A Fighting Press: Two Different Approaches from the Black and White Press

|By Ashley Bianco|

In 1948, thirty miles off U.S. Highway One in the small town of Alston, GA, Alexander Rivera, Jr., a reporter for the Pittsburgh Courier, found himself interviewing the newly widowed Sallie Nixon while disguised in a chauffeur outfit. Sallie’s late husband, Isaiah Nixon, a turpentine worker and a father of six, had been shot by a white man three times on Nixon’s front porch for voting in the Democratic Party primary. Rivera’s gut instinct told him to go disguised when reporting on the Isaiah Nixon case because he was worried he would be attacked by whites. “That [the murder of Isaiah Nixon] was one that I was sure that my luck had run out. Something happened that had never happened before in my whole life,” Rivera recalled to an interviewer, Kieran Taylor.[1]

As a black man living in the Jim Crow South, Rivera was accustomed to concealing his identity in order to gather crucial information on lynchings, murders and trials of African Americans. The black and white press took different approaches to covering the black community in the 1940s. The black press had evolved out of the necessity to voice the concerns of the black community. In this evolution, the black press became protestors and in the words of Gunnar Myrdal in his analysis of race relations in the U.S., a “fighting press.”[2]  The mission of the black press was to eliminate the stereotype of the “black criminal” and to demonstrate the humanity within the black community.[3] Both black and white newspapers covered Isaiah Nixon’s murder, but black newspapers used the case to advocate for equality while liberal white newspapers covered the black community from a distance.

The Pittsburgh Courier gravitated to the Nixon story. Sallie Nixon, holding her two-week-old baby in her arms, recounted the story of Isaiah Nixon’s murder to Rivera with a brave face. “Two more shots rang out and my husband, who had not seemed to feel the first shot, stumbled and fell in a heap at the porch steps,” Sallie recalled to Rivera in a two-part series he wrote for The Courier.[4]

On September 8, 1948, Nixon, woke up early to vote in the Democratic primary in Alston.[5] At dusk, Nixon was enjoying the company of friends and family at his home when Jim A. Johnson and Johnnie Johnson, both white, drove up to his house.[6]  The Johnson brothers were long time acquaintances of the Nixons.  “…My grandmother said they [the Johnson brothers] ate at her table,” Dorothy Nixon Williams, six years old at the time of her father’s death, recalled to the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project.[7] Isaiah Nixon was shot three times on his own front porch in front of his family. His murder became one of the most shocking and enduring stories of 1948.

Historically in the 1940s, the white press segregated coverage with “Negro” columns or “black pages” that gave social updates or insight into the activities of black organizations. The Courier emerged in 1910 as a prominent newspaper in the coverage of the black community. For instance, the Courier started the movement to encourage black voters to move away from the Republican Party in the 1930s. Later on in 1938, when Wendell Smith became the sports editor at The Courier, Smith used his column to call for the desegregation of major league baseball and would be the one to suggest Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers president, Branch Rickey, Sr.[8] In 1942 during World War II, the Courier spearheaded the campaign called “Double V,” victory abroad and a victory at home, which demanded that blacks fighting abroad in the war be given equality and full rights upon their return.

While most of the black press during the 1940s devoted most of their space to columnists and editorials versus news coverage, the Courier opened up its pages to stories of inequality, making the Nixon story one that immediately drew its attention.[9] After publishing a news story, the Courier sent  Rivera to interview Sallie Nixon.[10] It was essential for the black press to send correspondents to cover the stories in-person due to the complexity and sensitivity of the stories. Correspondents were there to challenge the stereotypes of the ‘black criminal’ and to give their stories a reliable presence.  The Courier debunked the ‘black criminal’ stereotype by humanizing the Nixon family. In his two-part series, Rivera focused upon the vulnerability of the Nixons. “My children scattered like a covey of birds,” Sallie Nixon said in describing her children’s fear in the wake of the shooting.[11] The series incorporates Rivera’s evocative images as he shows the Nixon children pointing toward bullet holes in their door and Sallie Nixon holding back tears while trying to cook. Rivera even plays upon Sallie Nixon’s shyness to name a motive or even discuss the murder. Her fear of repercussion for speaking out against the murderers is seen in her worry and fear for her family and children. As Rivera wrote in the first article about the Nixons, “Mrs. Nixon was hesitant to assign a motive for the killing. She stated that although her husband had voted in defiance of local authorities, some other Negroes had voted also.”[12] By focusing upon the reader’s empathy and humanizing the Nixons, Rivera demonstrates how a normal family went from being happy to devastated by a single act.

Unlike other black newspapers, The Courier labeled Nixon’s death a murder. In contrast, black newspapers such as the New York Amsterdam News were quick to call Nixon’s death a ‘lynching’ in hopes of garnering more attention to the denial of voting rights in the South.[13] The black press sensationalized crimes against blacks in order to keep the black readership. Unlike white newspapers, the black press readership tended to be lower to middle class. This caused some in the black press to use sensationalism to increase circulation as well as to empower protest against inequality.[14] The Courier instead chose to exacerbate emotional responses to the Nixon family rather than exaggerate the death of Isaiah Nixon.

For the white press, particularly the liberal-minded Atlanta Constitution, the murder of Isaiah Nixon demonstrated the difference in news coverage and opinion articles in the coverage of the black community. The Constitution was one of the few papers that consistently devoted a portion of its news coverage to blacks.[15] The Constitution at one point ran a column called, “Our Negro Community,” which had updates about local black organizations. In this column, The Constitution published stories on the accomplishments of black individuals, suggesting that it felt an obligation towards the black community, although less than the Courier.

