I accept, with humility and deepest appreciation, the honors bestowed upon me by this fine institution. I am aware of its sparkling reputation, growing brighter all the time as its graduates go out to work the challenge of our times and to do their share in discharging our responsibilities as Americans. We fortunate people, and I refer to those of us who by birth or by choice are citizens of this blessed country, are wont to dwell on the blessings of liberty. But there are times, and they come in the lives of all men, when greater attention must be given to responsibility. If that were not true, we would not have today this free nation; and this continent might not yet have been discovered by Europeans.
Responsibility comes in many ways. To Elijah Parish Lovejoy it came in the necessity for speaking up on an issue that tortured our country. He could have kept his pen still. That would have spared four presses destroyed as a result of a courageous stand for what he considered right–and it would have permitted him to live longer.
Editor Lovejoy died a martyr to the cause of press freedom. It is the responsibility of those of us who hold in trust the same freedom to pass it along to the next generation, living and working for it assuredly, and sacrificing as necessary on its sacred altar if that should be required.
Not many newspapermen are called upon to make the supreme sacrifice in defense of their press, in support of their stated convictions, or even in front of the smoking gun muzzle of some angry reader who is insulted and decides that the most satisfying contribution he can make to his peace of mind is to kill an editor. The older days were rougher days. I have a friend, still writing a newspaper column at 90, who years ago threw an angry visitor out the window of a newspaper office to protect himself. It broke the fellow’s leg, and by the time it had healed he had cooled off.
I have no stripes on my back from horsewhips. There are no dueling scars on my body. And I doubt if we could find such if every newspaperman here were to be subjected to searching scrutiny.
But perhaps it is because of men like Lovejoy, and men like the friend of whom I have referred. It is because these men stood for the right to print the news, and it is because they carried their editorial comments and opinions in their newspapers, fighting for their right to do so, that the free American press is so generally recognized as a bulwark of democracy.
In the Southland, from whence I came, we are living today in a period of difficulty that tries men’s souls. I have at times taken editorial positions that provoked some of my readers to discontinue their subscriptions–and that is the most eloquent of all protests. Some of these people even insisted that I personally take their cancellations. I still don’t know how I came out with one fellow. I insisted that the circulation department was the only place where he could accomplish his mission. He insisted that he preferred me to handle the job personally.
But there haven’t been a great many of these. Most of the people who have disagreed with me have done so courteously, and with understanding that in this great country of ours every man has a right to his own opinions on public issues. Furthermore, he has a right to express them.
I had the privilege of addressing the Citizens Council in my community. Views of its members in regard to my editorials range from firm disagreement to bitter condemnation. In this group are many fine people of my city and country. They listened to every word I had to say. And the young chairman did a fine job in hushing the boos and stilling the shouted protests at some of the things I had to say.
I did not come here as an apologist for the South. I am proud to come from that great part of our greater nation. Those of us who come from Dixie take second rank to no man in love of this blessed country, and in wanting to have the biggest voice in settling our own destinies and deciding our own affairs.
The people of the South are a proud people. Many of us have been poor. But a large part of the population in my part of the country comes from old stock that have been on the shores of this continent for a mighty long time. I blush to mention it here in New England, but you know the Jamestown colony, in the Southern state of Virginia, was founded before the English even suspected there was a Plymouth Rock.
We suffered the privations of a great and tragic war fought in our heartland. There was the indignity of occupation. Excesses by uncouth, uneducated and oftentimes grafting and corrupt people were afflicted on our fathers.
Most of this has been forgiven. But memories linger. And today there is more talk than I have heard before in my lifetime on the differences between the South and the North. It is not an infrequent experience to pick up a Southern newspaper and to read some perfectly serious letter to the editor referring to the possibility of fighting another War between the States.
The people of the South are upset. They are disturbed by many things, including court decisions going against the grain of tradition and custom.
I was driving through the Alabama countryside the other afternoon at sundown. My automobile radio picked up the closing music of a radio station in a small town. Our Legislature has passed, and the people have approved, and amendment to our state constitution under which it will be possible to destroy our public school system, if that becomes necessary to prevent mingling of the races. I firmly believe our school system will be destroyed if pressure for integration is applied, and if the opposition to integration cannot be applied successfully in any other way.
