Farewell to Bill Minor: ‘He was real, he was here, he was ours’

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Family, friends and colleagues gathered on Friday at St. Richard’s Catholic Church in Jackson for the funeral mass of longtime Mississippi journalist Bill Minor.

Wilson F. “Bill” Minor, 94, a muckraking journalist who was often called “the conscience of Mississippi,” died March 28.

Minor arrived in Mississippi in 1947 and followed the state’s 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.

His syndicated column, Eyes on Mississippi, and a book of the same title reflected the nuances of social and political events in his adopted state, as well as its lack of change.

Hank Klibanoff

Hank Klibanoff, who covered Mississippi as a competitor of Minor’s during the mid-1970s, delivered a moving euolgy that placed Minor’s journalistic contributions in the context of the history of a state that this year is celebrating its bicentennial.

Klibanoff, now a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, earned the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for History for his book, written with Gene Roberts — The Race Beat: The Press, The Civil Rights Struggle and the Awakening of a Nation. Minor’s work is cited in Klibanoff’s book.

Klibanoff shared the eulogy he delivered for Minor with Mississippi Today:

A REFLECTION ON BILL MINOR

St. Richard’s Catholic Church, Jackson

April 7, 2017

Thank you, Gloria, Paul, Jeffrey, and Doug, for extending to me the honor of speaking today. And thank you, all of the Minor family and the caretakers, for all you have done for our Bill.

So, here we are, exactly where we knew we’d be, probably long after we thought we’d get here, so long that at times it seemed possible that this might not happen, that the good Lord might have designated our friend, Bill Minor, for all the good he did for us, to be the one to go on forever.

I’m here today to talk about a man I loved. I worked in the state Capitol Press Room with Bill from March 1973, when I arrived, until 1978 when I left. I had a full, intense and utterly exhilarating five years of watching Bill Minor in action. At the time, there were only three of us full time and permanently located in the Capitol Press Room – Bill, A.B. Albritton of the Commercial Appeal and me; it’s worth noting that Bill and A.B. passed within eight days of each other. I saw Bill as my mentor, though he was decidedly not trying to fill that role. He just did it just by being who he is.

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Journalist Bill Minor speaks at the Capitol in Jackson March 30, 2009.

Bill’s life can be quantified. I’m not much of a  numbers guy, but let’s try these: Bill lived more than 34,600 days. Starting with his first job, at age 17 in Bogalusa, Bill was a reporter for 78 years. He and Gloria were married for 73 years. And by the time Bill passed just shy of his 95th birthday – that would have come on May 17, which he always reminded us was the day of the Brown vs. Board decision but 32 years earlier – by the time he passed last week, lucky us, he’d had his eyes on Mississippi for more than 60 of those years. (Yes, his eyes – those crystal blue eyes, those translucent blue eyes, those Delft-blue eyes, those glacier-blue eyes; I’ve used all those descriptions in writing about Bill over the years).

Imagine the number of reporters’ notebooks he filled, hundreds of them, the pads of paper he scribbled on, hundreds of them – well, I can imagine because I saw his office in the Capitol Press Room, piled so high with those notebooks, legal pads, books, old newspapers, letters from fans and haters, press releases, Game and Fish reports, approved and discarded legislation from the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, on and on, all of it piled so high that when I’d stand at his desk to talk with him, I’d spend most of my time catching papers as they fell off the desk. That mountain held our history and itself was a national historic landmark.

Bill’s papers are at Mississippi State, those poor archivists …

Imagine the number of news stories and columns Bill banged out with those two fingers – Bill, like me was a hunt-and-pecker at the typewriter — always fast, always furious, with smoke billowing up from the typewriter carriage … Imagine the number of words – they’d be counted in the millions – imagine … well, don’t have to imagine. We don’t have to imagine because we were able to read Bill’s work as he produced it. He was real, he was here, he was ours.

Bill’s first governor was Fielding Wright, who was also running for vice president on the Dixiecrat ticket with Strom Thurmond, but there were many more governors to follow: Hugh White … James P. Coleman … Ross Barnett (and no one could imitate Ross Barnett like Bill) … Paul B. Johnson Jr. … Bill Waller … Cliff Finch … William Winter … Bill Allain … Ray Mabus … Kirk Fordice … Ronnie Musgrove … Haley Barbour … Phil Bryant. Fifteen of them. How many lieutenant governors, secretaries of state, auditors, treasurers, attorneys general?

They came, they went. Bill Minor stayed.

But we know it’s not how long you live. It’s what you do with your time here. And here Bill rises above us all. From the early 1950s, when Bill reported that black teachers in Mississippi’s “separate but equal” schools were receiving vastly unequal pay, Bill produced investigative reporting unlike any the state had seen. In that role, he was as important as anyone, probably more important than anyone – how do you quantify these things? — in bringing change to Mississippi over the last 60 years.