When covering the Nixon case, the Constitution mainly published small news stories provide by the Associated Press (AP) and sometimes the International News Service (INS). The AP during the 1940s approached stories like the Nixon murder one step at a time, often sending inexperienced correspondents to cover complex issues.[16] This created discrepancies in the stories produced, for instance the misidentification of Jim A. Johnson as M. A Johnson or Isaiah as Isiah. Wire services also depended upon the correspondent reaching a phone as soon as possible to relay the information he or she had heard; this also caused discrepancies in the reports. The Constitution published some of these discrepancies, yet it should be noted that Alston was located three hours away from Atlanta. The distance made it difficult for the Constitution to send reporters so it used wire services. The Constitution did not report the outcomes of the Nixon murder trial. It was unsuccessful in seeing the importance of the trial, demonstrating the different approach white press took in coverage of the black community.

The Constitution did, however, demonstrate editorial sympathy for the black community during the time of the Nixon case. Executive editor Ralph McGill took to writing opinion columns during the Nixon case. Unlike the relationship of the executive editor and the newsroom at today’s newspapers, McGill did not run news coverage in the 1940s. Instead, he mainly wrote personal opinion columns for the paper. McGill had the ability to see both sides of any issue and in his columns, he demonstrated this ability.  While the black press called McGill the ‘liberal editor,’ he viewed himself as a journalist trying not to get too far ahead of his white readership.[17] In McGill’s first column on the Nixon case, “Will We Deliver Ourselves to Our Foes?” written only four days after Nixon’s murder, McGill called for Montgomery County to take responsibility and bring justice to the issue of racial intolerance.[18] He calls out the falsehood of the Johnson brothers’ claim to self-defense in the presence of an unarmed man. “That has a familiar ring,” McGill wrote. “We have heard it when a prisoner was killed in his cell. We heard it two years ago when a Negro was called to his door and shot, after voting.”[19] For McGill, Nixon’s murder only proved how outside help would be needed if the South could not bring justice to those victimized by racial intolerance.

The last column McGill would write mentioning Isaiah Nixon would not be until a year later, in his editorial, “The Pattern of Our Violence.” [20] McGill, in a brave move, discusses the disgrace of the Ku Klux Klan to Georgia and lists Isaiah Nixon as one of the many victims in suspected acts committed by Klansmen. McGill demonstrates the Constitution’s editorial sympathy towards the black community.[21]

It was journalists such as Alexander Rivera and Ralph McGill who became agents of change for the black community during the 1940s.

Edited by David Beasley

[1]  Rivera Alex and Kieran Walsh Taylor, Oral history interview with Alexander M. Rivera, February 1, 2002 interview C-0298, Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007). (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University Library, 2007) http://docsouth.unc.edu/sohp/C-0298/menu.html.

[2]  Myrdal Gunnar, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 908 – 924

[3]  Myrdal Gunnar, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 918

[4]  Rivera Alexander Jr., “Widow, 25, Tells Courier how Husband was Slain in … because He Voted,” The Pittsburgh Courier Oct 09, 1948, City Edition. http://search.proquest.com/docview/1023838279?accountid=10747.

[5]   Information about the Isaiah Nixon Case. FBI and NAACP Files, (September 8th, 1948 – 1949, DOJ 144 – 19 – 82), 5-10

[6] Information about the Isaiah Nixon Case. FBI and NAACP Files, (September 8th, 1948 – 1949, DOJ 144 – 19 – 82), 1 – 234

[7]  Williams Nixon Dorothy, interview with the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project. (Atlanta, GA: Emory University, 2015) https://playback.service.emory.edu/ess/echo/presentation/f2b4e3ed-dd7f-4b97-bedb-cb9bc61c32dd

[8]  “Newspapers: The Pittsburgh Courier,” PBS, accessed December 15, 2015,

http://www.pbs.org/blackpress/news_bios/courier.html

[9] Roberts, Gene and Hank Klibanoff, The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation. (New York: Knopf, 2006), 17

[10] “Voter killed as Talmadge, Klan sweep Georgia,” The Pittsburgh Courier Sep 18, 1948

http://search.proquest.com/docview/1023835719?accountid=10747

[11] Rivera Alexander Jr., “Widow, 25, Tells Courier how Husband was Slain in … because He Voted,” The Pittsburgh Courier Oct 09, 1948, City Ed. http://search.proquest.com/docview/1023838279?accountid=10747.

[12]  Rivera Alexander Jr., “Widow, 25, Tells Courier how Husband was Slain in … because He Voted,” The Pittsburgh Courier Oct 09, 1948, City Ed. http://search.proquest.com/docview/1023838279?accountid=10747.

[13] “Wallace’s Harlem Backers Assail Georgia Lynching,” New York Amsterdam News Sep 18, 1948

http://search.proquest.com/docview/225823133?accountid=10747.

[14]  Myrdal Gunnar, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 917

[15] Martindale Carolyn, The White Press and Black America. (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), 86–94

[16] Breaking News: How the Associated Press Has Covered War, Peace, and Everything Else. (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007), 194 – 215

[17] Cumming Douglas O, The Southern Press: Literary Legacies and the Challenge of Modernity. (Evanston, Ill: Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University Press, 2009), 20 – 21

[18] McGill Ralph, “Will We Deliver Ourselves to Our Foes?” The Atlanta Constitution Sep 14, 1948 http://search.proquest.com/docview/1534642517?accountid=10747.

[19] McGill Ralph, “Will We Deliver Ourselves to our Foes?” The Atlanta Constitution Sep 14, 1948 http://search.proquest.com/docview/1534642517?accountid=10747.

[20] McGill Ralph, “The Pattern of Our Violence,” The Atlanta Constitution Apr 19, 1949. http://search.proquest.com/docview/1533032962?accountid=10747.

[21]  Martindale Carolyn, The White Press and Black America. (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), 114