Why We Need To Open Our Eyes

‘Time for the Ku Klux Klan to night ride again’: An Alabama newspaper editor wants to bring back lynching

In this September 1987 photo, Ku Klux Klan members wearing traditional robes form a circle around a burning cross in Rumford, Maine. (Scott Perry/AP)By Antonia Noori Farzan andMichael Brice-SaddlerFebruary 19 at 4:05 PM

Two decades ago, the editor of the tiny Democrat-Reporter newspaper in Linden, Ala., was being talked about as a potential contender for the Pulitzer Prize. A congressional citation read on the floor of the House of Representatives in 1998 lauded “his truly American heroism and dedication to the truth” and called him “one of Alabama’s finest and most ethical journalists.” Glowing profiles in the New York TimesPeople magazine and the American Journalism Review highlighted his tenacious reporting and down-home Southern charm.

Now, Goodloe Sutton is back in the news again — this time because he recently called for mass lynchings and suggested that the Ku Klux Klan should return to “clean out” Washington, drawing strong rebukes from lawmakers and calls for an FBI investigation from the head of the Alabama NAACP.

“Time for the Ku Klux Klan to night ride again,” began a Feb. 14 editorial in the Democrat-Reporter. It went on to claim that Democrats, along with some Republicans, were planning to raise taxes in Alabama. It concluded, “Seems like the Klan would be welcome to raid the gated communities up there.”

Sutton, who is also the paper’s publisher, could not immediately be reached for comment. He told the Montgomery Advertiser on Monday that he had written the editorial, which ran without a byline, and stood by it.

“If we could get the Klan to go up there and clean out D.C., we’d all been better off,” he told the paper, explaining, “We’ll get the hemp ropes out, loop them over a tall limb and hang all of them.”

During the same conversation, Sutton argued that the KKK “didn’t kill but a few people” and “wasn’t violent until they needed to be,” the Advertiser reported on Monday. He further suggested the Klan, a white supremacist hate group, was comparable to the NAACP. Sutton also added that people could call him, write him a letter or boycott the paper if they disagreed with his views.

When the Advertiser’s Melissa Brown asked him whether it was appropriate for a newspaper publisher to suggest that Americans should be lynched, Sutton replied,“It’s not calling for the lynchings of Americans. These are socialist-communists we’re talking about. Do you know what socialism and communism is?”

The editorial — which, like the rest of the paper, was not published online — first started getting attention on Monday afternoon when two student-journalists at Auburn University posted photographs on Twitter. On Monday night, Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who prosecuted two members of the Klan for their role in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four young girls, called the editorial “disgusting” and demanded Sutton’s immediate resignation. “I have seen what happens when we stand by while people-especially those with influence- publish racist, hateful views,” he wrote.

Echoing the call for Sutton’s resignation was Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.), who wrote, “For the millions of people of color who have been terrorized by white supremacy, this kind of ‘editorializing’ about lynching is not a joke — it is a threat.”

The criticism was a sharp contrast from 20 years ago, when Sutton was honored on the floor of Congress. “His story is a shining example of the best and the brightest which occurs in America when a single citizen has the bravery to stand alone, in the face of mounting pressure and odds, and stands up for justice and equality,” Rep. Earl F. Hilliard (D-Ala.), the first person of color to represent Alabama in Congress since Reconstruction, said in his May 1998 proclamation.

Back then, Sutton was being celebrated for his dogged investigative journalism in the southwestern Alabama city with less than 3,000 residents, which resulted in the local sheriff being sent to federal prison. He and his wife, Jean, who worked alongside him at the paper, had spent nearly four years publishing stories that showed that Marengo County Sheriff Roger Davis was siphoning off government funds, from cashing reimbursement checks that were meant to go to the sheriff’s office to buying an all-terrain vehicle for his daughter with a check from the department’s bank account.

