Racism in the pages of the Alabama press

Published 1:40 pm Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Collective heads exploded this week as news outlets from one end of the country to the other began reporting on an editorial published in an Alabama newspaper, The Democrat-Reporter, that called on the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) to “ride again.”

To be sure, the newspaper’s editor, Goodloe Sutton, who admitted to penning the article and has stood by its contents, has begun to feel the wrath of the Southern journalism machine – he has had accolades revoked, been censured and heard calls to resign from all of Alabama’s representation in Washington – but the weight of his words has not received the fiery condemnation it deserves.

Let’s be clear – Sutton has called for a white supremacist terror organization to once again take to the streets in what can only be described as a senseless and meandering affront to both journalism and civility.

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As journalists, it is our job to each and every day provide a voice to the voiceless, to be a friend of the people and an enemy to those who seek to oppress them or subvert their will; to report truthfully with integrity and conviction; to acknowledge the historic conditions that define our past and, by necessity, direct our future – Sutton’s editorial fails these basic litmus tests and falls well beyond the realm of decency required to be a good journalist or even a good human being.

Historically, particularly in the South, the press has failed to cover issues of race with the fine-toothed comb required to parse through such delicate and defining matters – no place in this country is more worthy of that delicate approach than Alabama’s Black Belt, the locale where Sutton’s drivel was printed and where so much harm has been done by racist elements that still lurk the streets and the halls of law.

Racist language of this nature, whether in the pages of the local press or in the mouths of the nation’s lawmakers, whether in hushed conversations or blasted across the nation by syndicated pundits, has no place in this country.

This country is defined by diversity and any element which would slander that medley, or dredge up the most villainous and despicable forces in this nation’s tortured history, in an effort to make a political point, is surely an enemy of the people and their progress.

Sutton has done both – he has proven himself insensitive to the still aching wounds of the black community and antagonistic to the healing of those injuries by calling forth the KKK like some dark apparition from a dusty Quija board – and his resignation and shaming is justified, if not wholly satisfying.

As members of the press, we must never cease to call out behavior of this nature, wherever it rears its hideous head, and the fact that so many news outlets have done so is encouraging and inspiring.

But the fact that opinions of this nature were allowed to fester in a modern South, were even nurtured and rewarded by a negligent readership, indicates that our industry still suffers from the disease of institutional racism, just as so many other facets of our culture do, that must be forcefully rooted out if we hope to live up to the high dictates we have placed upon ourselves and that the public expects from us.

Sutton is only the most blatant and recent embodiment of this type of sickening behavior – what matters now is that news professionals continue to seek out poisonous language, extract it from the public discourse and advocate for the harshest penalties against those who give it life.