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Ira Harkey's War of Words

July 13, 2004

Nick Marinello
Michael DeMocker

What gives? It's hard to believe that this pleasant little gentleman was such a pain in the rump to so many. Maybe age has mellowed Ira Harkey Jr. somewhat. Perhaps the advance of Parkinson's has softened his edges. In any case, he sits here, in a fourth-floor room of the Landmark Hotel, looking out over the New Orleans suburb of Metairie and recalling his remarkable past with soft introspection, like a man listening for the tumblers of his own life to click and reveal secrets.

It's the day after Christmas, and Harkey's passing through town after visiting family in Mississippi for the holidays. His wife's out shopping somewhere, so he has time to chat. Maybe not enough time to spill the entire contents of 86 years, but enough to send you back to other days and places, when history was made and unmade to the rat-a-tat-tat of a typewriter in a war of words.

tulsp04_ira1_1It was almost too much for the Mississippi press corps to take when Ira Harkey won the Pulitzer Prize in 1963. The animosity had been building. Harkey's award-winning series of editorials supporting James Meredith's admission to the University of Mississippi was an affront not only to the average white citizen of the state, but also to the vast majority of editors and columnists who stood squarely behind Jim Crow and institutionalized segregation.

The Pulitzer, in their eyes, was no more than a Yankee payoff for Harkey's 14-year crusade to change the way white Mississippians wrote, talked and thought about their black neighbors.

But by the time Harkey achieved journalism's highest star, he was himself in many ways a spent comet. Fourteen embattled years as editor of The Pascagoula Chronicle had tapped in him every human emotion available, and probably invented some new ones.

He endured death threats, financial sieges and social exile. Finally, in an irony that could only be twisted and hardened in the fires of a dysfunctional culture, the Pulitzer added not an exclamation point to Harkey's career as a newspaperman but, rather, a period.

The Local Oracle

But Harkey's story doesn't begin or end with the Pulitzer. It doesn't begin with his arrival in Pascagoula, either, but it's as good a place as any to pick up the thread. Little wonder Harkey would become such an irritant. Restless, brainy and hardheaded, Harkey rolled into Pascagoula in 1948, a 5-foot-6-inch dynamo.

The son of a wealthy New Orleans businessman, Harkey was afforded the opportunity to purchase The Chronicle-Star, a sleepy little weekly paper located on the eastern corner of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. He had paid his dues, however: four years as a reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, an all-expenses-paid tour in combat areas of the Pacific, and a couple of stints at Tulane leading to a 1941 undergraduate degree in journalism.
"I had the dream that almost every city newspaperman had. He wanted to have a little weekly newspaper. He wanted to be the local oracle and run his own newspaper," recalls Harkey. This was a goal fueled, apparently, by equal measures of idealism and arrogance. "You wanted to get away from the publisher and be a publisher yourself. In other words, go get away from anybody who penciled your copy." 

As editor, publisher and owner of The Chronicle, it didn't take Harkey long to figure out what he wanted to do. "I was interested in politics and I ended up covering Pascagoula City Hall myself," he says. "Most little papers don't bother with that. And they don't cover police, which is a helluva source of news."

That should have been enough for a rookie editor and publisher to undertake, but Harkey had another, more volatile, agenda. "I had the feeling--and I hate to say this because I sound like a jerk--I had the feeling I could make a difference. That I could really teach these people that the black man was a human being and not an animal. That he deserved the same rights as everyone else."

He may not sound like a jerk, but he could sound like a cliche to 21st-century ears. The notion of the hardboiled editor writing on behalf of equality has little traction these days when we've seen it all, heard it all. Know the speeches and the marches. Know about Selma and Little Rock, Dallas and Memphis, the setbacks and triumphs. Everyone knows the emblems of racism--bus seats and back doors.

But Harkey reminds us of something else. Something more sinister and insidious: the subtleties of hatred. It seemed to Harkey outrageous that Southern blacks were existing virtually outside the public record. Their births and deaths were not recorded. Newspapers lacked stories concerning their schools and churches.
A black man would only turn up in newsprint if he was in trouble, and even then his dignity would be stripped from him by the way in which he was addressed. In his memoir, The Smell of Burning Crosses (first published in 1967 and with a reprint slated for summer 2004), Harkey outlines the myriad insults that occurred on a daily basis in Mississippi's newspapers.

One of the least-known injustices inflicted on the Southern Negro is the newspaper tag that he cannot escape even in death. His segregation must be complete. In print he is never a man. He is a Negro, negro or colored. His wife is not a woman. She is colored, Negro, negro or negress. Indeed, she is not even allowed to be his wife in most Southern newspapers, being denied the title of Mrs. no matter how legally married she may be, and is referred to on the streets, in the courts and in the newspaper as Bessie Lou or Willie Mae or Mandy.

