'The Courage of the Courier'

When alumni of The Southern Courier reunited in Montgomery, Alabama, in 2006, four decades after they had covered civil rights at the height of the movement, the reception they received was markedly different.

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March 27, 2006

The courage of the Courier

Event to mark 40th anniversary

By Erica Pippins

Newspapers frequently honor the commitment of everyday people who experience countless trials but ultimately triumph in their quests for social and racial equality. That wasn't always the case.

During some of most turbulent days in the nation's history, many Southern papers shied away from covering anything associated with the civil rights struggle. Enter the Southern Courier.

A handful of white Harvard Law School graduates came to Montgomery in 1965 to start a publication they hoped would influence social change. The young men and women assembled an integrated staff of reporters, photographers and editors who strove to make the public aware of issues other papers wouldn't print.

"The paper filled a void that needed to be filled. It did some things the Montgomery Advertiser and Alabama Journal at the time didn't do," said Norman Lumpkin, one of the Courier's early reporters. "Those people risked their lives to come down here."

Dozens of former Courier employees will gather for a 40th anniversary reunion April 1-3 at Auburn University Montgomery. Their visit coincides with the university's annual Clifford and Virginia Durr Memorial Lecture Series.

The white civil rights activists were considered the "god-parents" of the Southern Courier. Their home at 2 Felder Road was usually one of the first stops for new recruits before they were sent out to one of the paper's bureaus in Birmingham, Mobile, Tuscaloosa and Tuskegee.

Michael Lottman was a recent Harvard University graduate working for the now-defunct Chicago Daily News when some of his former Harvard Crimson colleagues asked him to come to the Southern Courier.

"All of this stuff was happening and I just thought maybe I should be doing something," said Lottman, who became the paper's editor.

But Lottman quickly found it was one thing to hear about the injustices blacks faced in the Jim Crow South and another to experience them firsthand. He often went toe-to-toe with rural sheriffs who arrested his reporters and photographers for "trespassing" or "disturbing the peace" even though there was no evidence to back those claims.

"I was never really afraid," Lottman said. "I know that there were a lot of people who probably had an issue with what I was doing, but at the end of the day, they showed me respect."


The Courier staff at work in their newsroom. The newspaper was responsible for reporting on some of the more intense events in the civil rights movement.

The news was gathered Mondays and Tuesdays and the Courier was pieced together during all-night sessions every Wednesday. About 30,000 copies were printed and shipped on Friday by Greyhound and Trailways buses to a network of distributors all over Alabama and eastern Mississippi.

The paper cost several hundred dollars to produce, so writers such as Joan Turnow were paid $20 to $75 a week. She didn't mind. Turnow, 62, supported the Courier's goal of goading Southern news outlets into writing about controversial issues that often appeared as footnotes on their pages or not at all.

One of the first stories she investigated was the "accidental" shooting of James Small, a young black man. Police claimed he was trying to break into a school in Birmingham.

The Birmingham News buried the 1967 incident at the back of the paper. Turnow's account of Small's death was front page news.

"In fact, he had simply gone out to buy cigarettes at a vending machine. When I met with his mother and sister, I found out that they were active in the civil rights movement and this might have been police retribution for their activism," Turnow said. "When they went to pick up his body, they found that all he had was the fresh pack of cigarettes he had just bought, along with his wallet.

Many of those harrowing moments were captured in the lens of Jim Peppler, 64, now a staff photographer at Newsday in New York. He often traveled to sleepy hamlets in central Alabama to get a feel for what was going on in the community -- good and bad.

One of his more memorable incidents occurred during Stokley Carmichael's visit to Prattville. The Black Panther leader went to the city to investigate claims that black men were being shot and killed by police for no apparent reason.

"I was roughed up pretty bad," Peppler said. He wasn't deterred. Peppler continued to travel to communities where he was not welcome.

"Working at the Southern Courier gave me the chance to contribute to the civil rights movement by making people be truthful with themselves about what was really going on in this country," Peppler said.

The Southern Courier continued for some 175 more issues until December 1968 when opposition to the Vietnam War attracted the attention of many of its donors. Local and national media also had beefed up their coverage of important stories about race relations in the South by that time.

Reunion organizer Robert Ellis Smith, founder of the Privacy Journal, said the Southern Courier is not frequently mentioned in the annals of civil rights history. He believes, however, that it has earned a rightful place.

"The example of people going about their business, black and white together, not to prove a point but to get something done, was there for all to see for 31/2 years at a critical time in the transformation of Southern society," Smith wrote in a recent article. "That, perhaps was the most valuable of all its contributions to a better and more just society."

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