Extended Interview: Mayor Harvey Johnson

April 18, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT

NEWSHOUR: What are your memories of the Clarion-Ledger back in the ’60s and early ’70s? What do you remember about that time in your city’s history?

MAYOR HARVEY JOHNSON: Well, of that time — not specifically of the Clarion-Ledger, but of that time — obviously Jim Crow laws, the whole separation of the races. I can remember colored water fountains and colored restrooms and growing up in a segregated society and really being treated as a second-class citizen.

NEWSHOUR: Were you yourself part of the movement back then?

MAYOR HARVEY JOHNSON: We had a junior NAACP chapter. I participated in that activity, but … I wasn’t participating personally in any sit-ins.

NEWSHOUR: Do you have any recollections of the paper as it was back in that time?

MAYOR HARVEY JOHNSON: I don’t recall any specific stories or anything like that back in those days. I do know of the reputation of the paper. We have done some research. We have a civil rights movement driving tour of the city that we developed, and one of the sites, of course, is the old Clarion-Ledger/Jackson Daily News.

NEWSHOUR: And what did your research show in terms of how the paper treated the movement and the races back then?

MAYOR HARVEY JOHNSON: Well, it was obviously a pro-segregationist organ. It was a paper that supported segregationist activities and the stories indicated that.

NEWSHOUR: But over the course of the last 10 or 12 years they’ve opened up a lot of old civil rights era cases. What’s your memories of those cases that have been reopened by the paper and local prosecutors?

MAYOR HARVEY JOHNSON: Obviously this is something. Previously it was a case of justice denied for too long. And because of the work of people at the Clarion-Ledger — Jerry Mitchell in particular, an investigative reporter — but also the work of people in local communities, prosecutors as well as law enforcement agents, we’ve been able to provide justice or give justice to the families of the victims of segregationist acts and cowardly acts of the past. And certainly the paper, carrying stories and constantly digging and prying, helped in that process.

NEWSHOUR: Do you find it at all ironic that this paper that you said was pro-segregationist back then is now working towards the righting of those wrongs?

MAYOR HARVEY JOHNSON: Well, I don’t know whether it’s an irony or just a sign of the times. I think that here in Mississippi we’ve progressed perhaps much further than people outside of the state give us credit for, and I think that the paper is reflective of that in that regard, that we’re now trying to make sure that those wrongs of the past are righted. And the paper is in lock-step in that process. So it’s not an irony as much as it is, I think, an indication of the progress that has been made in our state.

NEWSHOUR: What is your feeling of the community’s reaction to this process?

MAYOR HARVEY JOHNSON: Well, I think that those people who say that these things are best left alone are perhaps trying to move on to a different level. But the fact of the matter is that we owe it to the victims, we owe it to the victims’ families to make sure that justice is done, and it may be painful in the short run, perhaps to the image of our state. It drags back up this whole image of Mississippi burning; but at the same time, we want to make sure that justice prevails. And I think the message is not only to the people here in the State of Mississippi, but everywhere, that any kind of wrongdoing, any kind of mistreatment of people, any kind of organized effort to oppress people will be challenged, and ultimately right will prevail.

NEWSHOUR: What do you think it’s done immediately in the community here? Has it been a case of opening old wounds, or healing them, do you think?

MAYOR HARVEY JOHNSON: I think that in some cases the best way to heal an old wound is to open it up. And I think, yes, we’ve opened the old wound, but in the process a lot of healing has taken place. I’m sure that the family of Medgar Evers is now moving toward a healing more so than they were prior to Byron De La Beckwith being brought to justice.

NEWSHOUR: And Myrlie Evers is going to be here next week, and she’s going to be actually speaking to the editorial board at the paper. It’s an amazing turnaround from the old days when odds are they didn’t care about Medgar Evers being assassinated, to having her now address the editorial board, don’t you think?

MAYOR HARVEY JOHNSON: Well, no question it is, but the old days are no more here in Mississippi, and I think that again this is reflective of the current attitude and the level of social progress that we’ve reached here in the state. I think that the paper should be commended for what it’s doing, but I think that there are other institutions similar to the paper that have changed. I mean the institutions, whether they’re in the business community or educational community or wherever, have also changed their outlook and now are embracing African-Americans in a away that they had not embraced them before.

NEWSHOUR: Just a final thought, we’ve talked to several people around here, old journalists and community types, who have almost to a man and a woman used the word “redemption” in some way. Do you think that’s the case both for the paper and for the community in some ways?

MAYOR HARVEY JOHNSON: I don’t know. I’m not a journalist, so that word didn’t readily come to mind in terms of redemption, but progress does come to mind — that in order for us to progress, we have to make sure that those things that haunt us in our past are taken care of. A lot of people find that very painful. A lot of people want to avoid it.

I think that what has happened through bringing up these old cases, we have somehow dealt with our history, with our past, and our future is going to be brighter because of that. And so I think of progress, of moving forward together, blacks and whites in this state, reaching a new level of bringing our state and indeed the city, the state capital, to a new level and working together.