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Sun Herald - Biloxi, MS - January 23, 2004
 

Pulitzer-winning newsman fought racism as Pascagoula editor


Associated Press
 

Ira B. Harkey Jr., the 1963 winner of the Pulitzer Prize, says he's proud of Mississippi's racial progress in the last 40 years.

"Mississippi should be damn proud about how far it has come, farther than any other state," said Harkey in an interview here recently. Harkey of Kerrville, Texas, visits his children on the Coast each Christmas.

"The president of the NAACP pointed out a few years ago that Mississippi had more black elected officials than any state in the union," he said.

"People outside the South think there has been a complete turnaround. That hasn't happened. There is still personal animosity. That will never change as long as there are human beings. There are still injustices, but there are in every state."

When Harkey received the prestigious Pulitzer for distinguished editorial writing during the integration at the University of Mississippi, he had been editor/publisher of The Chronicle Star (now The Mississippi Press) for 14 years.

His editorials, calling for peaceful admittance of James Meredith to Ole Miss, evoked wrath from outspoken critics across the state.

"I wasn't surprised that the community or Mississippi newspapers didn't rejoice with me when I won the Pulitzer. I think they hated me even more for being recognized by the Yankees at Columbia University, who they also called Communists."

Local racists, who had bused to Ole Miss to protest and prevent integration, formed an organization and called for a boycott of The Chronicle and advertisers that supported it. Harkey got calls such as, "We need about 200 killings starting with Kennedy and working down to you."

Harkey stayed the course, despite losing circulation and advertising.

He says now, as he said then, that the Constitution of the United States is for everyone. "They couldn't quite get it."

Harkey thought public officials, educators, newspapers and the churches should have shown leadership and spoken out against racism. He was especially disappointed that the churches "were so vociferous."

"It was beyond the control for any one guy to champion," he recalled.

"Economics and the federal government had to do it. The federal government had to force voter registration. When the black man got a vote, he had something of value. Politicians had to at least shut up, with no more shouting 'n- n-.'

A cross, attributed to the Ku Klux Klan, was burned at his home after the 1954 Supreme Court ruled on school integration. It frightened his family. "I hosed the evil thing," Harkey wrote in his autobiography, "The Smell of Burning Crosses," in 1967.

Another cross was burned in front of the newspaper office during the Ole Miss integration. A rifle shot was fired into the front door at The Chronicle, and a shotgun blast took out his office window.

Eventually the FBI was called in. The group, called Jackson County Citizens Emergency Unit, had met regularly at the courthouse and talked about boycotts and ways to be effective, mentioning a few cracked skulls.

Reporter Don Broadus, who covered the meetings for the paper, said he didn't feel threatened although there were a few fanatics there. The group dwindled from 600 to about six at the last meeting, said retired veteran newsman Broadus, who sneaked into meetings while Harkey referred to them as goons in his editorials.

"Ira Harkey's professional integrity was without equal," said retired Chancery Court Judge Robert Oswald, who was Harkey's attorney. "Ira so much wanted to see the South overcome the evil of segregation. He saw that segregation was an albatross around the moral and economic life of Mississippi."

Harkey said an example of how attitudes have changed is the election of his son, Dale Harkey, as district attorney and then Circuit Court judge.

"Dale won where 90 percent of the people would like to have seen his father dead 40 years ago," he commented. "That's a hell of change. It's amazing."

Judge Harkey is proud of the courage his father showed. "When I think of my daddy, I think of the fiercest intellect I have ever encountered. It took courage to take a stand, which left a legacy."

Judge Harkey said his dad's determination for justice was tempered by a sense of humor. "When he received the Silver Em award at Ole Miss earlier this year, his first comment was, 'We all need to take a moment of silence to mourn the passing of the State Sovereignty Commission.'

The state-created agency from the past was used to spy on nonconformists like Harkey who railed against segregation.

Harkey is proud to have received the highest journalism recognition from Ole Miss, even though it came 40 years late. He credits the recognition to Jerry St. Pe, retired Ingalls Shipbuilding president, who wrote Ole Miss Chancellor Robert Khayat to say that Harkey should be included in the 40-year Meredith observance.

Harkey hails what has been accomplished in equal rights and opportunity, but he nixes affirmative action. And he's upset with the November governor's election.

"This new governor (Republican Haley Barbour) ran a 1940s campaign with hate stuff," he said. "I was disappointed in that, all the negative campaign advertising."

But Harkey hasn't liked many Mississippi governors. He did support J.P. Coleman, who made him a colonel. "I never did get a sword," he joked.

After bringing The Chronicle from a weekly to a twice-a-week paper and finally to a daily (five days), he sold the paper. He went on to teach journalism at Ohio State University, then at the University of Alaska and joined the staff at Columbia.

Harkey, who served his country in the Navy in World War II and saw death and destruction on a carrier in the Philippines, came over from New Orleans and bought the Pascagoula paper in 1949.

After his final retirement, Harkey and his wife, Virgie, settled in Kerrville, Texas, on a condo-ranch with cattle. His joy became flying. For years he'd fly every Saturday to a distant community for lunch, enjoying the Texas landscape.

Harkey will be 86 on Jan. 15.

"All of my life it has been luck," he said. "Anyone would feel lucky to have six good, successful children, all still living in Mississippi, and 14 grandchildren and five great-grand- children."

Harkey has mellowed a bit in 40 years, and he says Mississippi has, too.

"We have changed a lot and I am so proud. Nobody has beat Mississippi as to how far a people can come."