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Remembering Bill Minor, a lion of journalism in the South

Early Tuesday morning, Wilson F. “Bill” Minor, a lion of journalism in the South from the 1940s on, died at his home in Jackson, Mississippi at 94. A Louisianan by birth, the WWII veteran came home from the Pacific to fight new battles throughout his native South, trading the guns of a Navy destroyer for the printing presses of the Times-Picayune of New Orleans, heading its Jackson bureau for decades. The NewsHour met Minor back in April 2002, when correspondent Terence Smith, producer Anne Davenport and I interviewed him at his home as part of an Emmy-nominated story about the transformation of the Clarion-Ledger newspaper of Jackson. In the Civil Rights era (and before), the paper was, to be charitable, a racist rag. Its ugliness was eye-popping, even by the standards of those bad old days (you can see examples in the NewsHour story above). Minor fought everything the paper stood for, and the system it perpetuated. From covering the trial of the two men who murdered Emmitt Till, until the moment he stopped writing just recently, he charted a story many wished not be told.

He was a warm and kind man. He was brave and fierce, too; and when he spoke of the Clarion-Ledger’s owners through that era – the Hederman family – his eyes sparkled with anger: “they were bigots”, he declared. “Bigotry (was) at the soul” of the paper, he said. The “information” in the paper was often informed by the notorious State Sovereignty Commission in Mississippi: “the KGB of the cotton patches”, Minor called them. (You can read the extended interview transcript here.)

But in the mid-1970s, the paper began to change under the leadership of Rea Hederman – the third generation to run the Clarion-Ledger. It became a real newpaper, not a propaganda mouthpiece for white supremacy. And it was the history of that evolution — and reckoning — that the NewsHour sought to chart. A main driver of that change over these recent decades has been the heir to Minor’s journalistic legacy, the investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell. Mitchell has for decades researched, probed and dug up long-buried information about murders of the Civil Rights era; murders where the killers were known, but their guilt exonerated by a corrupted system. His reporting, in part, led to retrials of the man who killed Medgar Evers, and the men who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham killing four little girls one Sunday morning. It was at the 2001 Federal trial of one of those bombers, just blocks from the church where they murdered children, where I first met Jerry. Fittingly, he wrote the Clarion-Ledger obituary for Minor, which you can find here.

You can also watch the NewsHour story from 2002 embeded above, which we entitled “Writing Old Wrongs”.