In 1966, in congruency with dramatic changes to race-related laws all over the South, the Chattanooga Housing Authority (CHA) integrated public housing. The predecessor to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the News Free Press, reported it in a small article (see below) entitled “Negro Family of 6 Moves Into Boone-Hysinger Homes.” The article was written by J.B. Collins and a cursory Google search will reveal that Collins, in his day, was a bit of a legendary newsman. The kind that doesn’t seem to exist anymore, particularly in local journalism. A hardscrabble tough-skinned reporter willing to pound the pavement for the scoop.
Collins, who still lives locally, is 100 years old now. I called him for the purpose of this article and, though he declined to comment, it wasn’t from a place of curmudgeonly unwillingness. He might have talked to me about what he’d written but as he politely reminded me, that was 52 years ago. Who can remember a dinky article from 52 years ago? “I don’t think I can be much help,” he said. Fair enough. I thanked him for his time and we hung up.
His article, though, was, and still is, a burr under my saddle. I couldn’t get it out of my brain. Upon first read, aside from the term “Negro,” it was tough to tell exactly what might cause somebody — at least me — to be bothered by it. Upon second read, however, something quite sinister began to moan in the ink. Upon the third read, it was screaming at me.
Remember that this tiny article appeared in the South in the mid-1960s. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement. For context, the white terrorist church bombing that killed four black children happened only three years before the publication of Collins’ piece and just 150 miles away in Birmingham. Dr. King would be assassinated two years after the article’s appearance on the other side of the very same state in which the article appeared.
Do you see it? Second paragraph, first sentence?
The full name, family size — including the notation “four small children” — and exact address of the first black family to move into public housing in Chattanooga.
It’s breathtakingly irresponsible journalism by today’s standards. Whether it was Collins’ decision to include that sentence, the one that immediately and thoroughly exposed these poor family members to all kinds of potential further discrimination, even violence, by precisely pinpointing them in time and space or whether it was the News Free Press’ decision is largely irrelevant. That it’s there at all is crazy.
To be fair, I suppose, a couple of caveats are included. Notes that police presence would be “indefinite” in the Boone-Hysinger Homes and that white residents had been warned, via letter, against starting any racially motivated trouble. But those seem somehow weak and pallid compared to the conceivable ramifications of distributing the information in the first place.
It’s why I so badly wanted to talk to J.B. Collins. Why was this family’s personal information included? It does absolutely nothing to sharpen the point of the article. It’s wholly unnecessary. The piece would have suffered not a whit if Collins and/or the News Free Press had simply omitted it. It just didn’t have to be there.
But here’s my guess. Neither Collins nor the newspaper had malice in their hearts at the writing, editing and publication of the article. Collins, in the few minutes I had him on the phone, seemed like a genial, gregarious man. The News Free Press, presumably, routinely made all efforts to strip any of its articles of obvious bias if, for no other reason, then to conform to the lofty ideals of good journalism.
To include as much information as possible about the subjects of its articles must have been a kind of policy at the News Free Press, a policy which may have, at the time, included the reported-upons’ names and addresses. If your skin was black or white or purple, it didn’t matter. If you made news for any reason at all, well then, pow! In went your information.
In the extreme example of the Birmingham church bombing, the white perpetrators meant to kill those children simply because they were black. Bold and obvious racism. Nine times out of ten, it’s what comes to mind when we hear the word “racism.” The actors in this case, the bombers, were loud and proud unrepentant racists.
In this article, we find nothing like that. It’s probably safe to say that the actors here — Collins and the News Free Press — weren’t motivated by any kind of racial bigotry at all. Yet the tenets of their jobs, how they wrote and how it was ultimately published, were inadvertently partial.
Imagine a scenario where the paper printed the name and address of a white family for all of Southeast Tennessee to see. Odd maybe, but not much more than that. But reporting the name, family size and exact address of the first black family to integrate public housing presented a danger that simply wouldn’t have, even couldn’t have existed for a white family. What must have been a normal news policy was, in fact, profoundly unfair.
There are words for this … institutional racism, systemic racism. By whatever name it’s known, it’s when we act out there in society — how we do our jobs, how we interact with family and friends — in ways not driven directly by our personal core values but driven by the collective values we inherently trust to govern the world. Our laws, customs, social norms. We typically feel less personal responsibility to create change when those collective values favor one group of people over another because “that’s just the way it’s always been.”
When racism is writ large, we see it and, most of us at least, deplore it. When it’s writ small, I daresay we have a hard time even perceiving it. It’s camouflaged with the regular movements of our lives. But we should look for it and root it out, wherever it hides and no matter how long it takes to find it. Even 52 years.
Paul Luikart is a writer whose work has appeared in a number of places over the years. His most recent book, “Animal Heart,” is available now from Hyperborea Publishing. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.