Colbert Augustus McKnight

Editor, The Charlotte Observer

1965 Convocation Address

When I received a letter from Dr. Strider last April telling me that I had been selected to receive the 1965 Colby College Lovejoy Award, my spirits were lifted up. Tonight I am sobered by the gravity of this occasion and all that it implies, and I am burdened by the conflicting emotions of pride and modesty.

I am honored to be thought worthy of the award by the distinguished members of the selection committee — your president, the former chairman of your board of trustees and, especially the three fellow craftsmen, Erwin Canham, Dwight Sargent, and Herbert Brucker. Every man, I suspect, draws comfort from the good opinion of his peers.

I am honored, also, to join the select group of previous Lovejoy Award winners. All of them have made great contributions to journalism and to our nation. I am pleased to be in their number.

I scorn the shifty-eyed men who cover their ignorance and fear with the bedsheets of the Ku Klux Klan.

I am honored, too, by my inheritance this evening of the mantle of that brave Colby graduate whose fight against slavery inspired this occasion. One hundred and twenty-eight years have passed since his death, yet we are still grappling with the issue that stirred Elijah Parish Lovejoy to action, and with the passions that it evokes.

I am heartsick over the racial violence in parts of the South and in our larger cities outside the region. I am angered by the mockery of justice in some of our courts. I scorn the shifty-eyed men who cover their ignorance and fear with the bedsheets of the Ku Klux Klan.

In parts of our land there is still much hatred between whites and Negroes, and it works both ways. And yet, much progress is being made toward the abolition of the last vestiges of human slavery in our nation, and more progress will follow. The day is far off when the restless spirit of Elijah Parish Lovejoy will be still and calm. But it will come. It must come.

And finally, I am honored by this new association with Colby College. Colby stands tall among the liberal arts institutions of our land. I accept the award with deep satisfaction.

In a curious sort way, journalism and education have long been intertwined in my life. When I was in high school, I planned to be a teacher, more specifically, to teach Spanish. To that end, I went to Cuba in the summer of 1933 to live with a brother who was head of the Associated Press bureau in Havana. He had arranged for me to spend a year studying Spanish intensively in preparation for a college major in that subject. Incidentally, I wrote my first news story that summer – an eyewitness account of street mob murders following the ousting of President Gerardo Machado by the army forces led by the then Sergeant Fulgencio Batista.

But nature upset my plans. In September, a severe hurricane wrecked the preparatory school where I was to enroll. I returned to North Carolina, too late to enter Davidson, and got a job for a year as a cub reporter on my hometown newspaper.

I followed through on my plan of study and majored in Spanish. Each summer, I returned to the newspaper. At the end of four years, the tug-of-war was over. Journalism had won, teaching had lost. Had it not been for that hurricane, I am quite certain that I would be holding forth in some college classroom today. I may not be the only man whose career was changed by the winds of a hurricane, but I am the only one I know.

Throughout the years I have quieted any doubts about the rightness of my choice by telling myself that, after all, journalism is essentially an educational function. And I have salved my conscience by giving much of my life to causes, boards and agencies that have had as their objective the improvement at all levels of education in our area.

So, when Dr. Strider gave me the privilege of selecting my topic for tonight, it was quite natural for me to choose “The Journalist and the Educator.” For one thing, I know a little about the subject. For another, the end objective of the two professions is the same — to educate our people and to elevate their taste in the elusive hope that our national life and national purpose will be shaped by public opinion and not by public emotion.

At times I fear we are losing ground, The nation seems to be on an emotional binge. This is not the first time. It probably is not the last.

Some of the emotion-stirring issues have long been with us — the race question . . . communism, and more specifically the war in Viet Nam. . . issues of church and state . . . labor-management controversies . . . the growing power of the federal establishment which produced that incredible emotional orgy in San Francisco, sometimes known as the 1964 Republican convention.

These issues and the fears they stir up produce some strange by-products, North Carolinians have long been considered among the more progressive and more level-headed southerners. The national reputation of the state has been good. Yet two irrational developments in recent years are so out of character with the state’s past that they leave me confused and sad.

We should have learned to accept change and to live with it.

In 1963, a handful of students and faculty members of state-supported colleges joined Negro demonstrators on the streets of Raleigh where the General Assembly was in session. They even dared to parade in front of the hotel where most of the lawmakers had rooms. In the closing minutes of the session, members of the legislature struck back. They rushed through, without debate, without a public hearing, a bill to prohibit “known Communists” and those who had pleaded the Fifth Amendment in loyalty hearings from speaking on the campuses of state-supported colleges and universities. Although it applies to fifteen senior institutions and five community colleges, the bill was really aimed at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the oldest state university in America and long a bulwark of academic freedom in a region where the climate is not always receptive to free speech and free inquiry.

The bill is loosely drawn, subject to many interpretations, impossible to enforce fairly, and a gratuitous insult to the trustees and administrators of the university, who rightfully should have authority over campus speakers. Moreover, it erodes the very foundation of academic freedom — the right to hear, to study, to examine, and to accept or reject facts and ideas that may be unpopular or controversial. It has thrown our state into turmoil, brought down national ridicule upon it and endangered the accreditation of our institutions. A special commission appointed to study the effects of the law will make a report in the next few days. I hope and I expect that the commission will recommend restoring authority over campus speakers to the trustees, and that never again in the history of North Carolina will we witness such an unwarranted and obnoxious political intrusion into educational affairs.

