BERTHA GODFREY is a quick-tempered housewife from Tallapoosa Co., Ala. When a white woman's car smashed into hers and the police chief who investigated the accident said it was her fault, she snapped at him, "Just because I'm a Negro woman you want to treat me like this."
"If you know you're a nigger woman why don't you act like one?" growled the chief, and he promptly arrested her for interfering with his investigation.
It is not wise for Negroes to speak harshly to police chiefs in rural Alabama. Mrs. Godrey faced certain conviction and, at the very least, a stiff fine for her folly. But a remarkable thing happened when she came to trial. Probate Judge Woodrow Barnes led the police chief and Mrs. Godfrey into his chambers at the Tallapoosa Co. courthouse, closed the door, and told them he was dismissing the case to avoid untoward publicity. A reporter had shown up.
The reporter was Mary Ellen Gale '62, a slim brunette who quit her job on the Philiadelphia Bulletin 18 months ago to work for the Southern Courier. As with the Courier's other seven reporters (all of them in their late teens to mid-twenties), her job is to look in on events that no other newspaper in Alabama would deign to cover -- demonstrations by civil rights organizations, plans of anti-poverty agencies, racial killings, piecemeal gains in integration, and the oddities of Alabama life that are galling to Negroes but to which whites are generally oblivious.
About the only way for a Negro to get his name in the first few pages of most Alabama newspapers is to do bodily harm to a white person. The small number of other endeavors that make the papers are ordinarily consigned to what is known in the trade as the "nigger page" (a compositor for the Selma Times-Journal recently precipitated a demonstration by angry Negroes when he inadvertantly failed to remove a line of type reading "Nigger Page" from that section of the paper).
Even Birmingham's three Negro papers carry little news about Alabama; instead they rely heavily on offerings mailed by a couple of national news services. That is cheaper than hiring more reporters (none has more than two), and it makes advertisers more comfortable. As the publisher of one of the papers once remarked, "I've got more important things to do than go scuffling after news."
The Courier (circulation: 20,000 a week) was the brainchild of two rights-minded veterans of a summer in Mississippi. The two, former CRIMSON editors Ellen Lake '66 and Peter Cummings '66, envisioned a network of five state-wide weekly newspapers in five Deep South states. But that would have taken $75,000 to get going, and months of letter-writing, phone calls, and collections around Harvard produced only $35,000. They picked Alabama, where civil rights groups were planning massive voter registration campaigns to unseat Gov. George Wallace.
Since its first issue rolled off the presses in July, 1965, the Courier, in decided to settle for one paper, and the face of perpetual financial crisis and rapid turnover of its mini-staff, has never missed a week. Young reporters driving long distances late at night have demolished Courier cars; business managers have thrown up their hands at the Courier'S book-keeping-by-memory system and stalked out of its two-room headquarters in a downtown Montgomery office building, never to return. But while steadily losing money (advertising and sales pay only a fraction of its $4,000-a-month budget; the rest comes from private donations and foundation grants), it has been making friends and influencing politics.
MOST OF the Courier's readers are rural Negroes in the Black Belt of Alabama and Mississippi (during the Meredith March from Memphis to Jackson last summer, the Courier distributed free copies along the route, received letters asking for reporters and subscriptions, and happily supplied both). Few people want their copies mailed; they prefer to pay a dime each time the six-page full-sized paper is delivered to their doorstep. The Courier buses papers out to dozens of local distributors--housewives, civil rights leaders, retired steelworkers--who mail back the paper's share of the money collected, as well as news tips and items for a short column of social notes.
For its intensely loyal readers, many of whom are all but illiterate and most of whom read nothing else, the Courier has developed a peculiar journalese that wavers between first-grade primer and Time magazine style. Efforts to render complex political shenanigans comprehensible lead to headlines like "Who's Doing What to Whom in Phenix City?" An interview with a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor last year contained this passage: "He sprinkled the crackers into his soup. Not too many crackers, and not too few. It was a middle-of-the-road sort of sprinkle."
People unaccustomed to writing have taken pencil in hand to carve smudgy letters of praise to the Courier. The comments echo those of a graying man sitting on a barrel at a gas station in Bessemer one summer afternoon: "That's a good paper. It's easy to read."
Courier reporters come to occupy unique positions in the communities in which they live (there are bureaus in a half dozen Alabama cities; two in Mississippi). They keep in touch with Negro political groups--which may not be on speaking terms with each other--and talk frequently with white officials downtown.
School officials in Lowndes Co., despairing over rumors that Negroes planned demonstrations for the first day of school integration, checked with the local Courier reporter, who assured them the rumors were false; integration went ahead as planned.
Civil rights groups rarely schedule a demonstration without calling someone from the Courier. On at least one occasion, a demonstration was called off when a Courier correspondent replied that he had a previous commitment.
The head of the Negro arm of the state Democratic party asked a Courier reporter to speak with leaders of the Lowndes Co. Freedom Organization--the independent party, with a Black Panther as its symbol, that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee helped set up -- about forming an alliance during last year's election (the offer was turned down).