Bill Minor, Mississippi’s dean of journalism, dies at 93

Bill Minor was one of the nation’s preeminent journalists during the civil rights movement, mentoring several young reporters who worked in the state and went on to win Pulitizer Prizes. He is pictured here delivering a eulogy at the funeral of one of those reporters, Jack “Scoop” Nelson, who once worked at the Sun Herald’s predecessor, the Daily Herald.
Bill Minor was one of the nation’s preeminent journalists during the civil rights movement, mentoring several young reporters who worked in the state and went on to win Pulitizer Prizes. He is pictured here delivering a eulogy at the funeral of one of those reporters, Jack “Scoop” Nelson, who once worked at the Sun Herald’s predecessor, the Daily Herald. ttisbell@sunherald.com File

Veteran journalist Bill Minor made his last deadline Tuesday — a date with death he has been dodging for decades.

“My God, what he saw in his lifetime is phenomenal,” said Hank Klibanoff, who detailed Minor’s deeds in his Pulitzer Prize–winning book with Gene Roberts, “The Race Beat.”

Known as “the conscience of Mississippi,” the 93-year-old Minor wound up outliving nearly all of his contemporaries as well as a number of the journalists he mentored. He died at 1:46 a.m. Tuesday.

The son of a newspaper Linotype operator in Louisiana and a lifelong Democrat, Minor viewed himself as a champion for the little guy.

Minor fought for much of his life, serving as a gunnery officer on the USS Stephen Potter in World War II.

“The Japanese never hit us with bombs or torpedoes, but they came mighty close,” Minor recalled in a 2003 interview with The Clarion-Ledger. “There were kamikazes toward the end, which were almost impossible to stop.”

Exposing dark deeds

After the war, he worked for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans and began covering Mississippi in 1947.

His first assignment was covering the funeral of U.S. Sen. Theodore Bilbo, who once brayed that the best way to keep black Americans from voting was to visit them the night before.

The funeral became “an amazing introduction to the political figures of Mississippi,” Minor said.

The heat proved almost unbearable that summer day, he said. “You can imagine what it was like in gnat-infested south Mississippi in the Pine Belt in late August. We all wore suits and ties back then.”

Klibanoff said when Minor “covered the funeral of Theodore Bilbo, he may have thought the burial of Bilbo was the burial of the virus of racism.

“If so, that may be the only thing he was wrong about.”

Minor began working out of an office in the state Capitol along with other reporters. Unlike some of those reporters, he wasn’t content to rewrite press releases that came from politicians.

Instead, he did his own reporting, exposing to the light the dark deeds he witnessed, which hardly made him popular beneath the Capitol dome. Some of the politicians he wrote about, including state Sen. Bill Burgin, went to prison.

Minor worked as a freelancer for The New York Times and Newsweek, working closely with some of the nation’s top reporters, such as Claude Sitton (who later remarked Minor had done more for civil rights than any Southern newspaperman).

The Times-Picayune correspondent covered the 1955 trial of Emmett Till’s killers. An all-white jury acquitted the two white men, who confessed months later to Look magazine they had beaten and killed Till.

Many of the national reporters who came to report on what was happening in Mississippi made sure they talked first to Minor.

Witness to history

In the years that followed, he covered the burgeoning civil rights movement and came to know its top leaders, including Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers, who was assassinated outside his Jackson home June 12, 1963.

Days later, more than 5,000 people took part in the funeral march across the steamy asphalt. “It was 103 degrees,” Minor said.

Jackson police tried to halt the marchers from coming back to Capitol Street, and marchers retaliated by hurling rocks and bricks at the officers.

“I heard one officer say, ‘Might as well open fire. If we don’t do it today, we’ll have to do it tomorrow,’” Minor said. “If every officer had opened fire, hundreds would have laid dead.”

Into the no-man’s land between police and marchers stepped a man in a white shirt.

“I’m John Doar from the Justice Department,” Minor recalled Doar saying. “I’m here to help you achieve your civil rights. Let’s take your issue through the courts and not through violence.”

