Extended Interview: John Hammack

April 18, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT

TERENCE SMITH: Contrast for me this paper today with the paper that you first worked for.

JOHN HAMMACK: Well, the paper, in 1962, had six reporters and four editors, and two of those six reporters covered the legislature when it was in session, which was every other year. And the rest of the time they wrote political stories and columns. The newspaper then was basically a political tool. And it set a pace. It fulfilled, not necessarily an expectation, but a need of the power structure. It was part of the power structure.

TERENCE SMITH: But what do you mean by a political tool? Whose tool to accomplish what political end?

JOHN HAMMACK: Well, it was as much its own tool as anything else, but it espoused segregation. It had some rabid segregationist editorials. I’ve been told … that the people who own the paper were members of the all-white Citizens Council, which was a segregation advocate that represented the power structure in the state.

There’s something you have to understand about Mississippi. We have always been a bunch of good people here, and they weren’t necessarily the people who were in power. And sometimes the wrong people are in power, and that’s what happened to Mississippi in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s. We didn’t all believe that way.

TERENCE SMITH: How and when did the newspaper change?

JOHN HAMMACK: There was a gradual change. There was a softening of the segregationist stance toward the end of the ’60s and as the ’70s evolved. The greatest change occurred when Rea Hederman took the helm of the paper. I don’t recall the specific year that occurred, but one of the first things Rea did was to write stories about black people. The paper had not done that.

The second thing he did was to carry obituaries on black people. The paper had never done that. And he was making a sincere effort to make the newspaper a representative of the city and to answer the needs of the city, and the state for the matter. At the time the paper was a statewide newspaper.

I think the circulation of the paper probably has almost tripled in the time that I’ve been associated with it, and interestingly enough, a lot of its circulation used to be out in the state and now the majority of the circulation is within the immediate metro area.

TERENCE SMITH: When Rea Hederman came here and changed the contents of the paper, did he also change the editorial staff?

JOHN HAMMACK: Yes, he did. In fact, one of the first people to leave was the executive editor, a gentleman named Purser Hewitt, who was a jewel of a guy, but … He and I never discussed segregation, so I don’t know what he really believed, but he worked for the Hedermans during a period when some of the most vitriolic editorials appeared in [The Clarion-Ledger].

Anyway, Mr. Hewitt retired. Rea took over as executive editor. He hired bright young guys out of Missouri. He opened the front door and said, “Go get ’em boys.” And Mississippi is one of those wonderful news states where all you have to do is walk outside and you say, “Hey, Joe, what’s new today?” And he can give you something that’s worth a wonderful story. I have worked in two other states and reported across the south and the northeast, and have never seen a state that has more wonderful stories.

TERENCE SMITH: Did the editorial stance change to actively embrace integration?

JOHN HAMMACK: Yes. The editorial stance changed to actively embrace things that everyone could really believe in, doing what’s right with people. You know, integration is more than just opening doors. It’s equal opportunity and equal rights, and Ray embraced that wholeheartedly.

TERENCE SMITH: So it may have been gradual, but it was a real transformation.

JOHN HAMMACK: Yeah, the transformation, I can remember in the ’60s, for instance, the reporters here were not permitted to cover the racial disturbances and write stories about it because the editorial position was that we were not going to give information about these terrible things that were happening. So what we reporters did was to go out and cover the stories, come back and feed the information to the Associated Press, who would put it out under an AP credit, and the stories would be published in the paper. And if a question were ever raised about it, the official word was, that’s that liberal AP that’s turning out those stories. Those are not our guys writing that.

TERENCE SMITH: So in other words, it was all right to run it in the paper.

JOHN HAMMACK: Yeah… You have to realize that many people in the South had never really thought about segregation as an evil. They knew it existed, but they did not know the bad side of segregation. They had never personally been to black school. They had never seen this.

I grew up here, and I graduated from high school in 1960, from … a segregated high school. And I honestly was so naive I never even thought about segregation. It was in my first year of college we did a survey of all the metro area high schools on punishment. And that gave me an in to go into black high schools for the first time, and I was amazed at how different the high schools were and how different the equipment was, and how different their athletic uniforms were.

