A 1967 Article on the Courier

When a black woman talked back to Tallapoosa County's white sheriff, she was arrested and faced an all-but-certain conviction. But a remarkable thing happened when she came to trial. The judge led the police chief and the defendant into his chambers, closed the door, and told them he was dismissing the case to avoid bad publicity. A reporter had shown up.

The following article appeared July 21, 1967, in the Summer News published by the Harvard Crimson. It was written by staff writer Stephen E. Cotton, who during 1965-66 had been the Birmingham reporter for the Southern Courier.
Steve Cotton at the 2006 Courier reunion.

Bertha Godfrey is a quick-tempered housewife from Tallapoosa Co., Ala. When a white woman’s car smashed into hers and the police chief who investigated the accident said it was her fault, she snapped at him, “Just because I'm a Negro woman you want to treat me like this.”

“If you know you're a nigger woman why don't you act like one?” growled the chief, and he promptly arrested her for interfering with his investigation.

It is not wise for Negroes to speak harshly to police chiefs in rural Alabama. Mrs. Godfrey faced certain conviction and, at the very least, a stiff fine for her folly. But a remarkable thing happened when she came to trial. Probate Judge Woodrow Barnes led the police chief and Mrs. Godfrey into his chambers at the Tallapoosa Co. courthouse, closed the door and told them he was dismissing the case to avoid untoward publicity. A reporter had shown up.

The reporter was Mary Ellen Gale '62, a slim brunette who quit her job on the Philadelphia Bulletin 18 months ago to work for The Southern Courier. As with the Courier's other seven reporters (all of them in their late teens to mid-twenties}, her job is to look in on events that no other newspaper in Alabama would deign to cover - demonstrations by civil rights organizations, plans of anti-poverty agencies, racial killings, piecemeal gains in integration, and the oddities of Alabama life that are galling to Negroes but to which whites are generally oblivious.

About the only way for a Negro to get his name in the first few pages of most Alabama newspapers is to do bodily harm to a white person. The small number of other endeavors that make the papers are ordinarily consigned to what is known in the trade as the “nigger page” (a compositor for the Selma Times Journal recently precipitated a demonstration by angry Negroes when he inadvertently failed to remove a line of type reading “Nigger Page” from that section of the paper).

Vol. 1, No. 22: December 11-12, 1965. Mary Ellen Gale's story about Bertha Godfrey's case appears on page 6. Click image to download the issue.

Even Birmingham's three Negro papers carry little news about Alabama; instead they rely heavily on offerings mailed by a couple of national news services. That is cheaper than hiring more reporters (none has more than two), and it makes advertisers more comfortable. As the publisher of one of the papers once remarked, “I've got more important things to do than go scuffling after news.”

The Courier (circulation: 20,000 a week) was the brainchild of two rights-minded veterans of a summer in Mississippi. The two, former Crimson editors Ellen Lake '66 and Peter Cummings '66, envisioned a network of five state-wide weekly newspapers in five Deep South states. But that would have taken $75,000 to get going, and months of letter-writing, phone calls and collections around Harvard produced only $35,000. They picked Alabama, where civil rights groups were planning massive voter registration campaigns to unseat Gov. George Wallace.

Since its first issue rolled off the presses in July, 1965, the Courier, in deciding to settle for one paper, and in the face of perpetual financial crisis and rapid turnover of its mini-staff, has never missed a week. Young reporters driving long distances late at night have demolished Courier cars; business managers have thrown up their hands at the Courier’s book-keeping-by-memory system and stalked out of its two-room headquarters in a downtown Montgomery office building, never to return. But while steadily losing money (advertising and sales pay only a fraction of its $4,000-a-month budget; the rest comes from private donations and foundation grants), it has been making friends and influencing politics.

Most of the Courier’s readers are rural Negroes in the Black Belt of Alabama and Mississippi (during the Meredith March from Memphis to Jackson last summer, the Courier distributed free copies. along the route, received letters asking for reporters and subscriptions, and happily supplied both). Few people want their copies mailed; they prefer to pay a dime each time the six-page full-sized paper is delivered to their doorstep. The Courier buses papers out to dozens of local distributors - housewives, civil rights leaders, retired steelworkers--who mail back the paper's share of the money collected, as well as news tips and items for a short column of social notes.

For its intensely loyal readers, many of whom are all but illiterate and most of whom read nothing else, the Courier has developed a peculiar journalese that wavers between first-grade primer and Time magazine style. Efforts to render complex political shenanigans comprehensible lead to headlines like “Who’s Doing What to Whom in Phenix City?” An interview with a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor last year contained this passage: “He sprinkled the crackers into his soup. Not too many crackers, and not too few. It was a middle-of-the-road sort of sprinkle.”

People unaccustomed to writing have taken pencil in hand to carve smudgy letters of praise to the Courier. The comments echo those of a graying man sitting on a barrel at a gas station in Bessemer one summer afternoon: “That’s a good paper. It's easy to read.”

Courier reporters come to occupy unique positions in the communities in which they live (there are bureaus in a half dozen Alabama cities, two in Mississippi). They keep in touch with Negro political groups - which may not be on speaking terms with each other - and talk frequently with white officials downtown.

School officials in Lowndes Co., despairing over rumors that Negroes planned demonstrations for the first day of school integration, checked with the local Courier reporter, who assured them the rumors were false; integration went ahead as planned.