From the outset, Harkey dropped the word "colored" from the pages of The Chonicle. He dropped the word "negro," except when it was an essential description. "The thing that really got me in trouble was when I started calling black women 'Mrs.,'" says Harkey. "That was the worst thing in the world." And as he set out on the road to commit "many foul un-Southern crimes," Harkey proved himself to be something of a showman, as well. Invited to speak at the 1950 Mississippi Press Association on the topic of "How to Handle the Negro in the News," Harkey hijacked the topic and began to talk of about how his newspaper dealt with blacks in print.

tulsp04_ira2_1"I would like to say," he enjoined his colleagues, "that this is not a Negro policy. We carry out the same policy of doing away with all tags ... unless they are pertinent. We do not regard ourselves as pro-Negro. We are pro-people. We are not bleeding hearts, we just don't like undignified treatment of any people, not just Negroes or Jews or fat men. ..."

Putting his philosophy to ink, Harkey began publishing news about blacks, as well as news of their births and deaths. He also began what was to be an ongoing fight with his detractors in the Mississippi press.

When one editor, addressing a press seminar at the University of Mississippi in 1950, demanded to know just what was going on down there in Pascagoula, Harkey fired back a letter explaining: "What's going on down here is that I believe we have the answer to the South's ancient problem and are doing what little we can to further the solution. The 'rich heritage' of which you speak is one of poverty, disease and human waste. I believe that economic elevation of poor whites and Negroes will go a long way toward alleviating that distressful situation."

Rabble Rouser

Tampering with the system produced weird and unexpected results. While most of Harkey's staff despised the changes forced upon them, the editor found a warped sort of support from his shop foreman, whose declaration that Harkey didn't want to marry blacks--just given them equal rights--seemed to soften some of his lesser detractors. The weirdness spiraled in strange directions. In one instance, Harkey ran a heart-wrenching story about a father who brutally beat his child. The story had legs, and the Associated Press sent reporters and photographers down from Jackson to pick it up.

"And then somebody found out it was a black family," says Harkey. "Psssst. The thing just disappeared. It never happened. The AP pulled back." Harkey developed a dislike for his colleagues across the state and the feeling was reciprocated. To them he was a smart-aleck, rabble-rousing agitator. His view of them was worse. Harkey sizes up the press in Burning Crosses:

The sins of the press spread-eagled the whole sorry scene of racism in Mississippi. ...
The press was the chief instrument through which politicians fanned the hatred of ignorant whites to such a heat that the better-educated white, our of fear for his very skin, stood mute. Thus the proud profession of journalism-- degenerated into an agency for the propagation of the ideals of the lowest elements in our society.

If Harkey fancied himself to be the community oracle, then, by gosh, he was going to have a little fun in being one. Humor was a sword Harkey wielded to his advantage and to the agony of his foes. Into his weekly column, Harkey introduced a foil with whom he could discuss "racialities," Col. Myopia Heartburn, described by Harkey to be "a vigilant and red-blooded American [who] works under the assumption that democracy is a system whereby he himself may do as he sees fit, but anyone who disagrees with him should be horsewhipped, suh, thrown into the lockup or shot down like a cur, or all three."

The good colonel made his first appearance in a 1953 column Harkey wrote congratulating the Times-Picayune on its adoption of the Mr. and Mrs. designation for blacks as well as whites. This, of course, provoked outcry from the colonel, who was "overflowing with charm and dire omens." Maybe townsfolk picked it up out of curiosity or perhaps it was to give Harkey silent support but, strangely enough, The Chronicle began to grow as the '50s deepened (despite the fact that his top salesmen were bigots who with each issue shouted, "Did you see what that little bastard said today?").

By 1960 circulation was large enough to support a daily press run. As his voice became louder, Harkey did not shy away from his editorial pulpit. Author David Bennett, writing in the 2001 book The Press and Race, notes three basic themes in Harkey's editorials: "The denunciation of racism as a vile scourge that threatened to rip apart Mississippi society, condemnation of those segments of the power structure--politicians, preachers, educators and journalists, and predictions of financial devastation if the state was unable to achieve racial harmony."

He paid a personal price for that pulpit. After 1954's landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. the Board of Education, Harkey woke one morning to find on his lawn a smoldering cross, the calling card of the Ku Klux Klan. He was shot at twice, and phone threats became common. Once he received a late-night call from a young man who was drinking with his buddies down at the High VO bar. "We're trying to decide which one of us is going to murder you," said the voice. Harkey later found out that any plan for homicide was shelved when one of the men protested that Harkey was the only person ever to have picked him up while hitchhiking between Pascagoula and Moss Point.


