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Ira B. Harkey Jr., 88; His Calls for Integration Won a Pulitzer

October 16, 2006|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

In the pages of the Chronicle, readers in Pascagoula, Miss., found what they expected to see in a small-town paper: national news, mixed with a heavy dose of local weddings, funerals and social affairs.

After Ira B. Harkey Jr. purchased the newspaper, residents sometimes found unexpected ideas that few wanted to read.

In 1962, at the height of the civil rights movement, Harkey wrote editorials supporting the peaceful integration of the University of Mississippi. During an era of irrational and many times brutal opposition to integration, Harkey's view brought him ostracism, death threats and violence.

Still, he continued to write.

"I had the feeling -- and I hate to say this because I sound like a jerk -- I had the feeling I could make a difference," he said in a 2004 interview with Tulane University magazine. "That I could really teach these people that the black man was a human being and not an animal. That he deserved the same rights as everyone else."

Harkey, a former editor and publisher who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1963 for his editorials supporting integration and later wrote a book about his experiences, died Oct. 8 at a care facility in Kerrville, Texas, from complications of Parkinson's disease. He was 88.

The journalist was among a small group who "recognized that segregation was an albatross around the neck of Mississippi and that it was holding the whole state in bondage," said Robert Oswald, a former Chancery Court judge who was Harkey's attorney and shared his views. "He saw just the rank unfairness of it, the inhumane aspect of it."

Born Jan. 15, 1918, in New Orleans, Harkey was the son of a wealthy businessman. After graduating from Tulane in 1941, he served in the Navy during World War II and later worked as a reporter at the New Orleans Times-Picayune. In 1949, after purchasing the paper in Pascagoula, he began correcting what he called "one of the least-known injustices inflicted on the Southern Negro."

"In print he is never a man," Harkey wrote in his 1967 book "The Smell of Burning Crosses." "He is a Negro, negro or colored. His wife is not a woman. She is colored, Negro, negro or Negress. Indeed, she is not even allowed to be his wife in most Southern newspapers, being denied the title of Mrs. no matter how legally married she may be, and is referred to on the streets, in the courts and in the newspaper as Bessie Lou or Willie Mae or Mandy."

The paper stopped identifying individuals by race, except when necessary, and later began addressing African Americans with the same titles of respect -- Mrs., Mr., Miss -- given to whites. That decision angered readers accustomed to seeing derogatory references to African Americans in print.

In 1962 nearly every newspaper in the state of Mississippi supported the position of lawmakers, the Ku Klux Klan and many white residents, who vehemently and violently opposed integration. Harkey's paper served an area of about 75,000 residents but had a circulation of 10,000 to 12,000, recalled Jerry St. Pe, one of two reporters writing for the paper at that time.

Pascagoula is on Mississippi's Gulf Coast, about 100 miles east of New Orleans and far from the University of Mississippi. But the newspaper's size and distance did not prevent Harkey from adding his voice to the debate through a series of editorials. He criticized the governor's opposition to the admission of black student James Meredith and those who suggested that the university be shut down rather than allow a black man to enter.

"The suggestion has been made that Ole Miss be closed," Harkey wrote in one editorial. "It has been offered by the same group of false prophets who deluded the people for eight years into believing that we could maintain school segregation in Mississippi while all about us other Southern states were failing in their attempts to prevent integration. Somehow, in the face of all that is sane, they manage to convince most white people that they had a secret unknown to other Southern states."

Harkey encouraged readers to "let our leaders know that we do not regard suicide as a solution."

From October 1962 to February 1963 the paper was the subject of a crippling boycott. Newspaper delivery boys were attacked on their routes. Someone fired shots at Harkey's home, and a shotgun shell blasted out the windows of the newspaper's office. Crosses were burned at the paper's office and at Harkey's home, and there were threats against his life. Harkey had little public support locally.

"Not too many people were willing to speak up," said Oswald. "These were dangerous times, just to put it simply, for people who were willing to take a stand."

The Pulitzer board awarded Harkey the prize for "for his courageous editorials devoted to the processes of law and reason during the integration crisis in Mississippi in 1962."

At home, colleagues in the press treated him as a traitor.

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