Hodding Carter III

Silhouette

Before I knew the man, I imagined Hodding Carter alone, hunched over a recalcitrant typewriter in a musty, night-time newsroom, surrounded by Ku Klux Klansmen. In my reverie, he brushed aside like flies the bullets that flew through the paneless windows and fanned his ears. A thin smile formed around his non-filter cigarette as he banged out on his balky machine the fire-breathing tag to the next day's scathing editorial. Hodding Carter, 30-year-old crusading editor of the Delta Democrat-Times, knee-deep in the mire called Mississippi, clawing at the Magnolia Curtain.

We met in his office in July. He was busy, had to meet his wife for some reception. So he gave me directions to his place ("the big house," he calls it), and told me to take a swim and a nap and be ready at nine for some party across town.

All of pedigreed Greenville was at that party, and Hodding Carter, by anyone's estimation, was best in the show. Dressed in the dark suit, conservative tie, button-down shirt, and easy smile that every gentile Southern male puts on before breakfast and takes off in bed, Carter floated about, a bit taller than the others, laughing louder, slapping harder, and drinking faster. He could have pinched any skirt in the place (and did pinch a few). He danced tricky dance steps. He harmonized with the calypso band. Never looking, he plucked a bourbon-on-the-rocks from a silver tray and swung the glass to his lips. It was the same involuntary motion (though quite a different gesture) as the bullet-swatting in my dream. He was very gay. His wife looked beautiful. When the party was over, he flashed a grin, waved to a score of blown kisses, and shot off towards the big house. At ten the next morning, Hodding Carter III, crusading journalist, started a new day.

So deliciously drugged had I been by my romanticized crusader, that the real man appalled me. Carter worked in a carpeted, air-conditioned office; he was rich, really rich--swimming pool, the works. Another thing, he didn't associate much with Negroes, at least not so far as I could tell. He liked parties, he could dance, and he was popular. What a phony, I thought. To us Cambridge journalists he had always been such a hero.

Others felt the same disappointment. Civil-rights workers in Greenville, who swam in the lake, drank Dr. Pepper from the bottle and wore dungarees--they too had heard about Carter and had read the Delta Democrat-Times; then they came to town and saw the big house. "Fat cat," they chanted now.

To these, Hodding Carter's crime is his style, and to many radicals in the movement, the wrong style is a most serious offense, punishable by everlasting distrust. What one does is not nearly so important as how one does it. Since Carter does everything in Southern, aristocratic fashion, all the fine editorials that he may write can never commute his sentence.

Style is irrelevant to the good newspaperman. He fights his battles on the editorial page, with ink on paper, one dimension only. His style is not a part of his fight. He lives in the way that best enables him to maintain contacts, to gather information, to report the news. He pooh-poohs questions like which side are you on. In the battleground of Mississippi, where those words are on everybody's lips, the good newspaperman alienates half his readers with every sentence.

Hodding Carter is a good newspaperman. He keeps on speaking terms with both warring factions, and it's his style that lets him straddle the fence. Carter's heart is with the civil-rights worker, but, at the same time, the man is Old South, through and through. Each half of Mississippi resents his other self.

Few whites in the Deep South can afford perspective. Carter can because he has otherwise impeccable credentials. His sheer elegance protects him from his segregationist neighbors, even endears him to them. To be on the wrong side of "the Negro question" is contemptible (at the very least) in his state, but Carter measures up so well by all the other yardsticks of Southern quality--family, manners, appearance, and so on--that he is almost above reproach. If anyone attacked him for his one aberration, it would sound like sour grapes; remember, at that party, he was best in the show.

Carter would be easier for the leftists to smear if he weren't fighting their battle. He saves almost all his editorial barbs for the racists, castigating in unpadded phrases his state, his town, and his friends for their intransigence, stupidity, and the rest. His life is in constant danger. The phone threats often go on all night. Each year, sure as Halloween, comes the attempt of some irate group of Greenvillians to start up another paper and put the DD-T, a plague for thirty years, out of business once and for all.

The radicals see the big house and they react automatically, "Fat cat." But Carter is far from the easy-going Southern planter who chokes on his gin-and-tonic the minute you mention "Negro." He's one of the few people, north or south, black or white, who would rather listen than talk to you about civil rights, even if the topic is his own back yard. The most fatuous polemic brings only a smile, a twinkle of his grey-green eyes, and a friendly "Hell, you know better than that." If you get out on a ideological limb, he'll case you down with a shaggy dog story or a two-ounce refill. He wants to hear what you think. He is intellectually curious. At Harvard this year on a Nieman Fellowship, he goes faithfully, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 12, to Nat Sci. 5.

So he soaks it all in, none of the usual Mississippi cotton bolls stuffing his ears, hashes it through in his Princeton-cultivated mind, and bangs out his conclusions on the typewriter. Cambridge may complain that it's not the 100 per cent SNCC line, but if it were, he wouldn't be a journalist.