Civil rights groups rarely schedule a demonstration without calling someone from the Courier. On at least one occasion, a demonstration was called off when a Courier correspondent replied that he had a previous commitment.

The head of the Negro arm of the state Democratic party asked a Courier reporter to speak with leaders of the Lowndes Co. Freedom Organization - the independent party, with a Black Panther as its symbol, that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee helped set up - about forming an alliance during last year’s election {the offer was turned down).

But while the Courier provides friendly intermediaries who can negotiate some of Alabama's political thickets, it occasionally effuses hopelessly naive goodwill. One New Englander, told that business dealings in the South are relaxed and informal, called a beauty shop owner to sell her an ad and initiated the following dialogue:

“Mrs. Jones? How are you?”

“Jes' fine.”

“Lovely weather we're having.”

“Uh, yes.”

“How's the family?”

“Who IS this?”

That sort of interchange is symptomatic of the Courier's gravest problem: most of its staff members are from the North, and they are white. One hope of early Courier staffers was that local talent could be recruited, trained and finally put in command; at the starting pay of $25 per week the first step has proved rather difficult. While most of the Courier’s office workers are Negro, only three of its salaried reporters are. The rest, including Editor Michael S. Lottman '62, former managing editor of The Crimson and reporter for the Chicago Daily News, are graduates of or on leave from Northern colleges like Harvard, Wellesley and Antioch.

That is not the way things were supposed to be, and Lottman is painfully aware of it, but without the money to pay competitive wages, he feels powerless to do much. At any rate, SNCC workers have from time to time lashed out at the notion of a white-dominated newspaper for Negroes. As one SNCC staffer put it, “Man, it's just one more white man tryin’ to tell me what to think.” SNCC seriously discussed at one point organizing a boycott of the Courier. The idea apparently was forgotten by the time of last year’s elections, when SNCC instead bought advertising space for the Lowndes Co. Freedom Organization.

The Courier reaches people that no other paper does, and politicians - whether they are running under the Black Panther or are ardent segregationists - respect it for that, perhaps far more than it really merits. At any rate, any candidate with more than a passing interest in the Negro vote purchased advertising space during last year’s campaigns, several tried to court editor Lottman for an endorsement (the Courier has a policy of not endorsing anyone for anything), and a friend of a candidate in next Monday’s Montgomery City Commission election primary offered Lottman $500 to print damaging articles on an opponent.

Through most of last year, with Negro voting strength nearly double what it had been in the previous election, white officials exercised remarkable restraint in dealing with Negroes. Even Gov. Wallace, running his wife as a stand-in gubernatorial candidate, learned to say “knee-grow” for the first time in his political history.

Vol. 2, No. 19: May 7-8, 1966. Coverage of the 1966 Alabama Democratic primary in which 100 black candidates lost. Click image to download the issue.

There were about 100 Negro candidates in last May's Democratic primary, and the Courier was viewing its future - which held out the prospect of warm friends in high places - with unabashed enthusiasm. A couple of days before the vote, editors set into type a jubilant editorial on the power of the Negro vote. It never ran; the ed, framed in black, hangs in the Courier office. All but a handful of Negroes and white liberals were clobbered at the polls.

A powerful friend and attentive reader, then-Attorney General Richmond Flowers, was out of office. (Flowers was interviewing a job applicant last year when his executive assistant recalled seeing the name in the Courier; he dug out the story - a series of chats with friends of Ku Klux Klan Wizard Robert Shelton - showed it to Flowers, and the interview ended abruptly.) A number of federal and state judges and other officials continue to subscribe (Alabama has two subscriptions - one for the state archives, the other for the anti-poverty office), but few are as avid followers of it as was Flowers.

Since the elections, according to Lottman, state and county officials have been much less discreet in their behavior towards Negroes; they have condoned behavior that they discouraged in the days when Negroes were lining up in large numbers to register. “Nobody's afraid of the Negro vote these days,” said Lottman. "Nobody's afraid that the federal government is going to do anything.”

“This has been,” he added, “the bloodiest winter anyone can remember.”

Oddly enough, the segregationists' renewed self-confidence has made the job of Courier reporters, if anything, easier. “People are glad to talk to us,” noted Lottman wryly. “They tell us exactly what they're doing.”

But that has always been more or less the case. Even ardent “segs” have enjoyed an occasional tete-a-tete with a well-dressed, soft-spoken Courier reporter. (Exception: A team of reporters covering the first civil rights demonstration in Ft. Deposit, not far from Selma, were surrounded by white mobs twice; a county voting examiner smashed an ax handle through their car windshield; and five carloads of toughs followed them out of town.) A drugstore owner in Linden bought a copy of the paper from two reporters, remarking, “Course, I make up my own mind, but I've heard from people I respect - sheriffs and all - that this is a Communist newspaper.”

“You think maybe there's a place for a newspaper that tries to tell both sides of the story on race questions?” he was asked.

“Maybe,” he mused. “Course, you come around Linden, you might get shot.”

To Courier reporters, humorous suggestions of that nature are less significant than the fact that whites are paying attention to the paper. Former Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark once cracked, “I don’t see how one goddam Red newspaper can be so yellow.” Later, he said that the Courier news columns had treated him fairly during his term of office.

Courier reporters quote both remarks with a touch of pride.

Copyright © 1967, The Harvard Crimson, Inc.