Sunday, January 18, 2015

First Pulitzer Prize for rural weekly editors went to N.C. pair that fought Klan; PBS airs documentary

The holiday honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a good time to recognize a courageous rural weekly newspaper editor who took on the Ku Klux Klan years before King and others created the movement that won civil rights for the descendants of African American slaves.

Last week PBS aired "The Editor and the Dragon," a University of North Carolina film by Walt Campbell about the late W. Horace Carter, editor and publisher of the Tabor City Tribune, who, with an allied editor in nearby Whiteville, were the first weekly editors to win a Pulitzer Prize. PBS affiliates around the country continue to broadcast the hour-long documentary.

When the Klan came to town, Carter said, he told his wife: "I can't approve of this intimidation of people by an outfit that's organized outside the law. . . . It may be very unpopular, but I have to do what I think is right, and what my conscience tells me to do."

That was risky, said UNC Professor of Leadership and Public Policy Hodding Carter III, whose family published a daily paper in Greenville, Miss., at the time: "Everything in these towns was played out on the personal level. Everything in these towns was played out on the absolute level that you either won or you lost, and sometimes the winning or losing consisted of living or dying."

In an editorial, Horace Carter (no kin to Hodding) called the Klan "the personification of fascism and Naziism." He thought almost all in local authority agreed with him, but he learned differently. "Amazingly, I had almost no favorable reaction when those first editorials were written," he said in the documentary.

But he kept writing, and went beyond criticism of the Klan to advocate equal opportunity for blacks. He got a tip that he was to be murdered. "At the height of the crusade, there was never a day that we didn't get threats" of such things as arson and kidnapping of his children, he said. Klan Grand Dragon Thomas L. Hamilton threatened a boycott, which "would have been the end of the Tabor City Tribune," Carter says, but despite that and continued threats, "He pushed even harder in his editorials," narrator Morgan Freeman says in the documentary.

After a big Klan rally, Carter got an editorial ally: his old friend Willard Cole, editor of The News Reporter in Whiteville, also in Columbus County, who suffered the same sorts of threats. When the Klan became more violent, the FBI started its first civil-rights investigation, which resulted in more than 100 arrests and convictions, and the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service to Carter and Cole.

"We only did what any reputable newspaper would have done," Carter said. He did a national speaking tour, but went back to Tabor City and remained publisher of the Tabor-Loris Tribune until he died, in 2009. For more details of his life and career, click here.

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