Former New York Times Executive Editor Howell Raines returned to the pages of the paper Monday with an op-ed, "The Counter Revolution," on the lunch counter sit-in in Greensboro, N.C. in 1960, a seminal event in the civil rights movement. But Raines also took nasty partisan jabs at modern-day conservatism, as represented by Republican President Ronald Reagan, and Fox News, suggesting each would have been on the wrong side of civil rights history. (Never mind that the segregationist South was dominated by the Democratic Party.)
Raines served as executive editor of the Times from September 2001 until being pushed out in June 2003, felled by the journalistic malpractice committed by a young reporter he supported, Jayson Blair, and by his personal callousness and autocratic management style, and his propensity for playing favorites like Blair.
He reigned over an activist liberal paper which embarrassed itself on quixotic liberal crusades like forcing the Augusta National Golf Club (host of the Masters golf tournament) to admit women.
Raines covered the civil rights movement in the '60s and '70s, experience that gives him valuable historical background. But what should have been a stirring tale was ruined by Raines's usual nasty partisan poking at Republicans and Fox News, and his attempts to link modern-day conservatism to the Jim Crow '60s, as enforced by white segregationist Democrats in the "Solid South."
In the pre-digital America of 1960, "viral" was still a medical term. So it was written in countless news articles that the student sit-in movement had "spread like wildfire" on black campuses across the South. On the morning of Feb. 1, 50 years ago today, four black freshmen at North Carolina A&T State University seated themselves at the all-white lunch counter in a Woolworth's dime store in Greensboro. Within hours, news of this bold act by the Greensboro Four, as they would come to be called, had grapevined its way from A&T to the campuses of historically black colleges in Atlanta and Nashville.
All Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond and Joe McNeil did was ask for coffee and doughnuts and politely decline to move until they were served -- and try to engage a flustered white waitress and a bumbling store manager in a Socratic dialogue about the meanings of "serve." Then, just like that, the black preachers who had challenged segregation in citadel cities like Montgomery, Ala., and Atlanta had found their natural allies: thousands of students who would become, before the end of the month, the shock troops of the civil rights movement.
Raines wondered if such a thing could transpire now, given today's media environment and whispers the Obama slogan "change."
It was also a time when hysterical jeremiads about the perils of change were not part of the mainstream news flow.
Is Raines comparing '60s opposition to civil rights for blacks to opposition to Obama's message of "change," which involves busting the national budget for years to come? If so, you wish he'd be less underhanded about it.
Raines shoe-horned in some of his usual extraneous, nasty cracks at Fox News, this time playing off the network's "fair and balanced" motto to link the network to Southern newspapers who failed to cover the civil rights movement fairly:
Sure, conservative columnists like Rowland Evans and Robert Novak clucked about Communist influence on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and Paul Harvey seemed vaguely disturbed by dark-skinned youngsters who talked back to Southern sheriffs. But straight, eyewitness reporting dominated television news, and Northern print reporters flooding the region quickly shamed Southern newspapers into covering civil rights in a way that began to look, let us say, balanced -- or even, in a few cities, fair.
Today, however, there's no denying that traditional reportage of political and social trends seems almost as out of date as segregation. Surely the civil rights movement would have been hampered by the politicized, oppositional journalism that flows from Fox News and the cable talk shows. Luckily for the South, that kind of butchered news was left mostly to a few extremist newspapers in Virginia and Mississippi and to local AM radio talk shows that specialized in segregationist rants.
Unable to let go of his partisanship, Raines attempted to make a guilt-by-association link between '60s "segregation" and '80s "conservatism," though he refrained from making it explicit:
We were also wrong, in the long haul, about the transforming effect of the 1965 Voting Rights Act on Southern politics. For a dozen years, it looked as if the New South would be dominated by biracial coalition politics as practiced by centrist white politicians like Jimmy Carter and former civil rights activists like Andrew Young. The coming political order would be bipartisan as well, including progressive Republicans like Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. The last thing we expected was a return to one-word politics, but that's what evolved. Before 1960, the one word was "segregation." You could stamp it on the most hapless of candidates and win an election. After 1980, the one word became "conservative," as a label for the set of Bible Belt social values that hardened into its present calcified state with the election of Ronald Reagan.