7/22/2021, 6 p.m.
We read with great interest “How the White Press Wrote Off Black America,” an opinion piece by New York Times editorial board member Brent Staples published in the newspaper’s July 10 edition.
In it, Mr. Staples talked about the historical indigni- ties and denial of Black people’s humanity that pervaded news columns and coverage in white-owned newspapers, particularly in the South. These newspapers, champions of white supremacy, offered stereotypical depictions of Black people that helped fuel lynchings and other anti-Black violence, including the destruction of entire Black communities as in Tulsa 100 years ago.
This blatantly racist news coverage continued for decades, contributing to the rise of Jim Crow; racial terrorism from Reconstruction through the 1950s and 1960s to derail civil rights efforts and their leaders; and perpetuating the racist messages undergirding and justifying the actions causing many of the inequities faced by Black people today in housing, employment, education, criminal justice, lending, health care and more.
Mr. Staples also writes about the Black press, including the Richmond Planet and its fiery editor John Mitchell Jr., and the efforts those newspapers undertook “to refute what they rightly saw as white supremacist propaganda masquerading as news.” He gave examples of specific events covered by Black newspapers—monuments to Confederates, the massacre of Black sharecroppers in Elaine, Ark., and the overthrow of the Black-led city government in Wilmington, N.C.—and the divergent coverage and viewpoint of white newspapers.
He further wrote about the recent “apology movement” by white newspapers after reviewing their past coverage and now acknowledging their role in diminishing and dehumanizing Black people. He proffers that this is a “belated understanding” by white news organizations that they “need every kind of reader,” including Black people, in order to survive in the current market.
Of course, Mr. Staples’ opinion piece made us think about our Downtown neighbor, The Richmond Times- Dispatch, which traces its beginnings to the early 1800s. The daily newspaper and its former sister paper, The Richmond News Leader, were owned by a family of Confederate war veterans and sympathizers who, accord- ing to the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, “labored to reverse the dramatic changes unleashed by emancipation and Reconstruction.”
According to his biography, Joseph Bryan, who died in 1908, “lent his weight to those who demanded that Virginia restrict its electorate, pass sweeping segregation laws and revise its constitution to restore the old order as far as possible.”
Richmonders don’t have to go so far back to understand the impact that mindset had on daily news coverage, overall civic life and the Black community. The newspapers were long champions of segregation, with editorial writers Douglas Southall Freeman championing segregation and James J. Kilpatrick and Virginius Dabney pushing “Massive Resistance” to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 decision outlawing segregated schools. Those ugly and racist stances ignored the educational needs of Black children and denied opportunities to generations of Black youngsters and the greater welfare of Black people.
While the Richmond Times-Dispatch published a front page editorial in July 2009 expressing its “regret” for Massive Resistance and the central role it played in “justifying its unworthy cause,” it offered no apology. Nor did its editorial board say anything about the newspaper’s white supremacy stance when the statue of the architect of Massive Resistance, former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd, was removed earlier this month from Capitol Square.
As the adage goes, our history doesn’t have to own us, but we must own our history.
We hope our Downtown neighbor will use this time of racial reckoning to reflect and review the printed record of the past and be straightforward with the Richmond community about its role in the decades of oppression of Black people throughout the city’s history.
We appreciate the internal examinations daily newspapers across the country have undertaken and their reports of their findings to their readers. Apologies offer little succor for decades—no, centuries—of abuse. But an apology is a start. What’s harder is to change the present course so that the future is not laced with regret.
History has shown us that each of Richmond’s newspapers has a role to play in the growth, development and success of our city. That is why we, at the Richmond Free Press, take seriously our mission to reflect and give voice to our community and empower our readers by addressing the issues and injustices that impact their lives.
The insightful columns of Michael Paul Williams published in the Times-Dispatch during the past year on the Confederate statues that lace our city’s landscape and hurt our psyche won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in June. We congratulate the Times-Dispatch on this prestigious award. Mr. Williams’ columns added a great deal to the community conversation and understanding of why the statues need to come down.
But one plum doesn’t make a whole pie.
We acknowledge that several members of our news team previously worked at the Times-Dispatch.
As our mission statement establishes, “All of our lives are interwoven. We all, whether we like it or not, are in the same proverbial boat. We must work together – or continue to sink.”
We hope that our Downtown neighbor will abandon its perspective that created its dismal past and, going forward, will present a fair, balanced and representative accounting of our current history for the benefit of all Richmonders.