birds might swoop down for discovered food, hundreds of people gathered for the feast of angry words and physical violence.
These deplorable scenes and intolerable actions were our challenge. We were confronted with the situation that may confront an individual when his conscience is put on test and trial. The man who triumphs in such an hour may suffer severely, but he knows in his heart that if he could go back in time and events and come to the challenge again he would make the same decision. And let me say, as I hope I may in no boastful or self-righteous spirit, that in spite of material losses, abuse and misrepresentation the Arkansas Gazette would make the same decision.
We suffered for our course, but we would not presume to walk with the heroes and martyrs of the press, those men who paid the price but were denied the joyous reward of victory. What Elijah Parish Lovejoy could not achieve in life he powerfully aided others to achieve. With his defense not of a mere printing plant but of convictions and principles he took his place in the company of brave and devoted men who have contributed to the strength and vitality of movements that have brought social revolutions.
We of the press must show ourselves worthy of its freedom. It is significant and impressive that the founders of the republic made the Bill of Rights guarantee this freedom although they lived in times when newspapers went to lengths of political vituperation that would not be indulged in or tolerated today.
It is deplorable and alarming that the clear and inspired vision of our nation’s founders is not possessed by all Americans of our time. Many people fall to realize that freedom of the press is primarily their freedom and their protection. This constitutional guarantee was designed not as a special privilege for newspapers but as a means of keeping the people informed about their government, their officials and their rights and interests, as well as dangers to their welfare and to the security of their institutions.
By means that are sometimes indirect and insidious, and sometimes openly punitive, attempts are made to nibble and gnaw at this freedom or make newspapers suffer for exercising it. A governor or members of a legislature may seek enactment of laws in spite or vengeance or reprisal, or punish newspapers with discriminatory taxes, or open the way for them to be subjected to irksome and even hazardous litigation. But for courts faithful to the Constitution the Bill of Rights would be trenched upon with political measures and maneuvers.
But we must admit that freedom of the press may be menaced from within. It may be lost by default when a newspaper fails in an hour of public crisis to measure up to its duty and obligation. It may atrophy from disuse when a newspaper, in fear of controversy or reprisal, succumbs to the opiate of the easy and unoffending way.
There was a time when the American people were told “We have nothing to fear but fear.”
A newspaper, safe behind the ramparts of the constitutional guarantee, may have nothing to fear except the fear that frightens it from a courageous course and makes it falter at the prospect of hostile reaction, political attacks or material losses.
If newspapers in such case have lost freedom they might in honesty confess with paraphrase that the fault is not in the laws but in themselves.
Freedom of the press is not something for newspapers to prate about as an abstraction. It has meaning and value only when it finds expression in forthright support of political I integrity and public morality.
There is a pantheon that is not built of stone. Yet it exists imperishably in annals and in memory. It honors all those brave souls who have suffered for conscience and conviction. In it are inscribed the names of exemplars of freedom of the press who have, in the words of St. Paul, endured afflictions; who have fought the good fight as long as it was granted to them to follow the course; and in dedication and devotion, even unto death, have kept the faith.
Colby College remembers alumnus Elijah Parish Lovejoy through the annual Lovejoy Award, which honors journalists who demonstrate courage, integrity, and craftsmanship.
Born in Albion, Maine, Lovejoy graduated from Colby in 1826. On Nov. 7, 1837, in Alton, Ill., the newspaper editor and publisher was killed after he refused to stop publishing anti-slavery editorials. He was called America’s first martyr to freedom of the press by John Quincy Adams.
Current Lovejoy Selection Committee Members include Matt Apuzzo ’00, reporter and investigative correspondent, New York Times; Nancy Barnes, senior vice president and editorial director, NPR; Sewell Chan, editorial page editor, Los Angeles Times; Marcela Gaviria, producer, PBS FRONTLINE; Neil Gross, Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology, Colby College; Martin Kaiser, former editor and senior vice president Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; Mindy Marqués, vice president and executive editor, Simon and Schuster, former editor, Miami Herald; and Ron Nixon, global investigations editor, Associated Press.
For more information, visit colby.edu/lovejoy