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Maligned in Black and White

Southern newspapers played a major role in racial violence. Do they owe their communities an apology?
Library of Congress

Apologies from papers like the Advertiser for their failings during the 1960s seem “appropriate and desirable, given how bad they were,” said Civil Rights historian David Garrow, winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for his biography, “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”

But, he added, in a telephone interview, “There is a meaningful historical line between criminal complicity and passive disinterest.”

“How these white newspapers reported on race, and how they signaled blackness as threatening, contributed to not just perceptions about black people, but stirred responses … that imperiled the lives of African Americans,” said Phillip Luke Sinitiere, W. E. B. Du Bois Visiting Scholar at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The Sentinel’s editorial apology, addressing the matter of its ethical and historical culpability, dealt with something greater than neglecting coverage of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Its coverage of the Groveland Four, the Sentinel acknowledged, caused — or at least appeared to give cause to — the deaths of African Americans. And they were not alone.

Some critics have dismissed these modern acknowledgments as both belated and merely symbolic, apologies for actions taken by editors, publishers and reporters who may no longer be alive to be held responsible.

Thus, a handful of newspapers have looked to the more distant past.

The News & Observer: 'Not a history we can undo'

On that point, the Sentinel’s editorial apologizing for its role in covering the 1949 Groveland Four case echoes a similar in-depth mea culpa issued by The (Raleigh, North Carolina) News & Observer in 2006 that confronted its central role in inciting the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot. The episode was actually a pogrom resulting in the deaths of hundreds of African Americans, perpetrated by terrorist vigilantes in that port city. The mob action involved the violent overthrow of an elected, multiracial city government, which was replaced by a white supremacist junta.

Until the late 1990s, the episode had been largely ignored or covered up by public school histories. In 1998, a conference in Wilmington marked the centennial of the 1898 coup, a gathering that was covered by the News & Observer. Two years later, the state legislature established the Wilmington Race Riot Commission to re-examine the historical record. The commission held public hearings and conducted other research, events and activities that were also covered by the newspaper, recalled then-executive editor Melanie Sill, in an email interview.