Writing the Wrong in Alabama

Crimson editors launched a pro-civil rights newspaper; 40 years later, they reunite

MONTGOMERY, Ala.—With little more than $30,000 and a few second-hand cars, two Harvard juniors headed down to Atlanta, Ga. during the summer of 1965. Crimson editors Ellen Lake ’66 and Peter Cummings ’66 had been to Mississippi the year before to register new black voters, but this time, they headed south not to scout out the disenfranchised, but to report on them.

“There really was no coverage of civil rights,” said Lake, “and there was no coverage of blacks except if they did something criminal.”

So they did what any good Crimson editors would do. They started a newspaper.

This past weekend, 41 years since their first issue, almost 20 former staff members of the Southern Courier reunited here for the first time in four decades. During its three-year run, the paper employed reporters from Harvard and other colleges across the country to unearth the stories of the civil rights movement that other Southern papers wouldn’t cover.

“It wasn’t the way [the local press] covered it,” said former Courier editor and former Crimson managing editor Michael S. Lottman ’61, “it’s just that they didn’t.”

On Saturday, the former cub reporters swapped stories at an informal roundtable discussion at Auburn University Montgomery. Though there were times when the young journalists risked their lives, former Crimson president and former Courier editor Robert E. Smith ’62 said that violence never deterred them from reporting. “It never occurred to me to be scared,” he said at the outset of the discussion. “I guess we were too busy being journalists.”

Former Crimson associate managing editor Mary Ellen Gale ’62, who made up the paper’s one-person Tuskegee bureau, stuck with the paper until just before the Courier closed in 1968 because of a lack of funds. Gale covered landmark events like the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr., but also local violence, including the gruesome murder of Sammy Young, Jr., who was shot in the head for trying to use a “Whites Only” toilet in 1966.

“I think people were really willing to talk to us for a lot of reasons,” Gale said. “For one thing, there were black people whose lives had never been covered with respect. We did that.”

Though many of the Courier’s staff members were white, part of the paper’s mission was to recruit and employ local black teenagers. Barbara Howard, one of eight children in a black family that has been supporting civil rights since Reconstruction, rose through the ranks from typesetter to associate editor by the end of the paper’s brief run.

She began writing for the Courier at 16 under her married name, Barbara Flowers. And although the paper only employed her for two of her teenage years, she said she found the experience invaluable.

“I have never had any problem,” Howard said of her ability to work in her community after her reporting days. “I always knew somebody as a result of the Courier.”

The weekend’s events also included a keynote address from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch, whose third book in a series about America during the King years was just published last month.

—Staff writer Stephen M. Fee can be reached at sfee@fas.harvard.edu. For full coverage of this story, please see the April 13 issue of Fifteen Minutes, The Crimson’s weekend magazine.