Pulitzer Prize–winning newspaperman and civil rights advocate Ira B. Harkey Jr. was born on 15 January 1918 in New Orleans. Raised in an affluent household, Harkey starred in football and track during high school, briefly headed out west, and then earned a degree in journalism from Tulane University in 1941. He served in the US Navy in the Pacific theater during World War II. In 1946 Harkey began his journalism career at the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Three years later, he purchased the Pascagoula Chronicle-Star, a small-circulation weekly serving Mississippi’s eastern Gulf Coast, for $102,000.
Harkey radically reconfigured the paper’s policy on how it would report race-related stories. Specifically, he barred the use of the word colored; dropped the segregated Jim Crow section and incorporated news about African Americans into the rest of the paper; and declared that the word Negro would be used only when it was relevant to a story. Most controversially, the Chronicle-Star would begin using the courtesy designation Mrs. to identify what Harkey described as “carefully selected Negro women.” These radical changes prompted an outcry from editors and journalists around the state, but Harkey’s journalistic and business acumen quickly turned the newspaper into a thriving enterprise.
On 1 September 1954, a few months after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling declared school segregation illegal, the local Ku Klux Klan burned a six-foot cross in Harkey’s front yard and left him a note: “We do not appreciate niggerlovers. We are watching you.” The incident gave Harkey the title of his autobiography: The Smell of Burning Crosses.
Never one to back down from a public fight, Harkey counterattacked with the logic of Christianity, law, history, and economics, going after the hatemongers with his own fiery zeal. Harkey’s biting humor, a key rhetorical tactic in generating a large and dedicated readership, was often on display in his editorials. Harkey’s fictitious foil, Colonel Myopia Heartburn, stood in for hardcore Mississippi segregationists and always took a beating.
Harkey offered strong editorial support for James Meredith’s integration of the University of Mississippi in September 1962 and savaged the “Fascist” tactics employed by Gov. Ross Barnett in attempting to prevent Meredith from enrolling. Harkey’s outspokenness and level-headed reasoning earned him the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing in May 1963.
In Pascagoula, however, Harkey’s commentary provoked first a boycott of the Chronicle-Star and then violence. A rifle slug ripped through the front door of the newspaper’s office, and less than a month later shotgun blasts took out several windows. Harkey countered with a .38 revolver and dedicated practice at a local range, refusing to be intimidated by the “goons” of Jackson County.
But Harkey was ostracized and alone in Pascagoula, and in July 1963 he sold the Chronicle-Star and left Mississippi. (Financial issues caused by a divorce apparently also played a role in his decision to sell the paper.) He had turned a stagnant weekly into a thriving five-day-a-week progressive voice, winning awards for his courage and journalism, including the Sidney Hillman Foundation Award, the Sigma Delta Chi medallion for distinguished public service in newspaper journalism, and the Silver Em Award from the University of Mississippi. The paper’s new owner, Ralph Nicholson, despite promises to Harkey, quickly reversed editorial course and returned the paper to its race-baiting roots.
Harkey subsequently enrolled at Ohio State University, earning a master’s degree in journalism and a doctorate in political science. After the 1967 publication of his memoir, he became a frequent visiting professor and guest lecturer on college campuses around the country. He published three more books. The state’s journalists even made their peace with Harkey, inducting him into the Mississippi Press Association’s Hall of Fame in 1993. He died on 8 October 2006 near his home in Kerrville, Texas.
- David L. Bennett, in The Press and Race, ed. David R. Davies (2001)
- G. McLeod Bryan, These Few Also Paid a Price: Southern Whites Who Fought for Civil Rights (2001)
- Ira Harkey Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society Archives, Madison; Nick Marinello, The Tulanian (2004)
- Susan Weill, In a Madhouse’s Din: Civil Rights Coverage by Mississippi’s Daily Press, 1948–1968 (2002)