Civil rights and need for social justice embedded in the journalism of the South

Project South photo
Project South was founded as the Institute to Eliminate Poverty & Genocide in 1986. Their work is rooted in the legacy of the Southern Freedom Movement, with four primary work areas to achieve their mission of cultivating strong social movements in the South powerful enough to contend with some of the most pressing and complicated social, economic, and political problems Project South faces today. Project South photo

Commentary

By Stell Simonton, freelance journalist based out of Atlanta, Georgia; SPJ Georgia member

Green County AlabamaEach week, a print newspaper from tiny Eutaw, Alabama, shows up in my mailbox in Atlanta. It’s the Greene County Democrat, which serves the west Alabama county, population about 8,500.

In May, the paper had a section that pictured every graduating senior at Greene County High School along with a statement of each one’s aspiration for the future.

The paper reports on local government, civic groups and activities at the schools — the kind of community coverage only a small-town newspaper can provide. It’s surprising that the newspaper continues to exist in the second-poorest county in Alabama.

Marian Wright Endelman

Marian Wright Edelman

The Greene County Democrat still keeps up with former President Barack Obama, printing news of what he’s doing and saying, although he’s long since left office. The numerous opinion pieces often include columns by Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, which represents the interests of children in poverty. Very little content is published online.

The striking thing about the Greene County Democrat is how it reflects the activities and concerns of the population it serves — a mostly small-town and rural African-American population — and how rare that is.

I grew up in Dallas County in west Alabama and remember the local newspapers, invariably owned by white people.

John and Carol Zippert

Carol and John Zippert, owners of the Green County Democrat, came to Alabama as civil rights workers and ended up buying a newspaper to serve the whole community of Eutaw, Alabama. Green County Democrat photo

In 1984, civil rights workers John and Carol Zippert came to Eutaw, initially to start agricultural cooperatives for black farmers. They ended up organizing a protest against the Eutaw newspaper for presenting only one view on a racially charged controversy — the annexation of a public housing project into the town.

[The newspaper] presented the news from one perspective. It was white-run and white-controlled in a county that’s eighty percent black,” John Zippert said.

The couple bought the newspaper and have run it ever since.

With the loss of newspapers …

As local news coverage declines across America, democracy itself is weakened.

But even when local news coverage existed, some parts of communities never saw themselves reflected or their concerns voiced.

In Greene County it took a civil rights movement to finally put blacks in local government and change the structure there.

Project south 2With that history in mind and with the current decline of newspapers, one nonprofit is encouraging a type of journalism it calls “movement journalism.” Atlanta-based Project South, which is devoted to racial and economic justice, produced a report last year expressing the need to strengthen and expand alternative media in the South.

The author of the report happens to be my daughter, Anna Simonton. And my husband, Wade Marbaugh, once worked at the Greene County Democrat.

Ida B WellsThe Project South report cites journalism of the past — labor movement publications such as A. Philip Randolph’s The Hotel Messenger, the work of reporter and editor Ida B. Wells in fighting lynching, the alternative press of the 1960s and ‘70s — as examples of movement journalism. The basic idea is that injustices are going unreported and that advocacy journalism is necessary to address these problems and highlight solutions. Proponents believe movement journalism is needed to bring about social justice.

Their work is a prod to all journalists to reflect on what’s not being reported, what agencies and businesses are not being held accountable, what communities are not seeing themselves reflected accurately — or at all — in the media.

And the further question to journalists is: What are you going to do about it?

 

Stell Simonton 2

Stell Simonton is an independent journalist in Atlanta. Her work has appeared in the Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionWashington PostChristian Science MonitorAl Jazeera America and Georgia Health News among other publications. Simonton writes frequently for Youth Today and has special knowledge of youth development, social/emotional learning and innovative work with young people. She has also contributed to the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, and recently begun writing for How Stuff Works. Simonton is a former digital editor-producer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she worked for 19  years. She began as a copy editor for the newspaper. As a full-time freelancer for the past five years, Simonton continues to think a lot about the best ways to work as an independent journalist. 

In addition to SPJ and SPJ Georgia, she is active in the Journalism & Women Symposium, a national organization of women journalists. Simonton is a member of the SPJ Georgia Freelance Community and writes a quarterly column for SPJ Region 3’s SizingUpTheSouth.com.

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