- CIVIL RIGHTS
Winfred Moncrief defied norms and documented civil rights in the segregated South.
During the civil rights era, the Hederman clan owned the largest papers in Mississippi and part of a television station. They owned real estate and a printing business. They sat on the board of a bank, the capitol’s chamber of commerce, and in the pews of First Baptist Church, alongside Governor Ross Barnett.
Through the Clarion-Ledger and the Jackson Daily News, the Hederman family, which had crawled out of the countryside and climbed up the ladder from the printing presses and into ownership a few decades earlier, promulgated inflammatory rhetoric to keep the flame of segregation burning bright. Their views became the common currency of barbershop talk and sidewalk gossip, their market penetration a hand around the throat of any politician within editorial reach. Working secretly with the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission (MSSC) and publicly with Citizens’ Councils, their media outlets fought against the civil rights movement on and off the page.
Their news coverage wasn’t much more comforting. The Clarion-Ledger, for example, published the names of suspected NAACP members, effectively putting targets on people’s backs, while the Jackson Daily News issued inflammatory editorials against the federal government’s attempts to open Mississippi’s “closed society” and posited that crime rates in northern cities were the direct result of integration. Both dailies raged violently against “mixers,” outsiders coming into the state to support civil rights causes; local blacks ended up on their pages when arrested, or not at all.
In 1960, the Hederman empire expanded its holdings, acquiring the Hattiesburg American. The paper had been segregationist before selling out to the Hedermans, but within the context of 1960s Mississippi it was considered fairly balanced.
For example, it published letters by an African American named Clyde Kennard during his repeated attempts to enroll at the all-white Mississippi Southern College, which happened to be the alma mater of the paper’s chief photographer, Winfred Moncrief. The paper covered Kennard’s arrests for what were later found to be a series of false crimes orchestrated by the police and the MSSC.
On October 28, 1965, Moncrief photographed a man named Robert M. Shelton, imperial wizard of the United Klans of America, as he signed autographs at a KKK rally in town. On April 8, 1968, he photographed protest marches winding their way through Hattiesburg in the wake of MLK’s assassination. Whatever his personal feelings or politics, Moncrief hit the streets and covered the news. The archive of his work showcases his professional integrity regardless of subject matter. His goal was to capture events from all sides, using changes of camera position and adjustments of lighting and contrast.
Moncrief worked at his hometown paper for a total of 15 years, while moonlighting for the Associated Press and United Press International and filing with Time and Life magazines on occasion. He won awards for reportage, and commendations in his subsequent public relations career. And through it all, until retiring in the early nineties, he taught photography and journalism part-time at several southern Mississippi colleges. In a state where you couldn’t always believe in institutions or the gatekeepers who controlled them, Moncrief at least believed in the power of the press.
Clancy's comment: Good on him. He was a true photographic journalist.