A memorial that opened last week in Montgomery, Ala., honoring lynching victims aims to force a reckoning with one of the United States' worst atrocities.
As the city's largest newspaper, the Montgomery Advertiser covered the opening and found itself in the middle of its own reckoning. In a news article and an editorial, the Advertiser admitted that its coverage of lynchings over many decades was careless, dismissive and dehumanizing in its treatment of the black victims, portraying them as criminals who got what was coming to them.
"We were wrong," the editorial began.
Part public confession and plea for forgiveness, the Advertiser's self-examination marked an important acknowledgment of the role that the press played in perpetuating the mob violence that was unleashed on black citizens for decades after slavery was abolished.
"Sometimes print media aided and abetted in these acts of terror by announcing when lynchings would take place, by celebrating the courage of the mob, the objectives of the mob," said Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, the nonprofit behind the new tribute, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. "They were absolutely responsible for the way in which there was no acknowledgment for the tragedy of the loss of these lives."
The Advertiser is not the only Southern newspaper that has confronted flaws in its coverage of race and civil rights.
The Jackson Sun in Tennessee acknowledged in a story in 2000 that it had ignored the burgeoning civil rights movement in its coverage during the 1960s. And the Herald-Leader in Lexington, Ky., published a front-page exposé in 2004 admitting that the paper virtually ignored the civil rights movement.
In the case of the Advertiser, the newspaper did not endorse lynchings but expressed an understanding for why they happened.
After three black men were lynched in the fall of 1919 — two of them were accused of assaulting white women, one of killing a police officer — the Advertiser wrote an editorial that blamed the men for the crimes without any evidence of their guilt.
"All right-thinking people deplore lynchings," the editorial said, but later added that "as long as there are attempts at rape by black men, red men or yellow men on white women there will be lynchings."
This was typical of the Advertiser's tone, and the editorial published last week was blunt about its failings.
Bro Krift, the executive editor, said the decision to look inward as part of its coverage of the new memorial emerged from a simple question: How could the newspaper ask people to reflect on their roles during a period of injustice if it did not do the same?
"We proliferated that idea of white supremacy," said Krift, who has been the executive editor for nearly two years.
The Advertiser began publication in 1829 and now has a daily circulation of around 20,000. It has served as an influential voice in a city that was central to the U.S. civil rights struggle, but its coverage was decidedly mixed.
The newspaper opposed secession in 1861, but took up the cause of white supremacy after the Civil War, according to "The Race Beat," a book about press coverage of the civil rights struggle by veteran journalists Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff.
The Advertiser won a Pulitzer Prize in 1928 for editorials that attacked the Ku Klux Klan. But decades later, its coverage of the Montgomery bus boycott and the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 was indifferent and antagonistic. It criticized activists and their causes. In one story, the Advertiser misattributed and misquoted Martin Luther King Jr.'s message at a mass meeting, according to "The Race Beat."
Wanda Lloyd became the paper's first black executive editor in 2004. When she took over, Lloyd said black residents complained that they did not feel accurately represented. Black people "felt like it wasn't their paper," said Lloyd, who left the Advertiser in 2013. She said she was surprised that the Advertiser had apologized for its coverage of lynchings but hoped that it would help build trust with black residents.
Krift, who is white, said he felt there was a present-day lesson to be learned from the past missteps.
"I think the takeaway for us is that we need to be conscious of the words that we choose and how we characterize people in our newspaper," he said.