That reporting led to an undercover investigation that put Davis and two of his seven deputies in jail, but it took a toll on “Miss Jean” and “Ole Goodloe,” as the Suttons were known in their rural community. “The stories triggered a backlash,” AJR reported. “One of the elders at the Presbyterian church Sutton attends told him to lay off the sheriff. Sutton says he began losing about $1,000 a week in advertising. And hate mail poured in.”

Talking to the Associated Press in 1998, Sutton said deputies had threatened to plant drugs in their home, and the couple and their oldest son had repeatedly been pulled over and harassed. Davis “started telling anyone who would listen that my oldest son was involved in drugs, my wife was having affairs and I was drunk all the time,” he said. He was finally vindicated in 1997, when Davis pleaded guilty to charges including extortion and soliciting bribes.

That same year, two of Davis’s deputies, Wilmer “Sonny″ Breckenridge and Robert Pickens, were arrested along with 68 others in a massive drug bust that, at the time, was the largest in southern Alabama history. Breckenridge, AJR noted, had been the officer whose job was to visit schools and caution students about the dangers of using drugs. Both were ultimately convicted on charges that they had been abusing their positions as law enforcement officers by providing protection to drug dealers.

But by 2015, the Democrat-Reporter, like so many other small papers, was fighting for its life. Sutton had been forced to move out of the building across the street from the county courthouse where he had been based since 1965. “His office now is in a former barbecue restaurant a block away, where pieces of paper are taped to windows carrying the paper’s name,” the Advertiser reported. While the paper had more than 7,000 subscribers in 1998, circulation had fallen to roughly 3,000. Making matters worse, Jean, his managing editor and wife of 39 years, died in 2003 of complications from cancer.

[Racist comments cost Steve King his House committee roles. He hopes prayer brings them back.]

“It was hard for me to go home during that time,” he told the Advertiser. “I was like a zombie for several years after I lost Jean. I didn’t know what to do.” Jean had been the one who first started digging into the rumors of corruption at the sheriff’s office, AJR reported, but since she hated to be in the spotlight, she refused to have her name appear on any of her stories and gave the credit to her editor husband instead.

The AJR profile — which showed Sutton fishing for crawfish and mentioned that Jean liked to bake chocolate chip cookies for the sheriff’s deputies — portrayed the couple as charming, small-town muckrakers. But at some point, the paper turned away from investigative journalism and began publishing more and more racist screeds. Sutton’s “racial references in headlines and stories” had upset many of his readers, the Advertiser acknowledged in 2015, noting that one front-page story about a murder described the perpetrators as “Selma black thugs.”

Asked what the headline might have said if the killers had been white, Sutton didn’t respond but appeared to wink at his interviewer.

When Sutton’s comments on the Klan began getting attention on Monday, longtime readers pointed out that it wasn’t the first time that the paper’s editorial page had endorsed extreme or openly racist views. In May 2015, an editorial stated that the mayor of a city “up north” had “displayed her African heritage by not enforcing civilized law.” Another, published in June of that year, called for drug dealers, kidnappers, rapists, thieves and murderers to be hanged “on the courthouse lawn where the public can watch.”

“Dope heads know how to grow marijuana but not cotton,” one August 2014 editorial read. “They don’t pay sales taxes on what they grow so this doesn’t register with the economists who compile the statistics about jobs and employment. This market is dominated by blacks.” That same month, President Barack Obama was described by the paper as a “Kenyan orphan president” who was elected because Americans thought “it would be cool to have a colored man” in the White House. Later, amid the national controversy over football players kneeling during the national anthem, the Democrat-Reporter declared, “That’s what black folks were taught to do two hundred years ago, kneel before a white man.”

Other editorials have disparaged women with crude comments about their weight: Michelle Obama was labeled “a chubby chick” by the Democrat-Reporter, while Hillary Clinton was a “little fat oinker.” In January 2017, an editorial predicting that Clinton would be sent to prison stated: “Fat women are more stupid than trim women. Hillary wasn’t trim.”

Since the editorials are run without a byline, it’s unclear which, if any, were written by Sutton. Archived editions of the Democrat-Reporter from 2012 to 2017 indicate he was responsible for overseeing editorial content and that the paper’s two or three other staff members were in charge of tasks such as layout and production. A since-deleted post on a journalism forum indicates that as recently as December, Sutton had been trying to sell the paper, which he inherited from his father in the 1980s.

