This article from CJR's archives is presented as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.
There is a considerable difference in tone between the papers’ editorials. The Post-Herald, in the early days of May, refused to give the slightest credit to the intent of the demonstrations. On Monday, May 6, the lead editorial said:
It would be interesting to know how much money Martin Luther King and his associated trouble-makers have been able to collect since they began their assault upon Birmingham.
It would be even more interesting to know how this money has been spent and how much of it has found its way into the pockets of King and his lieutenants.
The fact that racial hell-raising is extremely profitable to the fomenters of trouble is the main reason why King and his crowd continue to make trouble and refuse to listen to advice from proven friends such as Attorney General Kennedy and Father Albert S. Foley, chairman of the Alabama Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.
King promised Father Foley to halt the demonstrations and give responsible white and Negro leaders in Birmingham an opportunity to seek solutions to their problems. But he didn’t keep faith. He broke his promise without notice because, as one member of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference explained to Father Foley, “the SCLC treasury was nearly depleted and needed the demonstrations to spark contributions.”
That’s about as plain and as cold blooded as it could be put. To see these pious leaders using children and exposing them to the hazards of street brawling to line their own pockets must be a bit nauseating even to the Justice Dept.
Even if true, the editorial could hardly be construed as an aid to clearing the air. As it was, the paper ran a correction on the editorial page the next day that included the statement:
The Post-Herald has no information to indicate money collected to support the SCLC has been appropriated for the personal use of King or anyone else and intended no such inference.
We are informed that in 1962 the SCLC board offered to “put $500,000 aside for King’s personal use” and he refused it. He, according to his assistant, draws only a dollar a year from SGLC “so as to be eligible” for group insurance.
In contrast, the News, whose publisher, Hanson, was a member of the Senior Citizens, emphasized the necessity for dealing with the demonstrations by way of the conference table. After the May 11 bombings, too, there was another difference in opinion, with the Post-Herald decrying the propinquity of federal troops, and the News citing reasons why it was logical for them to be at hand.
The facts set down here do not, of course, summarize the entire performance of the papers in the field of racial relations. It is possible, however, to make some broad observations:
1. In the early part of the month, there seemed to be an effort to insulate Birmingham readers from the national impact of the demonstrations. Little comment from outside appeared, not even wire-service material from Washington.
This isolation was shattered after the News printed on its front page a long telegram from Hanson to the President, There could be seen a considerable loosening in the appearance of dispatches from the News’s Washington bureau, and by Relman Morin of the Associated Press, who was on the scene. Until that time, however, there was little recognition in the papers that the demonstrations had caught the world’s eye. The News, in this period, used much more outside comment than the Post-Herald.
2. The failure of the papers to report in detail on the demonstrators’ objectives is apparently part of a general lack of contact with the Negro community, which comprises 34 percent of the Birmingham area population. On Sundays, the News runs a small section of Negro news and photos—less than one page. Aside from this section, only one Negro identified by name appeared in a photograph anywhere in the two papers in the first half of May. He was Willie Mays.