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'Conscience' of a State Wins Praise

National Perspective | PROFILE

Journalists laud Bill Minor for interpreting the byzantine politics and culture of Mississippi.

October 30, 1997|ELEANOR RANDOLPH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JACKSON, Miss. — A few weeks after newspaperman Wilson F. "Bill" Minor finished his 1947 piece about a "mini-Gestapo group" called the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations, a long telegram arrived from New York City.

It was from A.J. Liebling, the legendary media critic of the New Yorker magazine, who wanted to know why this story wasn't on the news wires or in New York papers.

"Basically, he wanted to know if I was real," laughed Minor, who remembers writing Liebling a long memo about the secret arrests and other abuses of the bureau.

Thus Liebling, who used Minor's work to critique the news managers of the day, became the first of a long line of outsiders--especially journalist outsiders--to turn to Bill Minor for help understanding the strange state of Mississippi.

As a Mississippi-based reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Minor became interpreter extraordinaire of a byzantine society with its racist politics and its elections so crooked that sometimes even the dead whites voted while live blacks could not. Northerners who could not penetrate the steamy soul of the state turned to Minor, and in turn he became an unsung national resource during the civil rights struggle.

Author David Halberstam, New York Times writer R.W. Apple, CBS Nightly News anchor Dan Rather and dozens of others checked in with Minor over the years when they strayed into territory that Halberstam recently described as a place where "the laws of the rest of the nation did not apply."

"He was the unique conscience of the state," Halberstam said this summer at a lunch where Minor was announced as the first winner of the John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism.

Halberstam and a group of other journalists, including Jack Nelson of the Los Angeles Times, tried last year to get the Pulitzer Prize committee to give a lifetime citation award to Minor. Rebuffed, they began lobbying for the Chancellor award, a $25,000 prize named after the NBC broadcaster who died of cancer last year.

"During the 1960s--as you know, a very tough time in Mississippi--Bill was a beacon to national reporters who sought him out for help and background guidance," Boston Globe reporter Curtis Wilkie wrote the Pulitzer officials. "Even Diogenes would have liked him."

Today, Minor chuckles about such praise. He seems proud and embarrassed, describing his role simply as that of a gung-ho reporter. But not every reporter faces gunshots through his office window.

That happened after Minor set up his own investigative newspaper, the Capitol Reporter, in Jackson, Miss., in 1976. The paper's slogan was "Once a week, but never weakly."

After a story appeared about a district attorney who "was tied up to a sort of local Mafia type," as Minor put it, somebody smashed the paper's windows and stole Minor's typesetting machine.

On another morning, after the window looked like a spider web from the night's bullet holes, Minor moved the office to a more protected site. The Reporter carried on until 1981, when Minor ran out of money, benefactors and volunteers. He then began writing columns and free-lance stories.

Now, at age 75 and dependent on a cane after suffering a stroke three years ago, Minor says he cannot cover everything the way he once did. So people call him or come to his pin-neat suburban home to give interviews or pass on stories.

The result is a column for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger called "Eyes on Mississippi" that draws outrage and praise from his readers around the South.

Like the letters about the governor of Mississippi, Republican Kirk Fordice. "I guess I'm the No. 1 critic of Kirk Fordice," Minor said with a chuckle. "He is in so many ways a throwback to the old days. And if there were some redeeming features about him, I would be delighted to write about them."

Within minutes, he is off telling tales about the Legislature and the governor, laughing at every peculiarity. After all these years, Minor believes that his territory is still one of the most bizarre and interesting places in the country.

"Really, you can't even explain this state," he said, shaking his head at those who try. "You can't even attempt it, really."

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