In 1958, an effort was made to reorganize the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina. When a group of angry Lumbee Indians broke up a Klan rally near Lumberton and put the Klansmen to flight, the story made front pages around the world. Shortly thereafter the leader, James “Catfish” Cole went to jail. The movement collapsed in shame and ridicule.

Yet two weeks ago we were told by congressional investigators that North Carolina now leads the nation in Klan activity. This is a puzzler. North Carolina has been spared the brutal racial conflict that has erupted elsewhere. There is no real reason why the Klan should have any support in North Carolina; or for the speaker ban law to remain on the books, unless many of our people are so totally frustrated and so full of anxiety that they blindly seek any outlet for their fears, however misguided and unpromising. I suspect that frustration and anxiety are behind most of the extremism in our land today. As individuals, we can’t do much about communism, or the continued threat of nuclear warfare, or the war in Viet Nam, or automation and its unnerving implications. We live from crisis to crisis. On the day I began this manuscript, I glanced at the news budget of one of the big wire services. The U. S. was stepping up its buildup in Viet Nam. Indonesia was in turmoil. New fighting flared in Santo Domingo. The Austrian coalition government resigned, plunging that neutral nation into serious political crisis. In London, Prime Minister Wilson made last minute preparations for his week-long mission to troubled Rhodesia. Cubans were fleeing from Castro to south Florida.

Unfortunately, this was just an ordinary day.

I suspect, moreover, that the velocity and complexity of change in our society is also a major cause of anxiety among our people. As long ago as 513 B.C., the Greek philosopher Heraclitus voiced the eternal truth that “there is nothing permanent except change.” Twenty-five centuries later we should have learned to accept change and to live with it. Since World War II, however, knowledge has been expanding at a bewildering rate, and producing change faster than our people can adsorb it. When he was president of the AP Managing Editors Association, Ed Murray of the Phoenix Republic referred to the fact that “90 per cent of all the engineers and scientists who have ever lived are alive today, and are producing an estimated one million new facts a year.” Most of man’s established institutions and his major areas of activity are undergoing major revolutions today, each of them accelerated by the incredible new computers, still in their infancy and with an ultimate potential beyond the capacity of the imagination.

A group of southern editors and educators met in Atlanta the other day to plan a new project. Using Ford Foundation funds and administered by the Southern Regional Education Board, the project will make it possible for southern journalists to go back to school at one of several participating universities to update their education so that they can better report and interpret some of these great and complex stories. The program will include short seminars on specific topics and longer periods of study for individual newsmen, up to a full academic year.

The society into which Colby students will emerge – the society with which the journalist and the educator must deal, is incredibly complex and is becoming even more complex with each passing day.

A mere listing of some of the topics suggested for the seminars will give you an understanding of the enormity of the assignment of the journalist and the educator in our changing society: urbanization . . .labor and management . . . industrialization . . . transportation . . .communism . . . American foreign policy . . . the emerging nations . . . the Great Society . . . the Constitution and the courts . . . the role of state government in our society . . . crime and law enforcement . . . new frontiers in science, medicine and health . . .the population explosion . . . migration . . . computers and people . . . changing patterns in race relations . . . southern politics . . . the nature and causes of poverty . . . the state of the arts . . . the organized church . . .trends in agriculture . . . the use and misuse of natural resources . . . impact of the space age . . . higher education and its needs . . . challenges to the public schools . . .

I could cite many more but surely I have made my point. The society into which Colby students will emerge – the society with which the journalist and the educator must deal, is incredibly complex and is becoming even more complex with each passing day. It is difficult enough to maintain one’s sanity in a period of such total and volatile change, even more difficult to know and to understand what is happening to the human spirit under the pressure of change and crisis. Man cannot be very relaxed or secure when the uncertainties of his tomorrow are so great and so fathomless.

In my opinion, the overriding domestic problem in our land today is urbanization. I said earlier that “much progress is being made toward the abolition of the last vestiges of human slavery in our nation. Yet I fear that in the central cores of our cities, we are daily enslaving anew many Americans.

You know the statistics. More than 70 per cent of our people now live in urban centers, a proportion that can only grow in the years ahead. Urban centers make up the central nervous system of our society. Yet what is happening to them?

The pattern is clear and repetitious. As families achieve higher economic and cultural levels, they tend to move out of the central city and into the suburbs. Their places are filled by in-migrants, many of them Negroes, poorly equipped by education and lacking the skill to compete successfully in an urban society from which unskilled and semi-skilled jobs are rapidly disappearing, and further hindered by the color of their skin from advancing socially and economically as other immigrant groups have done in the past. The public school system available to their children is geared to the needs and the aspirations of the great American middle class. The slum child finds it difficult to relate the curriculum and the textbooks to his bleak family and neighborhood environment. In all too many instances, the mother or an older sister or both become the breadwinners, creating a matriarchal family in which the father sits by in idleness and the younger male members fail to find motivation to improve their education and their skills, or to develop personality, leadership and initiative. And so we have dropouts and narcotic addicts and chronic unemployment, crime and illegitimacy.

