Wilson F. “Bill” Minor of Jackson, a muckraking journalist often dubbed “the conscience of Mississippi,” died early Tuesday. He was 94.
Minor covered Mississippi politics since 1947 and earned professional accolades and awards for his gutsy reporting of civil rights violence and political chicanery.
Minor came to Mississippi as the one-man bureau reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. In the years to come, he became the interpreter extraordinaire of Mississippi’s society for countless others, including fellow journalists across the nation.
A native of Hammond, La., Minor was a Tulane University journalism graduate and a World War II Navy combat veteran.
His syndicated column, Eyes on Mississippi, and a book of the same title reflected the nuances of social and political change in his adopted state, as well as its lack of change.
Among his many accolades were the Louis Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, the first recipient of the John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism from the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California, and a place in the Mississippi Press Association’s Hall of Fame.
His reporting subjects ranged from Ku Klux Klan infiltration of the state Highway Patrol to the inequities of educational funding in Mississippi.
“On my arrival I had no inkling that in a decade, long-somnolent blacks in Mississippi who accounted for roughly 45 percent of the state’s population would be demanding and marching to break the bonds of segregation,” Minor wrote in 2011, “and a civil rights revolution would explode across the state.”
Minor’s tenure with the Times-Picayune ended in 1976 when the newspaper closed its Mississippi office. He launched a new career as a statewide political columnist.
He followed Mississippi political and social life for more than seven decades. In doing so, he put himself in harm’s way many times to witness and report his eyewitness to historic events.
In 1991, he published Eyes on Mississippi: A Fifty-Year Chronicle of Change, which drew from some 200 of his columns and news stories. It included some of the state’s biggest civil rights era stories, such as the 1955 acquittal of two white men accused of killing black youth Emmett Till for whistling at a white woman, the 1962 integration of the University of Mississippi, the 1963 assassination of NAACP leader Medgar Evers outside his Jackson home, and the 1962 Freedom Summer slayings of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County.
Author David Halberstam once described Minor as “the unique conscience of the state.”
Curtis Wilkie, former Boston Globe reporter now associate professor at the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi, said of Minor in 1997, “Bill was a beacon to national reporters who sought him out for help and background guidance. Even Diogenes would have liked him.”
In 1976, Minor set up his own investigative newspaper, the Capitol Reporter. In backlash to his hard-hitting, revealing stories, the office was vandalized repeatedly. Ultimately, Minor ran out of money when advertising dried up because of stories about a banking scandal and he was forced to close the enterprise after six years of operation.
“There was some consolation when Southern Illinois University presented its Elijah Lovejoy Award to me as the nation’s most courageous weekly editor,” Minor recalled in an article published by the Nieman Foundation.
In 2016, Ellen Fentress of Jackson spearheaded a project to make a 66-minute documentary on Minor’s life. It premiered at the John Seigenthaler Center on the Vanderbilt University campus.
Fentress said at the time that while the film’s title, Eyes on Mississippi, was the name of Minor’s column, it also was his strategy – that “the fastest route to change was to get the unvarnished facts of the struggle out. The more eyes on Mississippi, the more the pressure for transformation.”
Minor told Michael L. Cooper of Emory University’s Beck Center in 1992 that he was proudest of a story he uncovered for the Times-Picayune in 1961, seven years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional. An employee of the state Department of Education leaked to Minor a secret, state-sponsored report of local expenditures by race of every school district in the state.
“It was shocking,” Minor told Cooper. “In some school districts, white children received $100 to every $1 spent on a black child.”
Minor also wrote expose’ stories about Mississippi for The New York Times and Newsweek.
As chairman of the Freedom of Information Committee for the Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press Association and the Society of Professional Journalists, Minor’s efforts helped pass an open meetings law in Mississippi.
“There’s nothing to compare with the satisfaction of writing a story that has an impact on society and results in changes being made,” he told James S. Featherston, then assistant professor at Louisiana State University’s School of Journalism.
Minor is survived by his wife Gloria, three sons, numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
This story was written by Patsy Brumfield