Has it really been 50 years? I am getting old. It seems like yesterday. I was a child of six years, but the memories, stories and repercussions of those years still seem like part of the present, not the distant past.
Charles Dunagin was managing editor of the McComb Enterprise-Journal at the time, working for my grandfather Oliver Emmerich and my father John Emmerich. As a panelist, he recounted what happened that summer in McComb.
I have worked with Charlie for decades. He has an amazing gift of seeing things clearly and plainly without the haze of personal bias or excessive emotion. He doesn’t over dramatize. He just sees it as it is.
Dub Shoemaker was also on the panel. He was working for the Jackson Daily News and spoke in great detail about the Philadelphia killings. Dub is a great journalist and storyteller as well. He went on to become a very successful newspaper entrepreneur and long-time publisher of the Kosciusko Star-Herald, which my company recently acquired.
Between Dub and Charlie, those fortunate to be in the room got a great insight into what happened during the long hot summer.
In McComb, the Klan, run by a bunch of thugs, had gotten the upper hand and was intimidating the majority of law-abiding citizens who disapproved of violence.
Church bombings were a weekly occurrence. Freedom riders were flooding into town, creating fear and tension. The times were changing.
My grandfather was by no means a radical. In fact, he was very conservative in his political philosophy. First and foremost he was a Christian. He took his obligation as a newspaperman seriously. He reported the news. That in itself made him stand out in Mississippi. Nothing was swept under the rug. Every bombing, every bit of racial violence was reported on the pages of the EJ.
Oliver Emmerich was not, at that time, in favor of integration. He was in favor of following the laws of the city, state and nation. He editorialized for an end to the violence and the rule by law.
My father John was Oliver’s conscience. As was often the case back then, the younger generation was more progressive and idealistic. Father and son had many tense dinner table arguments in which the younger man pushed and prodded the older man to do more and take more risk. No doubt, my liberal mother got a few words in edgewise.
The Enterprise-Journal was boycotted. Oliver was beaten up. Rocks and bombs were thrown through glass windows into his office.
On the night his mother died, the Klan burned a cross in Oliver’s yard. A few days later, someone from the Klan apologized saying, “Oliver, we are so sorry. We didn’t know your mother had just died.”
The turning point came when my grandfather published a statement of principles in the paper. He persuaded 650 prominent McComb citizens to sign.
The Klan worked by intimidation. If one person spoke out, that person would be threatened, hurt or ostracized. That kept other people fearful to speak out.
But 650 people were too many for the Klan to threaten. With 650 people pledged against violence, the momentum turned. Klan members were rounded up and put on probation. The judge said if there was any more violence of any kind, the probation would be revoked and dozens of Klan members would be shipped off to Parchman. That did the trick. The tide was turned. Progress came rapidly.
Dozens of other communities throughout the state replicated Oliver’s statement of principles. In that sense, Oliver Emmerich laid the groundwork that ended the violence and began reconciliation throughout Mississippi.
After I returned to Jackson, Amanda Ferguson, publisher of The Winona Times, suggested that I republish Oliver’s statement of principles on this 50th anniversary of the long hot summer. Here it is:
The great majority of our citizens believe in law and order, and are against violence of any kind. In spite of this, acts of terrorism have been committed numerous times against citizens both Negro and white. We believe the time has come for responsible citizens to speak out for what is right and against what is wrong. For too long we have let extremists on both sides bring our community close to chaos.
There is only one responsible stance we can take: and that is for equal treatment under the law for all citizens regardless of race, creed, position or wealth; for making our protests within the framework of the law; and for obeying the laws of the land regardless of our personal feelings. Certain of these laws may be contrary to our traditions, customs or beliefs, but as God-fearing men and women of these United States, we see no other honorable course to follow.
To these ends and for the purpose of restoring peace, tranquility and progress to our area, we respectfully urge the following:
1) Law and respect for law must be established and maintained.
a) Law officers should make only lawful arrests. “Harassment” arrests, no matter what the provocation, are not consonant with impartiality of the law.
b) To insure the confidence of the people in their officials, we insist that no man is entitled to serve in a public office, elective or appointive, who is a member of any organization declared to be subversive by the Senate Sub-Committee or the United States Army, Navy or Air Force, or to take obligations upon himself in conflict with his oath of office.
2) Economic threats and sanctions against people of both races must be ended. They only bring harm to both races.
3) We urge citizens of both races to reestablish avenues of communication and understanding. In addition, it is urged that the Negro leadership cooperate with local officials.
4) We urge the widest possible use of our citizenship in the selection of juries. We further urge that men called for jury duty not be excused except for the most compelling reasons.
5) We urge our fellow citizens to take a greater interest in public affairs, in the selection of candidates, and in the support and/or constructive criticism of public servants.
6) We urge all of our people to approach the future with a renewed dedication and to reflect an attitude of optimism about our country.
Most of the publishers who were on the right side of the civil rights battle lost their newspapers. Oliver Emmerich survived and served as publisher for 14 more years until his death.
The company he founded, Emmerich Newspapers, is still active today. We are still following his principle of “taking a greater interest in public affairs and constructive criticism of public servants.”
Of the 18 “general excellence” awards at the press association annual contest, Emmerich Newspapers won half of them, a typical year’s performance. The top award for editorial writing went to Tim Kalich, the protege of Oliver’s son, for the third year in a row. The top award for public service went to Pat Brown, publisher of the Magee Courier, an Emmerich paper, for helping to fund a shelter for abused women. The top award for investigative reporting went to me, Oliver’s grandson, for reporting on the Kemper power plant.
My grandfather saw African Americans as his brothers and sisters in Christ. Although God’s ways are a mystery to us all, in this case, 50 years later, we see the fulfillment of the Bible’s prophecy, “for whatever a man soweth, that he shall also reap.”