The Senate of my state passed a resolution last year calling upon the federal government to deport Alabama Negroes to states in the North. The action was unanimous. In Georgia, a politician proposes to set up a corporation with state assistance to purchase good property in residential areas of the North and sell it to Southern Negroes who wish to join the trek in that direction.
In Birmingham, as you know, an attempt was made to remove mannerly and talented Nat (King) Cole from the city auditorium by force while he was entertaining a paying audience. In my own home town, I saw the efforts of a Negro girl to enter the University produce a situation where I carried the terrible burden of conviction that my community was about to have a murder on its conscience. And I believe, along with a great many others from my city, that Autherine Lucy would have been murdered if she had returned to the University. In fact, I haven’t heard a single person there express a contrary opinion.
I saw this situation inflame a community of good people. I lived through a community state of mind that caused many persons to load their guns. We haven’t yet recovered from the suspicions and fears engendered during this time, and we won’t ever be the same again.
You know about Montgomery and its bus strike situation. You have read of the I’ll-hit-you and you-hit-me situation between whites and Negroes at Tuskegee, where a fine institution that has done much in the field of higher education for Negroes exists and is a credit to our state.
You’ve read of Little Rock. You know as much about it as I do. I haven’t been there. I seek not the hot spots, for Tuscaloosa has had its full share of tension, of strain.
Up to now, I have been a reporter. What I have told you is true. But I have not been able to communicate to you even at this point the intensity of feeling of many Southern people on the subject of integration. Sometimes it is irrational; it’s a subject that one doesn’t discuss with some of his friends. Bonds of friendship have been strained more than once, in many places in the South, because discussions become irrational, heated.
But I do hope you will accept my statement that solution of the integration segregation problem is not a simple matter of having good people automatically obey the order of a court. Generally, we can find substantiation for our convictions, our prejudices and our customs. That is done by the Southern segregationist on the basis of the Bible, on the basis of states rights, on the basis of nullifying the 14th amendment by proof considered sufficient that it was enacted illegally, and by invalidating the court decision itself because the judges who made it were considered not qualified.
It may be your opinion, and it happens to be mine, that none of these substantiations are valid. But the fact that I so believe does not alter the more important fact that people of my state are determined to resist integration of our schools to the bitter end–meaning elimination of the public school system if driven to it.
Opposition is more solidified now than it was a year ago. Many people have accepted the inevitability of integration. But those who haven’t are many more, and they are ready to defend their customs and traditions. Some will even resort to violence, as was demonstrated in Nashville with the bombing of a school, in Montgomery with the bombing of Negro churches, in Birmingham with dynamiting of Negro homes, etc.
What is the solution? Will we have more troops sent to other Southern cities? Is the Negro in the South condemned to live forever in a state of second class citizenship? And is his lot in the North really any better than what he has had in the South?
I am not all-knowing. I’m still learning. But I can give you some opinions. And now we are getting away from the news page of this talk, where I have tried to be a reporter, to the editorial page.
First, Little Rock. It was most unfortunate that the President sent troops there. But circumstances made it necessary, and I believe his action was proper and that if he had done less he would not have been discharging his ultimate duty in case of insurrection. I do not believe we shall have other cases, but we could.
President Eisenhower has been tolerant, and even conservative, in his attitude toward the problem. But he was finally driven to the Little Rock action.
The Negro of the South has made progress that really is phenomenal. More progress will be made, and while the inclination of whites to help with this progress is less in application to the group now than formerly, there has been little diminution in the relationship of confidence and trust, along with helpfulness, existing between many white and Negro individuals.
Insofar as education is concerned, significant progress has been made, after a late start, in recent years in providing equal facilities. In some places, great gaps still exist. But recent developments have not deterred elimination of these differences. They have, to the contrary, accelerated a balancing up.
Even in the communities where facilities have been made equal, such as in mine, the quality of education given our Negro children is not yet on a par with that given whites. You can get into a good argument as to the reasons. I state it merely as a fact, and offer the opinion that a system of inferior education begets sub-standard instructors whose graduates have inferior educations. The system is self-perpetuating.
As to the lot of the Negro in the North, I am not an authority. Many of my neighbors speak volubly on the subject. For I’ve never believed that matching injustices or inequities was any way to arrive at proper solutions. But if there were no racial problem whatever above the Mason and Dixon line–and all of us know there is–the situation in the South is sufficiently difficult to make it a national problem.
