From 1951 until his death Tom Ethridge wrote a popular column, “Mississippi Notebook,” for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, Mississippi’s largest statewide daily newspaper. His Confederate-flag-waving column earned him a reputation as an archconservative, sarcastic, race-baiting defender of Mississippi and southern values.
Thomas Tann Ethridge was born into an influential family. His father, George Hamilton Ethridge, had been in the state legislature, served as assistant attorney general, and sat as a justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court for twenty-five years, making him one of the few men to serve in all three branches of the state government. The youngest of four children, Tom attended Jackson public schools and took classes at Tulane University, though he never graduated.
Ethridge worked as an advertising manager for the Mississippi Power and Light Company for many years and initially wrote “Mississippi Notebook” as a hobby, distributing it free of charge to the state’s newspapers. As it grew in popularity, the Clarion-Ledger brought him onto the full-time staff as a columnist and editorial assistant in 1951.
Ethridge’s column featured down-home humor and backwoods racism and appeared in the Clarion-Ledger and Jackson Daily News, both of which were owned by the powerful Hederman family, as well as in segregationist publications such as the Citizens’ Council, the Citizen, and the Southern Review. As the civil rights movement enveloped the state, the Hederman papers and Ethridge hammered readers with the rhetoric of states’ rights, white superiority and black inferiority, “communist infiltration,” and “outside agitators.”
Ethridge’s column regularly attacked anything that he perceived as threatening the state and its customs, especially the federal government, civil rights activists, and liberals. Ethridge explained that the NAACP stood for “Niggers, Apes, Alligators, Coons, and Possums” and likened the organization’s executive secretary, Roy Wilkins, to an African witch doctor who “reverted to ancient tribal instincts.” In response to the University of Mississippi desegregation crisis, Ethridge applauded Gov. Ross Barnett’s “courageous” stand against the federal government, labeled the Fifth Circuit judges who had ordered James Meredith’s admission “nine judicial baboons,” and ran a string of racist jokes about watermelons and chicken thefts. Ethridge reveled in the 1965 violence in Los Angeles’s Watts neighborhood, happy to have the nation’s attention turned away from the South. The Los Angeles Police Department should take a page from the Birmingham police, he claimed, but should replace fire hoses and police dogs with flamethrowers because “nothing could stop bloodthirsty savages quicker than reducing them to cinders.”
The Hedermans and Ethridge served as mouthpieces for the state hierarchy, unquestioningly supporting Barnett, Sen. James O. Eastland, the Citizens’ Council, and the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. The Citizens’ Council gave Ethridge an award for his “fair stories” about the Council, and the Mississippi House of Representatives approved a resolution praising his service to the state. The Sovereignty Commission passed along information on civil rights “troublemakers” that he could use to whip up anti-integrationist sentiment in his column.
Ethridge leveled considerable criticism at fellow journalists Bill Minor, Hodding Carter Jr., and Ira Harkey, calling them “traitors” to their heritage and a “cancer to the cause.” When Harkey won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the University of Mississippi crisis, Ethridge editorialized that “any journalistic quisling” who “indulges in local bedwetting” apparently appealed to the “mix-minded” Pulitzer board. Harkey responded by calling Ethridge a “weird fellow, of typical cold unsmiling bigot visage,” a sentiment echoed by Minor, who remembered Ethridge as an “annoying, nasty little parasite.”
Many civil rights groups and newspapers outside the South quoted Ethridge’s columns as an attempt to show the “problem” with Mississippi, but “Mississippi Notebook” remained the Clarion-Ledger’s most popular column. He received the Liberty Award from the Congress of Freedom, the Man of the Year Award from Women of Constitutional Government, and accolades from many other groups, including the American Legion, Daughters of the American Revolution, and American Coalition of Patriotic Societies.
Ethridge’s death in 1974 coincided with a new day in Mississippi journalism. The preceding year, Rae Hederman had taken the helm of the Clarion-Ledger and vowed to turn the paper around. In 1974 the Clarion-Ledger hired its first black reporter. Less than a decade later it won a Pulitzer Prize of its own.
- David G. Davies, ed., The Press and Race (2001)
- Tom Ethridge Subject File, Mississippi Department of Archives and History
- Ira Harkey, The Smell of Burning Crosses (1967)
- Bill Minor, interview by Rebecca L. Miller (12 December 2008)
- James Silver, Mississippi: The Closed Society (1963)
- Curtis Wilkie, Dixie (2001)
- Curtis Wilkie, interview by Rebecca L. Miller (20 May 2008)