In September 1957, the racial integration of a high school in Little Rock, Ark., became a flashpoint in the fight for civil rights. A number of heroes emerged there — not least the students themselves. But another figure, largely forgotten today, played a crucial role in the school's integration.
That fall, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus sent out armed troops to block black students from enrolling at Central High. Harry Ashmore, executive editor of the Arkansas Gazette, challenged Faubus in an unusual front-page editorial.
It was a lonely mission, as most of the white establishment refused to support desegregation of the schools. But Ashmore continued to challenge his readers, weighing in seemingly daily with editorials. The community rebelled with a boycott, costing the paper $2 million, or $14 million in today's money — a tremendous amount for any newspaper, much less one of the Gazette's size. Ashmore also received physical threats.
Ernest Green, the first black student to graduate from Central High, recalls, "Obviously, we all appreciated any support we got because white support at that time had just gone underground."
And, Green said, that's why the newspaper's support was particularly welcome — and controversial: "The Gazette was target of a lot of venom and bile and opposition from a lot of people."
Ashmore believed Gov. Faubus was standing between Arkansas and a prosperous, peaceful future. The editor considered himself a moderate on race, but he thought integration was inevitable.
Annie Abrams, one of many black residents active at the time of the crisis, says the Gazette was a lifeline.
"I've never not had the Gazette delivered to my house," Abrams says. "It was welcomed here. It was treasured here."
Ashmore remains legendary among his former colleagues for the dryness of his wit and the unrelenting gaze of his editorials. He talked slowly, wrote quickly and drank readily. And he was no saint. His own newsroom had no black reporters; the only black person at the Little Rock Club, where Ashmore would lay out the story for visiting reporters, was the man serving the drinks.
Former NBC reporter Sander Vanocur says Ashmore provided hope for moderates and federal officials that Faubus did not speak for all Arkansans.
"I think it saved Little Rock," Vanocur says. "Without a place to rally around, you don't have traction, as it were."
In 1958, Harry Ashmore won the Pulitzer Prize for his editorials. The Gazette won a second Pulitzer for public service. The prize committee noted that the paper's "fearless and completely objective news coverage, plus its reasoned and moderate policy, did much to restore calmness and order to an overwrought community." The Gazette shut down in 1991.
Ashmore left Little Rock in 1959, as the crisis was moving to a close. He became editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica and wrote on issues of race, education and peace from his new home in Santa Barbara, Calif.. He died there in 1998.
Kitty-corner to Central High, the National Park Service is building a new visitor's center to commemorate integration there. For the first time, the school will devote a display specifically to Harry Ashmore.