Extended Interview: Bill Minor

April 18, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT

TERENCE SMITH: Bill, tell us a little about the Clarion-Ledger back in the old days, what it was like on the issue of race.

BILL MINOR: Well, the Clarion-Ledger, I would say was an instrument of perpetuating the system of segregation on a daily basis, and it depends on the type of people who wrote for the paper. The owners, the Hederman family — none of them wrote anything as far as I know, but they hired people who would write and express that point of view. And some of the worst things were some columnists that they had. And some of them had daily columns, and they would insult blacks on a regular basis.

TERENCE SMITH: Were they, would you say, the paper and the people who wrote for them, I mean, were they bigots?

BILL MINOR: Bigotry would be at the soul of it in my estimation, although I would say 90 percent of them would go to church on Sunday and be in the amen pew, so to speak…and they would give to like some charitable causes of the church, maybe to do something over in Africa, you know, and so they absolved themselves in their own minds. But in their own town, in their community, they were bigots.

They really promoted segregation through their paper in different ways. And of course we learned in later years, and suspected back then, that they were being fed these reports from the State Sovereignty Commission, which I used to call the KGB of the cotton patches. I mean, it was this arm created in the state supposedly to maintain a segregation strategy, but they had these investigators. And they would hire some private eyes to follow all sorts of people who were civil rights workers. But [they would also watch] some people who were not civil rights workers, even some whites, and there was a file on everyone that they thought was doing something to break down the system of segregation.

There was a file on me, and my name was in the reports when they finally opened the report. Nothing bad though, I might add.

TERENCE SMITH: So what changed at The Clarion-Ledger and what changed it?

BILL MINOR: The Hederman family had been the owners of the newspaper for 100 years I guess, and none of them were really news people. They were business people basically, but they were also these highly moral types, at least in their view they were. And they helped to sort of keep things like prohibition as well as segregation. But along comes a younger Hederman named Rea Hederman, who had gone off to the University of Missouri Journalism School, and when he came back in the latter half of the 1970s, he was the first one who really took an interest in the news side of the newspaper, and they gave him some authority to rebuild the news product.

Well, he really did just massively change the news product. He went out and hired bright younger people, graduates of Missouri and from Yale and so forth around, and brings in some really good people, and creates a decent staff. And all the dead wood, they got rid of. The editorial policy has not been changed to reflect this, though. I mean the editorial policy [in the ’70s] is not as racist as it was, but it was bland, it was nothing.

TERENCE SMITH: And I understood from some of the things I read that in truth the paper had never really covered the African-American community here, almost as though they didn’t exist.

BILL MINOR: Yes. It’s so funny. They had a Saturday page in The Jackson Daily News for colored news.

TERENCE SMITH: As they called it.

BILL MINOR: Yeah. The white people in the city or the state did not see that. It was only in the black residential areas and that was it.

TERENCE SMITH: And Rea Hederman got rid of that?

BILL MINOR: Oh, yes. He got rid of that, yes.

TERENCE SMITH: And in fact, he began, as I understand it, to cover the black community. So what was the reaction of the people as the paper really began to radically change and go through this 180-degree shift on these most sensitive of issues?

BILL MINOR: I think that attitude was good for several years and bringing it up to date, I think, in the more recent years, that it is not as enthusiastic about their reopening of some of these dark periods in the state’s civil rights history. But they did wake up the town to see that a better quality of newspaper could be put on the streets here.

I think Jerry Mitchell deserves a great deal of credit. And you have to give the newspaper credit for giving him the time, the liberty and the freedom, because he’s a one-man operating team. He doesn’t have an investigating team working with him. He’s working by himself, and working the telephones and working sources, and he meticulously builds all these files and knows all the people.

The most remarkable thing is this newspaper now has the instrumentality to reopen these cases which back in the old days [newspapers would say], “oh, the material’s not there…”

TERENCE SMITH: It also is in combination, isn’t it, with a new generation of more aggressive prosecutors who are willing to reopen these cases?

BILL MINOR: That’s part of the real answer to it. I mean, [there’s] Bobby DeLaughter, who really did the prosecution of the Byron De La Beckwith case. And of course you have Attorney General Mike Moore who is the first Attorney General that Mississippi’s ever had who wants to reopen these cases, and he doesn’t have the prosecutorial power though in the state. I mean he has to only sort of work through the local DA, but he can put his people in to assist and help in preparing the case and doing the investigative work, and he’s doing it.

TERENCE SMITH: So it’s really a night and day difference.

BILL MINOR: It is. But if you took a poll of the white people in Jackson or even the whole central area of the state, if they like what the Clarion-Ledger is doing in reopening these cases, I would say it would fail. About the same vote by which the new flag change failed last year. I mean, almost 2 to 1, you see.

TERENCE SMITH: So you think by 2 to 1 the white community in central Mississippi is not very happy with The Clarion-Ledger? Why? What is it that bothers them about reopening these cases?

BILL MINOR: Well, this idea that Mississippians have this defensiveness, that they don’t want to have the mirror held up to them, and they don’t want to see these things in the past. We want to move ahead. … The state has made major strides. I mean I’ve seen it all, but still, [there’s] this feeling — and it’s pervasive too.

TERENCE SMITH: Is it then a racial prejudice that you think is still beneath the surface?

BILL MINOR: You know, I hate to really think that, but I’m afraid I just can’t dismiss it… We had this vote about the new flag last year. The flag design they came up with was not good. I’m not going to defend that so much, but the thought and idea was good, to change, to get rid of the old rebel confederate symbol there.

TERENCE SMITH: Which is up in the upper left-hand corner of the–

BILL MINOR: –of the flag, just in the corner. But I mean it was just symbolic. There was a statewide referendum, which certainly nothing like that has ever happened before. But it brought people out of the woodwork who voted against changing the flag. To the core of it there was this racial prejudice. I mean let’s don’t say — I don’t know whether you could call it racism so much as just racial prejudice. But the size of the vote was just unbelievable.

TERENCE SMITH: And you think that was the sentiment that was being expressed?

BILL MINOR: I think that was at the heart of it. I wish I could say that it wasn’t, but I’m afraid it was.

TERENCE SMITH: By reopening these cases and getting to the bottom of them, though, and prosecuting and convicting people, is this state getting over a hurdle?

BILL MINOR: Yes. You have to give credit toward making a change, and that we are expurgating some of our sins of the past, and you have to say that this is happening, so I mean it sort of does. I think [prosecuting these cases] makes clear some consciences in the state, that we’re finally righting some wrongs. [Although] I mentioned the assistant district attorney, Bobby DeLaughter, who had done the Beckwith case. He ran for a judge shortly after that. Would you believe he was defeated?

TERENCE SMITH: And what did that say?

BILL MINOR: Well, it says that you could do a great service, but you don’t get any credit for it with the people who count and who do the voting, and it didn’t make him into a hero of the people. He is now a judge, but only through appointment. TERENCE SMITH: So as far as you’re concerned, are there still some cases still left to be uncovered?

BILL MINOR: Oh, no doubt about it. No doubt about it. The problem is the potential witnesses are dead in a lot of instances.

TERENCE SMITH: I mean it’s a remarkable phenomenon, to go back 30 and 40 years and turn these things up, turn them over and lead to prosecution.

BILL MINOR: It’s redemption and it really is. It has a redeeming value for the state. I wish more people appreciated it down here.