The Lexington Herald-Leader featured a prominent clarification on its front page Sunday, apologizing for the newspaper’s failures in covering the 1960s civil rights movement.
The notice accompanied a series of stories titled “Front-page news, back-page coverage” and numerous black-and-white pictures taken by an independent photographer.
“It has come to the editor’s attention that the Herald-Leader neglected to cover the civil rights movement,” the clarification read in Sunday’s editions. “We regret the omission.”
The report comes as the nation observes the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Beneath the clarification are photographs of a Main Street march and a lunch counter sit-in taken by Calvert McCann, now 62.
Many of his pictures were undeveloped until last year, when University of Kentucky historian Gerald L. Smith was researching a book.
“If it had not been for Calvert, we wouldn’t have a visual record of this moment in Lexington’s history,” Smith said.
Lexington’s newspapers at the time, the Herald and the Leader, occasionally published short stories about the local civil rights movement; photographs rarely appeared. The papers merged in 1983 and the Herald-Leader is now owned by Knight Ridder.
Ignoring part of history’s ‘rough draft’
“The people in charge of recording the ‘first rough draft of history,’ as journalism is sometimes called, ignored sit-ins and marches, or relegated them to small notices in the back pages,” Herald-Leader reporters Linda B. Blackford and Linda Minch wrote.
McCann, who is black, became interested in the civil rights movement while working at Michael’s Photography store, where he was a janitor and film processor.
“I just wanted to document it and tell the story for me and my friends,” McCann told the newspaper. “During the summer, they would hire white high school students to work on the counter, but they never let me up there,” he said. “I always resented it because I knew more about the business than anyone else.”
The Louisville Defender, a black newspaper, and The Courier-Journal of Louisville covered the civil rights movement in the state. The Herald and the Leader confined most news about black people to a column called “Colored Notes.”
It was compiled by the newsroom’s only black employee, Gertrude Morbley, until 1969.
“That was really all the news we had,” said Audrey Grevious, a former leader in Lexington’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “Without that, we wouldn’t have known anything that was going on.”
Former newspaper employees said management tried to downplay what happened locally. The rare march or protest that made front-page news usually involved arrests of demonstrators and was described like a police report.
Robert Horine, a Leader reporter starting in 1958, recalls going to one of the first sit-ins.
“I talked to several of the people seated at the counter, and I had a story for Sunday’s paper,” he said. “When I got back, the editors said ’Absolutely not.”’
The orders came from then-general manager and publisher, Fred Wachs Sr., who died in 1974.
A go-slow approach
Fred Wachs Jr. said his father supported desegregation but favored a cautious approach.
“He didn’t like the idea of some of these rabble-rousers coming in and causing trouble,” Wachs said. “He tried to keep that off the pages.”
However, the papers published national stories about the civil rights movement, such as the 1965 march in Selma, Ala., and the 1963 church bombings in Birmingham, Ala.
Thomas Peoples, a former NAACP leader, said the decisions were intended to retain readers.
“They catered to the white citizenry, and the white community just prayed that rumors and reports would be swept under the rug and just go away,” Peoples said.
Smith said he found evidence of Lexington sit-ins around July 1959, a year ahead of ones in other states that received publicity. Most of the city’s public places were desegregated by 1964.