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From the time I learned to read in the 1960s until graduation from high school in the late 1970s, this was the way I started each day: Still wearing my pajamas, I would run to the driveway of my parents' home and retrieve that day's copy of the Arkansas Gazette. It was my window on what was happening across the rest of the state, the country and the world.

As a boy growing up at 648 Carter Road in Arkadelphia, I was among the thousands of Arkansans who depended on the Gazette. Arkansas had lost a higher percentage of its population than any other state from 1940-60. There was little to take pride in during the 1960s outside of winning football teams at the University of Arkansas, the fact that a Rockefeller had chosen to live here and the sterling national reputation of the Gazette, which had won a pair of Pulitzer Prizes following the 1957 Little Rock Central High School integration crisis.

In an essay about the Gazette written well before the 1957 crisis, Southern novelist James Street said: "The Gazette did all she could to lay the myths about the state and got on with the tedious business of making herself the Arkansas Bible. She thrived under the proposition that a flooding creek at Smackover, Arkansas, or a good rain at Mountain Home, Arkansas, was more news to her readers than a murder off yonder the other side of the who-cares horizon of Arkansans' curiosity.

"She hired correspondents in every county seat and printed their trivia on a page of 'State News Bits.' She departmentalized much of her news; hence capitol news was in the 'Capitol' column, court news under 'Courts,' etc. She became a stern record from the capital to the state and a gossipy medium between Mena, for example, and Marked Tree."

The Gazette correspondent in Arkadelphia when I was young was W.H. "Scoop" Halliburton, who had served in that role since the 1920s. The newspaper had dozens of such part-time correspondents in towns across the state. Many of them had served for decades.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Gazette at Arkansas Post. The newspaper moved to Little Rock two years later along with the territorial capital. During the remainder of 2019, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette will celebrate the Gazette's 200th anniversary with articles and events. The celebration will culminate with a dinner on Nov. 21 in the Wally Allen Ballroom of Little Rock's Statehouse Convention Center.

I'm having lunch in downtown Little Rock with Ernie Dumas, whose years of writing about Arkansas politics for the Gazette is the subject of his new book from Butler Center Books titled The Education of Ernie Dumas: Annals of the Arkansas Political Mind. I could listen to Dumas' Gazette stories for days on end.

Dumas was born in December 1937 in Union County. He attended what's now Henderson State University at Arkadelphia before graduating from the University of Missouri in 1960 with degrees in journalism and English. He went to work at the Gazette after graduation and was the newspaper's associate editor (writing editorials) when the Gazette published its final issue in October 1991.

"The Gazette wasn't always a liberal newspaper," Dumas says. "J.N. Heiskell was a conservative when it came to most issues. For instance, he was against the first income tax in the state."

John Netherland Heiskell became the editor of the Gazette in June 1902 when the Heiskell family bought a controlling interest in the newspaper. His brother Fred became the managing editor. J.N. Heiskell would spend the rest of his life at the newspaper. He died of congestive heart failure in December 1972 at age 100.

Writing for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, John Thompson and Nathania Sawyer noted that Heiskell's editorial opinions "ranged widely: for city planning and the commission form of city government, against the Little Rock School Board's decision to drop German from its curriculum during World War I, for curbs on immigration so that newly arrived foreigners could be more easily assimilated, and against anti-Semitism. His editorials defended conventional morality and supported Prohibition. Under Heiskell, the Gazette's editorials supported laws and other measures to bolster racial segregation under the 'separate but equal' theory. They were paternalistic toward African Americans, urging them to trust in white leaders to further their interests."

Heiskell and the Gazette could be courageous at times. The newspaper waged a lengthy campaign against lynching. When a black man named John Carter was lynched in 1927, Heiskell wrote a front-page editorial calling for a grand jury investigation into the breakdown in law enforcement.

On April 30, 1927, the dead body of a 12-year-old white girl named Floella McDonald was discovered by a janitor in the belfry of the First Presbyterian Church. Police arrested the janitor and his 17-year-old mulatto son the next afternoon. Police secretly took them to Texarkana as a mob gathered in Little Rock.

Tensions were still high on May 4 when Carter was alleged to have assaulted a white woman and her daughter six miles west of downtown. An armed posse found Carter. He was hanged from a telephone pole and shot. A caravan of cars then dragged his body through the streets of Little Rock.

"For the next several hours, an estimated 5,000 white people rioted," Brian Greer writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "Carter's body was set ablaze, with doors and furniture from neighborhood businesses and churches serving as fuel. As a result of warnings from the city's black leaders, including Scipio A. Jones, no local black residents ventured into the streets, and further bloodshed was avoided. Three hours after the rioting began, Gov. John Martineau deployed the Arkansas National Guard to the scene. Upon arrival, they found a member of the mob directing traffic with a charred arm that had been broken off Carter's body. Soon thereafter, the crowd dispersed."

Dumas says that after the Gazette ceased publishing, he briefly considered writing a book on the newspaper along with former Gazette and Arkansas Democrat writer Bob Lancaster. Dumas says that as he began to read old issues, the prevalence of violence against blacks across the state so depressed him that he decided not to continue the project.

Street said of the Gazette following the Carter incident: "It was this lynching that showed her with her bustle off, her hair down and her fingers clawing. . . . The city recoiled in frozen horror while the Gazette demanded the National Guard."

In the front-page editorial, Heiskell wrote: "The City of Little Rock suffered last night the shame of being delivered over to anarchy. Little Rock and Pulaski County must demand an accounting of the officers who have failed us."

"The Gazette had reached for her Arkansas toothpick and everybody knew it; the people, the police and the powers that be," Street wrote. "Such a thing must never happen again. The Gazette said so."


Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 05/05/2019

Print Headline: REX NELSON: The Gazette said so


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