What Civil Rights Acts: The Times-Picayune’s Editorial Silence on Civil Rights

Man holds old newspaper during Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Peace Walk and Parade, January 16, 2017, Washington, DC (Shutterstock)

The New Orleans morning daily newspaper, The Times-Picayune, during the 11-year period between 1957 and 1968, failed to publish a single editorial concerning U.S. presidents signing into law the five modern civil rights bills. The newspaper published standard news articles concerning the laws that prohibited discrimination against Black people in voting, public accommodations, employment, and housing. Nevertheless, the paper failed as a thought leader to provide guidance on how to interpret the laws and what they meant to New Orleanians.   

An editorial represents the official opinion of a news organization concerning an important and timely event or issue. Editorials are paramount because they signal to readers the newspaper’s board of editors’ conclusion that a news issue is significant and deserves attention. Typically, an editorial addresses the question: What does an event or issue–whether international, national, state, or local–mean to the residents in the market in which the newspaper circulates?

Editors employ newsworthiness criteria to determine the topics on which to comment. Timeliness, impact, conflict, proximity, and human interest are among the criteria. In other words, a story idea ranks high if it occurred recently, affected a large population, involved disagreement, happened in or near the area the publication circulates, and was interesting. The higher the number of criteria an issue or event contains, the more likely a newspaper would publish a related editorial or news story. A newspaper’s board of editors writes editorials anonymously and simplify complicated news accounts. Publications often endorse in editorials candidates who seek public office. Editorials represent authoritative opinion leadership, and they guide readers concerning what to think about a news event and how to interpret it.

By not publishing the editorials, the conservative Times-Picayune avoided focusing readers’ attention on the federal government’s limited codification of equal legal protection for African Americans. Conservative papers often took the position that federal action on race matters infringed on state authority.

The newspaper’s silence indicated to its pro-segregation readers that racial matters were inconsequential and lacked newsworthiness. The failure to discuss the rights laws limited intellectual debates in the public sphere. The Picayune would have satisfied its journalistic obligation even if it published editorials in opposition to the laws. Since it did not write anything, the paper undercut opportunities for its readers to advance their positions and opinions on the racial status quo. If the Picayune had attacked the necessity of the Acts or said the federal government was trampling on states’ rights, integration proponents would have had more opportunities to conceptualize counterarguments. Nevertheless, the editorial omissions or strategic silence concerning the monumental stories provided insight as much as if the paper had published a commentary.

The Picayune strategically ignored the existence of systemic racism. The editorial omissions made the laws seem invalid and nullified discussion on whether the status quo needed reform. Throughout the 11-year series of presidential signings, the Picayune spared its middle-class readers from insinuation that their historic desire to remain separate from black people was unsubstantiated. The newspaper ignored five opportunities to editorialize and missed:

  1.     The Civil Rights Act of 1957, which President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed on September 9, authorized the U.S. Attorney General to seek court injunctions against state officials who deprived or obstructed individuals from voting.
  2.     The Civil Rights Act of 1960, signed May 6 by Eisenhower, made it a criminal offence to violate a federal court order that outlawed voting obstruction.
  3.     The Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed July 2 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, prohibited discrimination in places of public accommodation, including schools. The law also established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that investigated complaints of discrimination in public and private sector employment.
  4.     The Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed by Johnson on August 6, established criminal penalties against individuals who used literacy tests or other means to disfranchise. The act authorized federal examiners to monitor voting practices.
  5.     The Civil Rights Act of 1968, which President Johnson signed into law on April 11, prohibited discrimination in housing, whether in purchasing or renting.

 Typically, newspapers editorialized concerning the Acts because the stories were newsworthy. Apparently, the Picayune did not think likewise. On the other hand, the pseudo-liberal afternoon daily, The New Orleans States-Item, performed only slightly better. The States-Item provided editorial leadership concerning only one of the five occasions. On July 3, 1964, it published the editorial, “Civil Rights Bill is Now the Law.” The editorial said, “…the law will prevail –as it must in a nation of laws and not of men- unless and until it is changed through the orderly process of government.”1 Sobering words, but the paper missed opportunities to editorialize on the rights issues in 1957, 1960, 1965, and 1968. The record of the States-Item’s reasons for publishing the 1964 editorial remain unclear.

Boards of editors published editorials because the commentary served the editors’ purposes. Some liberal white editors attempted to establish a symbolic relationship with African-Americans communities. Liberals would hardly question federal regulations or increased governmental spending. The left was also more likely to favor new government programs intended to combat social problems. The conservative ideology contrasted with liberal principles. Conservative were more likely to support less government spending,

Pseudo-liberal Ashton Phelps did not say why the States-Item published only one editorial. Instead, the president and publisher in 1968 said the newspaper had a kinship with Black people: “… the racial revolution in New Orleans has been less violent then might have been expected because the States-Item has been consistently sympathetic to the hopes of blacks.” It is true that Black people in New Orleans engaged in only minor civil disturbances in the late 1960s. African Americans nationally destroyed sections of more than 100 inner cities in 1967, after incidences of police brutality ignited underlying grievances. The next year, African Americans rioted in 126 locations after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. In New Orleans, Black people remained relatively calm, but not because of a sympathetic white newspaper. Instead, several factors merged, the most prescient of which was that Black New Orleanians experienced somewhat less dire living conditions than African Americans in sprawling ghettos elsewhere.

Before the 1950s, the mainstream American press typically did not consider the experiences of Black people as being important. The southern press served largely as an ally to white supremacists resisting activists who fought against segregated public accommodations. The Picayune, a typical conservative southern newspaper, considered the federal legislation as trampling state laws regarding segregation and voting.

For example, 1921 Louisiana constitution codified racially segregated public schools. “Separate free public schools shall be maintained for the education of white and colored children between the ages of six and eighteen years.”2 New Orleans officials maintained segregated schools until after November 14, 1960, when U.S. District Court Judge J. Skelly Wright ordered the Orleans Parish School Board to integrate. The Times-Picayune supported continued racial segregation. “Forced integration…is a tragedy,” the paper said. The Picayune commented on the local court order but failed to publish editorials on the national Civil Rights legislation. Wright’s ruling specifically targeted New Orleans, which gave the paper little choice but to weigh in on the issue. The federal legislation did not specifically target New Orleans.

Definitive explanations of strategic silence require more historical records, such as interviews of decision makers at the newspapers or correspondences that commented on the issues. Such evidence was not accessible for this study. Instead, this researcher analyzed the editorial pages and news columns of the Picayune and the State-Item and articulated informed judgement. The conservative Picayune ignored publishing opinions on the federal mandates concerning race. The pseudo-liberal States-Item chose to publish one editorial that focused on the 1964 Act. Both newspapers practiced strategic silence on the national events. The papers lost opportunities to provide intellectual leadership despite the potential embarrassment editorials against the Acts might have caused.

  1. The News Orleans States and New Orleans Item, “Civil Rights Bill is Now the Law,” July 3, 1964, p. 4.
  2. Constitution of the State of Louisiana: Adopted at the Convention at the City of Baton Rouge, June 18, 1921, Article VII, sec. 1, public education, p. 91.
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Bala Baptiste

Bala Baptiste is Associate Professor of Mass Communications, and Chair of Communications, at Miles College. Dr. Baptiste has published extensively on issues of race, media, and New Orleans.