Times were tough, but before anyone rings a halo around his head, Harkey is the first to make full disclosure of his situation. In Burning Crosses, after a section in which he illustrates his scrupulous editorial discretion by recounting the time he ran a page-one story about his own son's trip to juvenile court, he writes:

Now, before I float away out of sheer magnificence and ascend bodily to take up the golden throne in the journalistic pantheon I have apparently been constructing for myself, let me say that I am not sure that I would have been such an integrity-ridden little chap had circumstances been different. I was beholden to no one but my father, financially that is, and I could operate The Chronicle without needing ever to kowtow to an advertiser or a subscriber. Had I lost The Chronicle for failure to maintain a proper subservient attitude toward my advertisers, I would not have starved.

What Harkey doesn't disclose in that passage is the full extent to which Ira Harkey Sr. played a role in his son's life. Raised in dirt-poor, post-Civil War middle Mississippi, the old man left the farm at age 19 to make his way in the world. Strangely enough, his ticket out of there was a newspaper spelling contest in which the prize was a course at a small business school in Jackson. Getting successive jobs in Jackson and Memphis, Harkey Sr. found his fortune by cofounding the National Fruit Flavor Co. in uptown New Orleans in 1917.

By 1921 the company was distributing flavors and concentrates for the food industry through the United States and five foreign countries. Along the way, Harkey Sr. also purchased the Oklahoma Coca-Cola Bottling Co. and bottlers in four other Oklahoma cities. Even now, at 86, Harkey regards his father with the reverence of a schoolboy. "He was a very astute man who managed to pile up a fair amount of estate. He didn't drink. Never heard him do any such thing as boast. I always respected him, partly because he was so damned nice. In fact until he died I asked his advice on things and usually followed it."

When the question comes up on how a Southern-born and bred fellow such as himself could develop such hardheaded values regarding civil rights, Harkey points to his family. "I never heard any disparaging racial words in my home," he says. "I use to talk to my old bedridden great-grandmother who lived through the Civil War. She would tell me the story--completely without rancor--about the Union forces stabbing around the yard trying to find buried silver and so on. But no aspersions. No 'damned Yankees.'"

Years later, as he stood on the deck of an aircraft carrier in the Pacific, Harkey would experience his own wartime epiphany. A 250-pound bomb exploded on the flight deck of his aircraft carrier, indiscriminately killing 52 of the crew--black and white. Harkey watched as their bodies were dumped into the ocean.

And now as the sacks plopped one by one into the sea I wondered how their contents could have been distinguishable in life, how any of the men could have been deemed more worthy than another because of the color of his skin any more than because of any physical and accidental characteristic.

As I watched the blur of canvas sacks slip over the side the conviction came to me that the Negro, who is good enough to be gutted by an unsegregated explosion, to be trussed in an unsegregated sack, to be dumped into an unsegregated ocean and dispatched to an unsegregated heaven or hell, is just exactly good enough to live an unsegregated life in the nation of his birth. ...

Pushing Buttons

When you think about it, 14 years is but a blink in the life of an octogenarian. No person should be defined by only one particular episode in his or her life. Remove those 14 years in Pascagoula, in fact, and an image emerges of Harkey as a bit of a rolling stone. Three wives, six children, three books, a cooling-off period out west, a PhD from Ohio State, stints as a Carnegie Visiting Professor at the University of Alaska, lecturer at Montana and Oregon universities, a road warrior on the lecture circuit, a travel writer.

In a letter to his father, a 54-year-old Harkey wrote, "Dear daddy, I still can't get out of my mind my hurt when you told me you were worried about me settling down, that I was flitting around too much. ..."

tulsp04_ira4_1Yet, ask Harkey if the 14 years he spent down in Pascagoula are central to his being or, rather, simply part of his life's continuum, and the old editor pulls no punches. "It is everything," he says without hesitation. "My whole being is fairness. The thing that has governed me is fairness." It is the principle of fairness, he says, that guided--and guides--his social and political positions.

"That's why affirmative action is a racist thing," he says bluntly, in the manner of a person who knows how to push buttons. "That's why I am against favoritism given to blacks in jobs now. People ask me how I can say that. I say it's not fair. If it was unfair to blacks, then it's unfair to whites now. It is not consistent."

Connect the dots and you begin to wonder if it was just this sense of fairness that was, in a very personal way, ultimately trampled on when Harkey was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1963. Harkey won the award for the series of editorials he wrote in 1962 supporting the integration of Mississippi's university system as emblematized by the admission of James Meredith into Ole Miss.

Harkey was the first voice in the state to decry Gov. Ross Barnett's adamant defiance of federal orders to allow Meredith through the door. As Christmas approached, Harkey took it to the citizenry, as well, hitting them where it hurt.

The racists would have you believe that the teachings of Christ, the lessons you learned in Sunday School, are like the Santa Claus myth, just something to kid around with. The Sermon on the Mount, the brotherhood of men in God, the great philosophy of kindness and compassion, all of this just words to listen to on Sunday and then forget at the door of the church. ...

