J. Oliver Emmerich is best known as one of a handful of white Mississippi editors who publicized and criticized the worst of his community’s actions in opposition to the civil rights movement. He was born in New Orleans on 2 December 1896 and raised in McComb, a growing timber and railroad town. After attending Mississippi A & M (now Mississippi State University), Emmerich worked as a county agricultural agent, before buying the McComb Enterprise in 1923. He later bought the town’s other paper and merged the two to form the McComb Enterprise-Journal.
For nearly three decades, Emmerich’s paper showed few signs of being anything other than a supporter of boosterism and white privilege. Emmerich attended the 1948 Democratic National Convention and joined other white Democrats who walked out to protest the party’s civil rights platform. The Enterprise-Journal seemed in most ways a typical small-town newspaper, dominated by local news and featuring only a single small column about African American life.
In the early 1950s Emmerich began to make editorial changes that attracted criticism from some white readers. In 1950 he printed a story about police brutality against a black teenager. Then, in what he called the newspaper’s “first major reform in news policy,” he began using courtesy titles such as Mr. and Mrs. to refer to African Americans. Emmerich and the newspaper staff incurred more condemnation when editorials condemned violence against Freedom Riders in 1961 and criticized Gov. Ross Barnett’s role in inciting the riot that accompanied desegregation at the University of Mississippi in 1962.
In 1964 Emmerich cautioned opponents of Freedom Summer against violence and lawbreaking. In a front-page May editorial, he urged readers to “relax” and hoped that at the end of the summer they could look back and say, “We met a crisis with maturity. We did not panic. We exercised restraint.” McComb, however, was the home of an active chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, saw considerable activism by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and was the site of substantial voter registration activity during the summer. Despite Emmerich’s urgings, the Ku Klux Klan, Americans for the Preservation of the White Race, and others responded with arson and bombings. The homes and offices of African American leaders suffered the bulk of the violence, but a bomb also damaged the home of Enterprise-Journal managing editor Charles Dunagin. After the newspaper condemned the bombings and helped raise funds for a reward to assist in catching the perpetrators, opponents burned a cross on Emmerich’s lawn.
In the fall of 1964, with a combination of weariness and optimism, Emmerich wrote editorials demanding that all people receive equal justice under law and criticizing “extremists” on both sides who had brought McComb “close to chaos.” In one editorial he called on bankers, merchants, lawyers, industrial workers, schoolteachers, railroad men, housewives, and ministers to develop and actively promote a new sense of community responsibility.
In 1973 Emmerich published Two Faces of Janus: The Saga of Deep South Change, a memoir of his life in journalism as well as an analysis of the positive and troubling sides of southern life. He concluded by emphasizing the good: “No Utopia exists. But the road traveled today is in the direction of government by law as contrasted by government by men.”
Emmerich died on 17 August 1978. Since 1977 the Mississippi Press Association has awarded the J. Oliver Emmerich Award for editorial writing. Recipients have included Emmerich’s son, John Oliver Emmerich Jr., who won the award in 1981 for his work at the Greenwood Commonwealth.
- David R. Davies, ed., The Press and Race: Mississippi Journalists Confront the Movement (2001)
- J. Oliver Emmerich Sr., Two Faces of Janus: The Saga of Deep South Change (1973)
- John Oliver Emmerich Sr. Papers, Special Collections, Mitchell Memorial Library, Mississippi State University
- Mississippi Press Association website, http://mspress.org
- Susan J. Weill, In a Madhouse’s Din: Civil Rights Coverage by Mississippi’s Daily Press, 1948–1968 (2002)