To cover the news in Selma, Alabama, knowing its history is part of the job

Photos above: The Selma Times-Journal building in the 1960s and today.

Natalie Beckerink | SizingUpTheSouth Intern, Auburn University

Will Whaley covered an arrest in a shooting his first day as editor of The Selma Times-Journal as he weighed turning out the next day’s print edition while understanding the town’s complex history.

It was May 31, 2018, and it was a blur to Whaley.

Edmund Pettus Bridge in downtown Selma, Ala. Video by Natalie Beckerink.

Selma, Alabama embodies the aching heart of the Civil Rights era. On March 7, 1965 about 600 people prepared to march from Selma to Montgomery to call for equal voting rights. What started as a peaceful protest ended when the participants reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge in downtown Selma, where they met law enforcement officers, tear gas and violence. 

Seventeen marchers were injured on Bloody Sunday, and the world saw photographs and read news reports and watched television coverage of the violence in Alabama. 

The Edmund Pettus Bridge, located only steps from the Selma Times-Journal newsroom, was where three historic events happened during 1965. Firstly, it is the location of the “Bloody Sunday” protest where police attacked protesters with tear gas and clubs, and secondly, the march that occurred two days later when Martin Luther King Jr. led a peaceful march, and thirdly, under court-ordered protection, a full-scaled march started from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. Wiki photo

After a couple of months on the job, Whaley wrote in July 2018 about pending state legislation to reopen cold cases, including at least five Civil Rights era murders in Dallas County, where Selma is located. At least two of those murders led to the historic Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965.

Today, Selma’s population is 80 percent African American. The 2017 estimated U.S. Census reports the city’s population at 19,176 with 15,424 of those as African Americans. Selma High School, is 99 percent African American. Unemployment in Dallas County is at 5.1 percent.  

Adam Powell

Covering all these issues is part of the job, said Adam Powell, staff writer for the Selma Times-Journal. 

“The new staff we have right now is really connected to the people in the community, so it’s kind of like the issues that are most important to them are the issues we focus on,” Powell said.

“When you have issues of poverty and gang violence, police brutality, that is a Civil Rights issue in this town. When they are plagued by problems that the white people in the same town aren’t, it is an enormous Civil Rights issue.” 

Adam Powell, reporter at the Selma Times-Journal
Will Whaley is editor of the Selma Times-Journal. Facebook photo

Whaley stresses objectivity to his staff.

“I tell them all the time that people shouldn’t know anything about us as the author, they should just know what’s going on,” Whaley said. 

It took a little time for the community members to warm up to Whaley’s staff when the newspaper began covering more events in the city. They apparently weren’t used to the paper being so involved, Whaley said. 

“I think there was a lot of stuff before the team that I have now wasn’t being covered,” Whaley said.

“We would go cover a school board meeting or something, and people would look at us like they couldn’t believe we were there.”

Will Whaley, editor of the Selma Times-Journal

Since the paper started covering more events, the community has become more comfortable with the paper, he said.

“Of course there’s always going to be those negative people, but overall people have been really supportive,” Whaley said. 

Selma Times-Journal newspaper is available throughout the downtown area of Selma, Ala. Photo by Natalie Beckerink

Citizens in the community have a good relationship with the newspaper and its writers, Powell said. 

“It’s kind of crazy around here because people will just hang out for a while and tell you gossip,” Powell said. “You can kind of piece some of the information together and then follow up on it, and realize it’s not gossip. It all builds from little bits you hear from people in the city.” 

An air of separation encapsulates the city, said retired teacher and Selma resident Jeanie Walker Ward. 

“The community as a whole, I observed, still attaches everything to a racial connotation,” Ward said.

Jeanie Walker Ward

The  community should work on growth and development, she said.

“We should focus on how we can get rid of all the high crime rates, developing our schools and all those kinds of things, instead of focusing on race,” Ward said. “That shouldn’t even be a topic of discussion.” 

How a newspaper covers these issues matters, she said.

“I do think the paper has an effect on this,” Ward said. “I don’t think it’s purposely done, but sometimes I do. We need to stop and think that if we do what we’ve always done, we’re going to get what we’ve always got. If we want something different, we have to change our pattern of behavior.” 