In Mississippi, a person who attempts to carry Christianity out the church door, who dares to practice the Christian virtue of tolerance outside the church, is cursed as a liberal, a leftist, a communist, a n***-lover. Christ was the greatest champion of the underdog the world has ever known. If He were to visit us here, now, by whose side would He stand, beside the brick-throwing, foul-mouthed, destroying, profaning, slavering members of the mob and their "nice-folk" eggers-on, or beside the trembling victim of hate?

After existing 14 years in an uneasy standoff, the scene in Pascagoula imploded. The KKK mobilized, mobs gathered, a bullet shattered the window of The Chronicle's office, death threats came in the mail. For his passion, wit and reason, Harkey was awarded the Pulitzer, but the Mississippi press corps saw it differently.

"In any civilized state of the nation, the winning of the Pulitzer Prize by a colleague is acclaimed with delight and pride by the state's press," Harkey writes in Burning Crosses. "In Mississippi and the Deep South, winning of such a prize is final and conclusive proof of traitorhood, no less so than would be one's designation as a Hero of the Soviet Union, and all it gets you is calumny."

It wasn't pretty. And it wasn't fair.

"Any Mississippi editor who craves and seeks the national spotlight can easily have it focused upon him (and become literate) simply by writing what conforms to the socialistic and communistic trends of the hour," wrote the editor of the Magnolia Gazette. "In character with the trend of several years past came the decoration of a Southern editor who turned against his neighbors and presents racial views that are sure-fire Pulitzer material," said the Charleston News and Courier, adding, "A Mississippi editor who is out of step with Mississippi hardly could escape an award."

The editor of the Holmes County (Miss.) Herald wrote that he "read with a taste of gall on my palette where another Mississippian has collected his reward for playing the part of traitor, defecting to the Kennedy-King Klan."

It should be noted that Hodding Carter III, editor of Mississippi's Delta Times Democrat (and the son of Newcomb alumna Betty Werlein Carter and Pulitzer-winning journalist Hodding Carter II), was one of the few journalists in the state who chimed in in support of Harkey, writing, "In Editor Harkey's case, he had the intellectual courage to attack the idiocy which prompted some extremists to demand the closing of Ole Miss rather than admit James Meredith. For this, he endured personal abuse, and escaped injury from gunshots. To sensible people, Harkey needs no apology. ..."

Overall, however, such support was as shallow as a Mississippi puddle on a rainy afternoon. Listen to how Harkey puts it:

At home in Pascagoula, the silence was deafening. I had been since the Ole Miss riots a pariah. My company was avidly unsought, the stream of favor seekers, publicity seekers and advice seekers that long had lapped against my door trickled off to nothing. I still went my way, attended my meetings, covered my stories. ...

"People down here don't hate him," said one Mississippi journalist to Newsweek in June 1963. "They treat him a lot like they'd treat their dog. Once in a while someone will pat him on the head, but most of the time they want to kick him in the backside." The following month, Harkey sold The Chronicle to a Florida interest. Ask him why and he'll tell you that it's the craziest thing. "When I started out at Tulane, I wanted to be a teacher. I had just gotten away from it with the Navy and the Times-Picayune and so on."

Maybe so, but in Burning Crosses he writes, "I could not remain in Pascagoula, could not bear to exist in the vacuum of ostracism that remained in force after victory, could not function in a silence of total isolation as if I were underwater or in galactic space. I had become an ambulatory and ubiquitous monument to the shame of my fellow townsmen, galling their late-blooming consciences. ... "

As Harkey notes, with the admission of Meredith into Ole Miss, he had won, but lost, too. Today, Harkey lives with his wife, Virgia, in the Texas Hill Country, an address he's kept since 1977. "I think this is the longest I've been in one home," he says. "I've always felt--in everything I've done--I've felt 'this is temporary. I am going to do this and then there will be something else.' But moving to Texas, I've felt this is it." He still writes. About two years ago he penned a piece entitled "No Contradiction in Being a Rebel and an American."

"It was about three grandsons of Confederate soldiers, which I am one," he says. "I write that we have a certain residual loyalty to these men, that we can be loyal Americans but we can't denounce these people. Anyway, it was well reasoned, but, hell, one editor thought I wanted to bring back slavery. That how stupid his position was."

All right, so he hasn't completely mellowed. At any rate, the piece wound up seeing the light of day in the Atlanta Constitution, and Harkey sends out the clipping as part of his dossier. In the corner of the photocopied page he scrawls, "My last publication, probably." Possibly. Doesn't matter. Ira Harkey, this little Southern gentleman, has not--will not--go gently.

Nick Marinello is a senior editor in the Tulane publications office and editor of the faculty-staff newspaper, Inside Tulane.


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