I recognized some athletic uniforms as some a white school had worn four years earlier, and it was a slap in the face.

TERENCE SMITH: So things were separate but inequal.

JOHN HAMMACK: Yes, sir. Very unequal.

TERENCE SMITH: Tell me the story of when they caught Byron De La Beckwith.

JOHN HAMMACK: I was working the night that Byron De La Beckwith was caught, and the wire editor that night was a wonderful guy named Harold Turnage. Harold had worked here for, I guess, 20 so years, and was a real key part of the news room. He saw this story that was written by AP, that Byron De La Beckwith had been arrested for the murder of Medgar Evers. And in the bottom of that story was one paragraph, some biographical information that gave the sentence that Beckwith was born in California, but his family moved here while he was still an infant.

Harold said, “Look here, Mr. Hewitt. This is interesting.” And Mr. Hewitt said, “Ohh, ohh, we have to make use of that.” And they turned the story around, and they rewrote the story to get it higher — “California Man Arrested in” — I don’t think they said Evers’ slaying. I don’t recall how they described him. I just remember the “California Man Arrested.” And I was standing there, and I did not know what to say. I knew that it would not do any good to say much of anything, so I remained a wallflower for the time.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. But the point was anything to put some distance between —

JOHN HAMMACK: The paper, the state, and the slaying.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. Now, contrast that with today when Jerry Mitchell has been doing some remarkable reporting, uncovering new information about civil rights cases, 30- and 40-years-old, and getting them reopened and prosecuted.

JOHN HAMMACK: The sad thing is that Jerry has had to dig out information that was available in many cases 20, 30, 40 years ago. And this is an example of the way the power structure has gotten in the way of prosecution. For instance, in the De La Beckwith trials, the Citizens Council, we found out many years later, was actually instrumental in selecting the jury. They would send messages saying that “this juror’s okay” or “this juror is not okay because he’s been known to do so-and-so.” And we always suspected that, but we had no proof of it until we had access to the Sovereignty Commission files.

TERENCE SMITH: What does this say to you, this change in this paper from the early days that you were just describing to these days when part of its effort is to go back and uncover some of these cases?

JOHN HAMMACK: I don’t know that we’re necessarily trying to go back and uncover things. I think what we’re trying to do is the right thing. These things are just lying there, and they should have been acted on years ago. Fortunately, Jerry has been given the time to delve into them, and has done an excellent job of finding them.

If this had been 40 years ago, he would, number one, have been told, “No, we don’t want that story.” Two, “If you persist, you won’t be here.” Three, “Goodbye.” Or it may have been just, “No, goodbye.”

On the other hand, or currently, I think each of us here wants to do what is right. There are only two kinds of people who go into journalism: the ones who want to do the right thing, and the others are those who want to twist the news. Fortunately, Jerry is one of those people who wants to do the right thing. I think our whole newsroom is that way now. That’s not the case with the newspaper of the ’50s and the ’60s. It presented a viewpoint and helped to maintain the status quo.

TERENCE SMITH: You’ve been around here a long time. What’s the reaction of the community to this kind of reporting and these stories?

JOHN HAMMACK: You still have an element of people who think that we’re uncovering things that shouldn’t be uncovered. They’re the minority. You have another group of people who are as blind to what’s going on around them now as they were when I was a teenager. And they think it’s okay, but so what. There are other people — and I hope they’re in the majority — who think that these things need to be done. I think each of us has had negative reaction to the stories we’ve been involved with. At the same time there is a great deal of satisfaction that these things are being resolved.

TERENCE SMITH: I suppose in a sense, when Myrlie Evers comes here to meet with the editorial board, this is a paper that can look her in the eye.

JOHN HAMMACK: I would think so. I think this paper has done more than any other organization, be it government or private, in bringing Evers’ killer to trial. I knew Evers. He was a very nice guy, a very intense guy, very one-track. He was after what he was after. He could have done many different things. He could have been very successful elsewhere. But he chose to do what he did, and he was killed for it.

That may have spread the civil rights movement. I’m sure it did. I don’t know if he could have accomplished as much alive as he did by his death. He was a catalyst.