The odds were stacked against him. Even when I got to Mississippi in 1972 and to Jackson in 1973 as a reporter for the daily newspapers in Biloxi-Gulfport and Greenville, Mississippi distinguished itself by having no open records law, no open meetings law, none of value anyway, so a reporter had to cajole, wheedle and maneuver to get anything. And guess who supported this world without access? Many, maybe most, Mississippi newspaper editors and publishers, even, back then, the Mississippi Press Association.

Many reporters, editors, publishers believed the way to get information from a political figure or government leader or even a police chief was to cozy up, curry favor, and make trades of positive coverage for information.

Bill did not. In his coverage of reprobate state senators, House members, wayward governors, shamelessly corrupt county supervisors – the list goes on – Bill felt the best way to bust open the closed society was to expose it and show the people what they were missing. He was right, of course. And he won more than access. He won respect. Maybe begrudging respect, but respect. Remarkably, even William Harold Cox, the mean-spirited federal judge whom Bill had not been especially gentle with in his coverage, called Bill for advice once. This was when Cox was presiding over the Neshoba County case, knew the eyes of the nation were on him, and didn’t want to mess anything up. So after impaneling the jury, Judge Cox called Bill, said he was looking for a foreman who would administer deliberations fairly, and asked Bill if he knew anyone on the jury. Bill said he did, and identified one juror he thought would be fair-minded. The next day, Judge Cox named that juror the foreman.

Bill’s coverage in covering matters of race is well documented. But why did it matter? Why does Bill Minor matter in this state?

Just in case it does not go without saying, let me say this: Mississippi would not have willingly released its tight grip on white supremacist attitudes, customs and laws – manifest through daily humiliation of its black citizens, daily degradation of their lives, daily violence, and murder – on its own, without intervention by the federal government. I know our political leaders used to say they’d move forward if the feds just got out of their way. But we knew then and know now that was just a ruse. Federal pressure from the Supreme Court, from the White House, and from the Congress was required to break that white supremacist grip.

The record is also very clear that as justices, presidents, attorneys general and members of Congress looked South in horror, they found hope in seeing a few thought-leaders they could count on to welcome their involvement. They saw Bill Minor, against the odds, surviving, even thriving as a progressive thinker and having national influence. And they saw other thought leaders with national appeal as well – Big Hodding Carter, Hodding 3rd, John Herbers, Hazel Brannon Smith, Ira Harkey, and more. It was monumentally important to the federal authorities that as citizens of the world looked upon Mississippi, they would see that the demands for change weren’t coming from outside agitators; they were coming from insiders, from locals, from the home-grown.

Bill, through his writing, made it clear to federal authorities that if they came into Mississippi despite the bulwark of opposition – racial opposition disguised as state’s rights — they’d find signs that said, “Federal intervention welcomed here.”

So the feds came, forced change, and went. Bill stayed. And he stayed with his convictions. Bill, when he used his columns to reminisce, might have had to go back to remind himself of certain details of certain events – how many fans were turning overhead in the courthouse in Sumner during the Emmett Till trial? But he never had to remind himself what he believed back then. His core principles, his core values — well, his core — remained steadfast.

Bill, of course, believed in, advocated for, and embodied a free and independent press. Knowing that, I recently purchased something for him that, unfortunately, I never had an opportunity to give him. (Hold up the tee-shirt that says, “Enemy of the People since 1791.”) If doing what Bill did for 75 years made him an enemy of the people, he’d have worn this proudly.

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Bill Minor

Bill, always dapper, was a marvel to watch as he strode through the newsroom on the way to a story I was certain I was missing. He’d come rolling through, walking fast, talking fast, those bushy eyebrows going up and down, on his way to stories. As I’ve written before, I learned to tell when Bill was on a big story that my editors would call wondering how I’d missed. Bill, walking through the newsroom, would slow down, hunch over, feel his back and complain that he’d hurt his back, that he had a headache and other maladies. And I came to know that meant I was about to have a difficult Sunday morning when I’d pick up the Times-Picayune – that I was about to get my tail kicked.

I got mad at Bill only once. It was the day in 1973 when the Pulitzer Board announced that Eudora Welty had won the prize for fiction. I was somewhere else in the Capitol, came back to an empty press room and only later learned that Bill and A.B. Albritton of the Commercial Appeal had driven over to see her – without me. Oh was I upset at Bill, A.B., myself. But you get over these things. You tend to forget things that happened so, so long ago, as they fade into the mists of time, things that happened, for example, on May 7, 1973, at 1:03 p.m.

I opened by saying the quality of the work Bill produced is far more important than the number of years he did it. But I do have one more astonishing fact that I picked up yesterday in the Capitol Press Room when I visited to recall and reminisce. I was speaking with Associated Press reporter Emily Wagster Pettus. She told me Mississippi this year commemorates its 200th anniversary as a state. And what that means is that Bill Minor, the man we honor today, had his eyes on Mississippi for one-third of this state’s life.

So, Bill stayed. He stayed because he loved you, Mississippi. He loved you when you didn’t love him back. But what he did, and did so long and so well, he did out of love.

God bless you, Bill.