Most people who know me, know that I have always been a great admirer of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and strongly believe in his saying that we should judge people not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I am pretty sure that had he thought about, he might have added that we also should not always judge people by what comes out of their mouths, but, instead, by what resides in their hearts.
Over my nearly 43 years in the newspaper business, I had lots of calls that left by shaking my head in wonder. But, one particular call that I got in 1980 while I was still metro editor, shortly before becoming managing editor, at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., still causes me to shake my head all these years later.
I distinctly remember that it was a Wednesday morning, the day after we had prominently run a Page 1 story revealing that state officials had launched yet another of their periodic series of investigations of Charles Ever -- a Fayette business man and radio station owner and the brother of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers -- for some nebulous form of tax infraction. The state had previously conducted similar investigations, all of which had turned up nothing and most of which came after Evers had used his radio station to attack some state official for some form of alleged mis-, mal- or nonfeasance.
Shortly after our morning news planning meeting, I received a phone call from a woman with a heavy Southern accent. The conversation went something like this:
CALLER: I was in Fayette yesterday and was in a restaurant where there was these four (n-words) sitting in the booth behind me and I overheard them taking. I mean, you know, I just couldn’t avoid overhearing them.
ME (thinking oh geez, here we go again): Yes ma’am and?
CALLER: Well I heard them saying that the state tax people are investigating that (n-word) Charles Evers. You know, the brother of the other (n-word) civil right fellow, that Medgar Evers.
ME: (Starting to get on a slow burn) Yes ma’am?
CALLER: Well, those (n-words) were talking about how the state tax people are investigating that Charles Evers again.
ME: (Exasperated) Yes, ma’am, we had a front page story on that yesterday.
CALLER: Well, you need to do something about that.
ME: Yes ma’am we did, like I said we had a story on it yesterday.
CALLER: No, I don’t think you understand what I’m saying. I mean you need to do something about it because that (n-word) Charles Evers is one of the finest men in this state. He’s done more for poor colored folk and poor white folks that anybody. And you need to do something to get those state tax people off his back. They’re only doing this because he’s speaking up for civil rights just like his brother did. That Evers is a fine man just like his brother and doesn’t deserve to be treated that way and you need to do something about it (she insisted).
In total shock because she had gone so far outside the stereotype I had set for her, all I could say was: “Yes ma’am, rest assured we will do whatever we can.” Apparently satisfied with my answer she thanked me and hung up.
After all these years, I am still in disbelief and try to rationalize the apparent fact that despite my personal feelings about the use of the n-word, it isn’t necessarily always a pejorative (even though always objectionable) for everyone who employs it.