To some local lawmakers, the news that the Democrat-Reporter’s publisher was wishing for the return of the most notorious hate group in American history came as no surprise.

“That kind of ignorance is the reason I don’t even subscribe to the paper,” A.J. McCampbell, a Democratic state representative, told AL.com. 

Moreover, the president of the Alabama NAACP, Benard Simelton, told AL.com that Sutton’s editorial shows he is “out of touch with reality,” before adding that his comments warrant an investigation.

“I think it needs to be looked into by the FBI because in my opinion, he’s making threats to legislators and telling them that the Klan essentially needs to take care of the Democrats,” Simelton said. “The Democrats as well as the Democrats that are in the Republican Party, too. So, I think that needs to be looked at as a threat and investigated as a threat and possible legal action taken against him.”

As news of his editorial went viral, organizations that once lauded Sutton rebuked him. Officials from the University of Southern Mississippi’s School of Communicationannounced Tuesday that they had removed Sutton from their hall of fame, in which he was inducted in 2007, after his “call for violence and the return of the Ku Klux Klan” and “recent and continued history of racist remarks.”

The Auburn Plainsman reported Auburn University’s Journalism Advisory Council on Tuesday stripped Sutton of a community journalism award he received in 2009. Anthony Cook, chair of the journalism advisory council, told the Plainsman that many in the community were shocked to see what Sutton had written.

“The initial thought was hopefully this is satire. But looking at the reporting around the editorial, we see that he has not backed down from anything he said in the editorial,” Cook said. “In fact, he’s doubled down.”

More History, not his-story!

A Forgotten Presidential Candidate From 1904

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Despite what you read in some history books — such as the Biographical Dictionary of Congressional Women — Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-NY) was not in 1972 the first African-American candidate to run for president of the United States.

In 1904, George Edwin Taylor — often forgotten in the discussion of black American political pioneers — ran for president as the candidate of the National Negro Liberty Party, sometimes known as the National Liberty Party.

Son Of A Slave

A journalist by trade, Taylor — who lived in Iowa — gained distinction, according to the Tacoma, Wash., Times on Aug. 17, 1904, as a leader in the Republican national convention of 1892, “to which he was an alternate delegate-at-large from his state. The next campaign he was delegate-at-large to the Democratic convention.”

In 1904, 36 states sent representatives to the Liberty Party convention. According to the Times, the party denounced the Democrats’ disenfranchisement of black Americans. It questioned Theodore Roosevelt’s fidelity to African-Americans and it stood for “unqualified enforcement of the constitution,” reparations for ex-slaves and independence for the Philippines.

The candidate Taylor, the paper announced, was one of a dozen children whose father was a slave and his mother was born a free person in the South. “When his mother died,” the paper notes, “young Taylor was left a waif and slept in dry goods boxes. He finally drifted north and attended the Baptist academy at Beaver Dam, in Wisconsin. Feeble health and an exhausted pocketbook caused him to leave school within a year of graduating.”Article continues after sponsor message

To support himself, the Times reported, Taylor took a job as a newspaper reporter in La Crosse. He eventually became editor of the La Crosse Evening Star.

In the 1880s, according to the Murphy Library at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Taylor was a key player in both the Wisconsin’s People’s Party and the Union Labor Party. “His Wisconsin Labor Advocate was the voice of Wisconsin’s labor party in 1886-1887,” the library explains. “From 1891 to 1910, Taylor lived in Oskaloosa and Ottumwa, Iowa, where he published a national magazine called the Negro Solicitor. During this period he rose to prominence in national black politics, acting as president of the National Colored Men’s Protective Association and the National Negro Democratic League and served high office in various other black organizations.”

The library adds: “From 1910 to 1925, Taylor retreated from the national stage and lived an active life in Jacksonville, Florida.”