Beyond that, as investigators probing the Watts area of Los Angeles have found out, we find hatred — deep, cold hatred of whites and the society they have built.

This is not the kind of slavery that Elijah Parish Lovejoy fought against. It is a much more subtle, and in some ways more cruel, form of slavery, since it enslaves the human spirit while it presumably frees the human body of legal chains and barriers.

Paul Ylvisaker, that remarkably perceptive man who heads the Public Affairs Division of the Ford Foundation, has put it this way:

“We are still dealing with cities as though they were bricks without people; still trying with massive programs to perfect physical form and material function while merely dabbling and extemporizing with the city’s humane and civilizing purpose — which is to insure those who come to it the opportunities essential to first-class citizenship.

“We are still practicing nineteenth-century notions of service and charity on a community whose life and aspirations are born of twentieth-century conditions and standards. The day is gone — if it ever was — when gratitude can be earned, consciences cleared, and the status quo maintained by unilateral acts of welfare or philanthropy.”

If we are really to open wide the doors of equal opportunity to all Americans, and thus eliminate the last vestiges of human slavery, then the educator and the journalist have their work cut out for them.

I believe that great changes in the public school system must come about, using new techniques and new materials in the elementary grades geared to the special needs of children from disadvantaged homes and neighborhoods. Pre-school readiness programs are a key part of this new approach. If he is to stay in school and equip himself for a productive life in our ever-more-demanding society, the child of the slums needs a big push at the starting line.

I suspect, too, that at the junior high and senior high levels, we will have to develop new kinds of trade and technical vocational programs for those children who are not college material. In my state, of every one hundred children who entered the first grade in 1951, only fifty-six finished high school in 1964. Only twenty of the fifty-six continued their education beyond the high school. And if past history foretells the future, only seven or eight of the original one hundred will graduate from college. Yet, ironically, our curriculum is essentially geared to prepare children for college, not to make a living.

We will also need more extensive adult education and training programs. Without them, we will consign millions of low-literacy, low-skilled adults to permanent dependency.

If we are really to open wide the doors of equal opportunity to all Americans, and thus eliminate the last vestiges of human slavery, then the educator and the journalist have their work cut out for them.

Our colleges and universities have a role in this endeavor. They will have to produce the teachers, the public officials, the scientists, the researchers, the professional men, the artists to shape our fast-changing society. And either through the community college or through an extension of the public school system, educators will have to turn out the draftsmen and the machinists and the electricians and the computer programmers to keep industry’s wheels turning. I would hope that, somehow, we could keep research and publishing in proper perspective and put more emphasis on teaching. I especially deplore the “publish or perish” mania that prevails on some campuses. The record shows that the greatest Teacher ever known wrote only a few words in the sand and my pastor tells me that we are not really sure what they said.

There is a challenge for the journalist, too. It is essentially the difficult task of keeping himself informed about the great changes in our society in order that his newspaper can accurately report and interpret the changes to its readers. This is a formidable undertaking because the journalist must deal daily with many complex stories.

It has been seriously proposed by Wallace Carroll, former news editor of The New York Times Washington bureau, that “we have reached a time when editors will have to go back to school. Today’s newspapers cannot be edited by men and women whose formal education ended 20 or 30 years ago.” That is one of the objectives of the new program for southern journalists I referred to earlier. Last week I read with interest that the Neiman Foundation is considering an extended seminar at Harvard for editors.

In his Don Mellett lecture at the University of Oklahoma, Lee Hills, executive editor of Knight Newspapers, suggested that the day of the old-time star reporter “who needed no special knowledge in any field, little formal education, and often no real command of the language” is past.

“Some of the qualities that made the star are as vital to the great reporters of today as they ever were,” Hills admitted, “But this is the time of specialists, or reporters schooled in political science, the mysteries of utility rate structures, philosophies of education, the physical sciences, high finance, health and medicine, aviation and other areas where to be ignorant journalistically is to invoke the scorn of our better informed readers.

“I venture to predict,” Hills continued, “That before many more years pass our major newspapers will be able to find and willing to pay bright young medical graduates who will write about medicine, educators who will quit the campus to write about education, physicists who will desert the laboratory for the city room, and down and along the lines of information, expertly dispensed and readable, for which a growingly intelligent public hungers.”

“The Journalist and the Educator” . . . Ours is a solemn obligation . . . to expand knowledge and understanding, to encourage collective decisions on facts and not on fears, to free the human spirit from the enslavement of ignorance and poverty. It is an exciting obligation, too, for if we do our jobs well, future generations of Americans will have less to fear from inflamed public emotion and more to hope for from informed public opinion.

I have enjoyed my two days on this beautiful campus, I look forward to other associations with Colby. And I shall try in the future to merit the high honor that has been bestowed upon me. I thank you.

Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award

About the Lovejoy Award

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