Said Minor: “I always say John Doar saved Jackson, Mississippi, on that day.”

Four years later, Minor toured the Delta with then–U.S. Sen. Bobby Kennedy, seeing firsthand how some poor Mississippians lived.

“It opened my eyes, too, because we went into these shotgun houses,” he said. “The smell of poverty. It’s incredible how it gets in your nostrils, and you can’t get it out for a long time.”

Minor became a mentor for many young reporters, including Pulitzer Prize winners Klibanoff, David Halberstam and Jack Nelson.

Halberstam, whose first journalism job was in West Point, told The Clarion-Ledger before his 2007 death, “People who are saying there aren’t any heroes anymore just aren’t looking in the right places. (Bill Minor is) an example of real conscience and integrity.”

Before his 2009 death from cancer, Nelson said of Minor: “I’ve never known a more courageous journalist.”

In 1973, Klibanoff began covering the state Legislature for the Delta Democrat Times and The Daily Herald (which became the Sun Herald).

He recalled feeling sorry for Minor, who complained at times about pain in his back or leg.

That sorrow turned to anger when he picked up one Sunday’s Times-Picayune and saw the elder reporter had scooped him on a major story.

“He nailed some guy who was corruptly selling culverts to counties,” Klibanoff said.

When the Times-Picayune shut down its Jackson bureau in 1976, Minor had opportunities to work for big newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times, but decided instead to stay in Mississippi.

“I wanted to see how the story ended,” he said.

He bought the Capital Reporter, a weekly paper of mostly community announcements, and turned it into a hard-hitting investigative publication, hiring talented young reporters such as Ellen Ann Fentress.

After reporting on the Ku Klux Klan, Minor found a burning cross outside his office.

After printing a story that linked a mob figure to a politician, he returned to find the windows broken and his typesetting machine stolen.

“We had our windows smashed four different times,” he said.

Although the newspaper never found enough advertisers, his work became known to journalists across the nation.

“Mississippi is a better state and Jackson a better city because Bill Minor has been socking it to fast-and-loose bankers, crooked politicians, the Ku Klux Klan and others,” columnist Carl Rowan once wrote.

In 1994, Minor survived a stroke and kept writing, even though he could only type his syndicated column with two fingers.

He kept up the fight, writing a weekly syndicated column for The Clarion-Ledger and others.

In 1997, he became the first winner of the John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism, where some of the nation’s top journalists toasted him.

“I think what distinguishes Bill from the scores and scores of reporters who came in to cover big stories on Mississippi — stories on which they built their reputations — is that Bill stayed,” Klibanoff said. “Bill loved Mississippi, even as he was its fiercest critic. It was all about making Mississippi better.”

Fentress remembers visiting him several years back, watching him bang away on his typewriter. “He had this determined look on his face and he said, ‘I’ve just got to get this column done.’ ”

‘The good fight’

Minor was “a very spiritual person,” she said. “He just realized that as long as he was here, he was going to fight the good fight.”

In 2015, the same Mississippi Legislature that he had criticized over the decades honored him in a resolution for his contributions to the state.

A few months ago, Minor had heart surgery. Afterward, he talked about the next issues he wanted to take on.

But during his recovery, he came down with pneumonia, a fight he was unable to win.

Hodding Carter III, who knew Minor well, called him “a model for anybody who cared about the business of being a journalist. He looked at the world around him, and he tried to report it as it was. He looked at the world around him, and he tried to say in his commentary, ‘We can do better.’”

Fentress’ documentary on Minor, “Eyes on Mississippi,” includes seven new pieces of national footage, including part of a 1962 CBS interview with Evers.

The documentary will be screened April 8 at the Crossroads Film Festival, and she hopes to raise $8,000 more to buy the broadcast rights to air it on Mississippi Public Broadcasting and possibly nationally.

The poster for the documentary calls Minor “the most essential reporter the nation has never heard of.”

Fentress said much of his coverage for The New York Times and Newsweek “didn’t have a byline. Bill’s stories were the words the nation read.”

And those words helped to change America, she said. “In the end, he became a part of the story he covered.”