Many of our good Democrats turned Republican with prosperity. Now they are in political purgatory, disavowing affinity with the GOP and turning a sickly pallor just at the mention of the name of General Eisenhower. And not many believe the situation would be any better with a Democratic administration. There is talk of a third party, of efforts to deadlock the next presidential election. All this is resistance to acceptance of Democrat Harry Truman’s theory that it might be just as well to ignore the South. The Democratic party always has been the better friend to Dixie, and the politically aware know that gambling with a third party is extremely dangerous, for it could result in loss of key positions in congressional committees.
If we believe in the principles upon which our nation is founded and exists, we must support the right of one citizen to enjoy the same opportunities as another for himself and his children in education, in voting and in other citizen privileges.
I believe in these principles. I believe the decision of the Supreme Court in the school case was legally and morally right. If I am correct in those conclusions, it will stand, for it is justice. And it is, without doubt, at present the law, as interpreted by our highest tribunal.
We cannot have anarchy. We cannot permit a community to sink to a level where every man is on his own, with no order. This happens where court orders are disobeyed, and where there is no respect for the sanctity of the law as a moderator between all men who seriously disagree.
Most of our trouble has come, and will come, from extremists. A majority of the white people of the South, I believe, will in the final analysis oppose violence and stand for adherence to law even if they have to make painful adjustments. And a majority of the Negro people – I believe nearly all of them – are more interested in the quality of education provided for their children than in whether whites and colored youngsters attend the same classes.
Time heals a lot of woes. Time, patience, and tolerance can be great helps in working with this problem, which has no pat, easy answers. Time will take the edge off prejudices that exist, and time will bring acceptances of the fact that forced school segregation no longer is required of any one who does not wish to accept it.
There is nothing to prevent continuance of separate schools in states and in communities where all people desire it. And in that area lies the practical hope for working along with this problem and for maintaining our public school system, because the sacrifice of it would be tragic.
I have proposed a plan of compromise that would open our graduate and professional schools to Negro students, and particularly those who are unable to get such courses in institutions in our state for Negroes. This would be in return for the Negro group refraining from pushing for every right granted under recent court decisions, and with the understanding that improvement of facilities and upgrading of education would be advanced at all possible speed.
Such a compromise would give recognition to the Supreme Court’s decisions. It would be practical progress toward providing better and better education for our children.
This is the proposal of a moderate. It satisfies extremists on neither side. It’s so radical right now that few others will talk about it openly. Any Alabama man in politics, or with political ambitions, who even suggested the possibility of compromise on the issue would commit quick and sudden political suicide.
Communication between whites and colored people has virtually ceased. Even the existence of discussion groups has been misunderstood and misinterpreted in some communities to the extent that they have been disbanded. But when this pressing problem is worked out properly–and that means in fairness and with justice–the job will be done by men of good will, by citizens of both races.
By combining the principles of our constitution with the teachings of our religious faiths, and by putting these basic and everlasting truths into action, we can come through, in time, with acceptable solutions.
We of the South need the help and the understanding of other good Americans. The proportions of our problem are much greater than has been realized outside our area. But do not despair of us. Try to be patient, try to be understanding.
The mobsters with murder in their hearts, the dynamiters who strike in the darkness, the mutilators who sink to levels below jungle savagery–these are not the true people of the South. Such misguided men are the South’s greatest enemies. They make the solution of our problems all the harder, even though their voices are now louder than the quiet cautions and the active consciences of the real Southern people. Of this I am sure: there are in the South millions of men and women, good citizens, who want to do what is right, and will do what is right. They are the true South. They will not support violence and anarchy.
We want peace. And eventually we shall find the formula. It will not be the uneasy still that is brought by grim-faced troops carrying bayoneted rifles. It will be a peace that develops from the genuine decency in the great majority of Southern people, white and colored.
We shall have to grow into it. And growth takes time. But peace will come, with equal justice universally available to every man and with liberty treasured as the blessing of all, rather than the selfish privilege of any one group.
Yes, even with the turmoil, the trouble and the difficulty that exists today, I believe. I believe this, too, will pass.
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