Jeanie Walker Ward, retired teacher, Selma, Alabama
Ralph Callahan

On March 5, 1965, an article in the paper echoed a call for objectivity. Ralph Callahan, then president of the Alabama Press Association, called for unbiased reporting across the state, even during a time of great division. 

“Opinions, color, bias, must be left to the editorial writer and the columnist who have the responsibility of expressing viewpoints,” Callahan wrote in a statement for the Alabama Publisher. “The public should recognize the difference between editorials and news reporting, and so should the men and women working in the various media and adhere strictly to the rules of the game.” 

Gov. George Wallace stands against desegregation while being confronted by Deputy U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach at the University of Alabama in 1963. Wiki photo 

The governor at the time was George Wallace, who ran in 1962 on a platform of segregation. Selma Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark became infamous for the violence he used against Civil Rights demonstrators. The New York Times noted in his 2007 obituary: “His tenure was characterized by widespread violence against civil rights demonstrators, in particular, black citizens trying to register to vote.”

A choice to continue with unbiased reporting could have led to trouble for the Times-Journal

“They were, at that time, straddling that line of having a controversial opinion, at least at the higher levels of the paper, but still being able to give level reporting,” Powell said. 

Adam Powell

In 1965 editorials, the Times-Journal did not exercise objective analysis.

Instead, the paper published op-eds on the relationship between segregation and the communist party. 

“In years past, many of us felt that to organize white people was the logical and reasonable thing to do,” wrote Robert B. “Tut” Patterson, in a Feb. 16, 1965 address to the Citizen’s Council. 

“Today, we feel that organization is an absolute necessity if white people are to protect their property, the personal safety of their families and their nation.” 

Robert B. “Tut” Patterson in the 1960s
Robert B. “Tut” Patterson Twitter photo

Patterson is known for founding the first Citizens’ Councils, a white supremacist organization, that was established in Indianola, Ms. in 1954, in response to Brown vs Board of Education decision where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that American state laws establishing racial segregation in public schools are unconstitutional.

The pressure on the paper was because Selma was a small, Southern town, Powell said. 

“If you report on a town, you’re going to get to know the leaders in that town, so it’s not a stretch of the imagination to assume that the editor was friends with the sheriff and that in some way they polluted at least the editorial page,” he said. 

Rev. Walter Kenneth Goodson

The Selma Times-Journal in 1965 also included an editorial from a pastor who spoke in support of the Civil Rights movement. This story was on the front page and called for voting rights for all people. 

“We support the right to vote, and urge the fair administration of voter requirements for all of our people,” said the Rev. Walter Kenneth Goodson. “We call upon people of goodwill of all races to join us in extending avenues of communication and understanding.”

Rev. Goodson went on to become the bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church and continued to work in racial reconciliation.

When it came to reporting, Roswell Falkenberry, editor of the paper from 1963 to 1974, had his staff practice unbiased reporting, staff said. In 1965, he won the Alabama Press Association’s Journalist of the Year Award for unbiased reporting during a time of Civil Rights unrest in Selma. 

Anne Knight, the daughter of former Times-Journal editor and publisher Rosewell Falkenberry, looks over a picture of her father, who is in the photographs far right, after he was presented the Outstanding Daily Journalist by the Alabama Press Association in 1966. Top, Falkenberry, far left, is pictured with other Times-Journal co-workers on his first day at work at the newspaper. — Photo by Ashley Johnson, Selma Times Journal
 

A 2013 article in the Selma Times-Journal quoted Callahan’s daughter Anne Knight when Alabama Press Association Hall of Honor decided to include her father.

“He did what he thought was right, but he just saw himself as doing his job,” Knight said in the article. “He was so positive during that period of time, I don’t know if he was ever afraid. He didn’t show it.” 

Editors make difficult decisions during controversial events and hard times. Whaley intends to keep the Selma Times-Journal on the unbiased path.

“Being objective is really at the center of what we do,” Whaley said. 

Valerie Wells also contributed to the article.

Natalie Beckerink is the 2019 SPJ Region 3 summer intern and reporter for SizingUpTheSouth.com. She is a junior at Auburn University studying political science and journalism. Beckerink is on the staff of the Auburn University Plainsman student newspaper. nbeckerink.spj@gmail.com

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