OXFORD — I couldn’t help but note the irony of pleas by two city officials — 55 years apart — to curtail bad publicity in McComb.
In 1964, someone called the Enterprise-Journal, the newspaper in McComb where I worked, to report that a large group of African-Americans were gathering at the Pike County Courthouse in Magnolia.
It was during the summer that the civil rights movement reached a crescendo in the McComb area.
Voter registration efforts and challenges to the Jim Crow laws had started several years earlier, but in 1964 a series of bombings and burnings of African-American churches, as well as beatings and intimidations, earned McComb the reputation as one of the most dangerous places in the country for civil rights activity.
Some of the hate — mostly from the Ku Klux Klan or Klan sympathizers — was even directed at whites who expressed any sort of moderate view on race.
The newspaper, then published by the late Oliver Emmerich, grandfather of the present owner, was covering the incidents as they came to our attention. Mr. Emmerich was also writing editorials — not advocating desegregation per se, but calling for non-violence and obeying the law.
Our news coverage and Mr. Emmerich’s editorials were not appreciated by many in the community, and several businesses boycotted us. Crosses were burned at the newspaper office and at Mr. Emmerich’s home, and an unlit Molotov cocktail was thrown at my house with a warning from the KKK.
The late Charles B. Gordon and I were the primary reporting staff of the newspaper, along with what was then called a “society” editor, a sports editor and a couple of students who worked part-time taking and developing pictures.
On that day in 1964, I drove to the scene of the congregation of blacks and started taking pictures. I don’t recall whether they were lining up to vote or just demonstrating against something.
Watching them and me from a parked automobile were a McComb businessman, who also served on the city board, and an automobile dealer.
Neither was a part of the violence against the black people. In fact, the city selectman was threatened that summer by the Klan for what they perceived as his moderation on the race issue.
They motioned me over to their car and requested that I not use the pictures in the newspaper.
McComb, which had been dubbed by one publication as “the bombing capital” of the world, was getting too much negative publicity. Business was bad. No new industry was coming to the county under the circumstances.
Moreover, there were some in the white communities of McComb arguing that the bombings were self-imposed by the civil rights workers to gain national publicity through news coverage.
It occurs to me now, reflecting on the civil rights movement, that those who opposed the news coverage, violently or otherwise, were correct in their belief that news coverage helped the movement.
The publicity about the injustices suffered by black people under the conditions of the time did play a large part in changing attitudes in much of the nation, leading to massive reforms.
Fifty-five years after that memorable summer of 1964, the majority of voters in McComb now are black. The mayor and the majority of the city board are African American.
Last week, according to the Enterprise-Journal, Mayor Quordiniah Lockley called for unity in the community, saying ramped-up negative remarks about McComb unfairly coincided with the election of its first majority-black board, which he said inherited many of the problems some cite when disparaging the city.
Part of the mayor’s statement read: “I am encouraging all of our citizens, let us stop using the negative comments from discouraging people from coming to McComb, from discouraging manufacturers from coming to McComb. It is time for us to push aside those attitudes and move forward.”
Good luck with that in the age of social media.
A similar plea in 1964 when there were just newspapers, radio, television and the rumor mill spreading the news didn’t work.
In the 1990s, when Kirk Fordice was governor, his administration came up with the phrase, featured on highway billboards: “Only positive Mississippi spoken here.”
So far as I know, it didn’t make much difference on negative news and comments about the state.
If there are perceived problems, people will talk about them, fairly or unfairly.
• Charles M. Dunagin is the retired editor and publisher of the Enterprise-Journal in McComb. He lives in Oxford.