Historian Bruce L. Mouser pieced Taylor’s remarkable life together for the 2011 biography: For Labor, Race, and Liberty: George Edwin Taylor, His Historic Run for the White House, and the Making of Independent Black Politics.

Questions And Answers

So who was George Edwin Taylor. this erstwhile newspaper editor with a groundbreaking political career? For answers, we turn to David Brodnax who teaches history at Trinity Christian College.

NPR: As perhaps the first African-American to run for president in the United States, was George Edwin Taylor the right man at the right time?

David Brodnax: Given the fact that Taylor received fewer than 2,000 votes when he ran for president in 1904, it is hard to call him “the right man at the right time.” Another way to look at this is to ask why he in particular became the first African American to run for president; why did he do what Frederick Douglass, T. Thomas Fortune, Blanche K. Bruce, and other leading black politicians before him could or would not. Part of the irony of the situation is that Taylor’s marginal status may have made him more likely to be first.

Right before the Civil War, African American men could only vote in New York and five New England states, and their percentage of the population in those states was far too small for any party to consider nominating them. In 1870, the 15th Amendment gave black men around the country the right to vote (black women did not gain this right nationally until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920), and so black politicians in southern states or in the northern cities with rapidly growing black populations might have considered a run for the White House. Neither the Republicans nor Democrats, though, would have seriously considered nominating an African-American for president; the Republicans would not have risked alienating white voters for the sake of gaining black votes that they felt sure to get anyway, and the Democrats had a well-earned reputation for racial hostility.

Because of the great expense of running for president, the only African-Americans who could even consider funding a serious third-party campaign were members of the upper-class who were also the most likely to remain loyal to the GOP. Taylor, who had first been a Republican and then a Democrat, was the first to run for president because he was the first black politician who (1) no longer cared about what either major party thought of him and (2) was able to find allies among progressive whites who took the incredibly bold step of nominating him.

NPR: What was the political climate of the time?

Brodnax: Taylor had spent many years in Iowa, which was the first state [outside of New England] after the Civil War to give black men the right to vote and where they had never lost that right. Specifically, Taylor lived in and near the mining towns of southeast Iowa, which was a major center of black political and labor activity even before he arrived. At the same time, blacks in Iowa, whether in the southeast or elsewhere, held no statewide office and could not even get nominated by the GOP to serve in the state legislature, whereas African Americans in Chicago, New York, and other large northern cities had sufficient numbers to accomplish this on at least a token level. This environment of political activity without direct political power may have helped to shape Taylor’s willingness to pursue a political goal that he must have known he had no chance of winning.

NPR: What lessons can Americans learn from Taylor 90 years after his death?

Brodnax: Every four years, Iowa and New Hampshire are depicted in contrast to South Carolina as the “white” early primary states. In 2008, for instance, Barack Obama gained massive credibility by winning Iowa and thus showing that he could appeal to white voters. Although Iowa is in fact overwhelmingly white, the story of George Edwin Taylor shows that African Americans have always played a role in the state’s presidential politics and therefore in national presidential politics as well.

Also, Taylor’s story shows that some things have not changed over the last 90 years. Today, African Americans overwhelmingly vote for a party that has been accused of taking their votes for granted while the other party seems to not at all support issues that matter to them. Most African Americans will not cast ballots for a third party, even when it nominates black candidates; for instance, the Green Party ticket of Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente in 2008, although to be fair in that campaign, black voters had the unprecedented choice of two different parties that had nominated a black person for president. There is still the feeling that it is better to press for change within a major party and at least win marginal gains than to waste votes on a losing cause and get nothing. The ever-increasing cost of running for president no doubt factors into this.

NPR: Are there other lessons?

Brodnax: The fact that Taylor became the first African American to run for president in 1904, decades after nearly all African Americans had gained the right to vote, also shows that understanding black “firsts” is not just a matter of when white Americans became liberal enough to support such a thing, or when African Americans were finally able to win their fight for the right to do a thing, but instead depends on many different factors.

Finally, George Taylor shows us the great diversity of political thought and the robust political debate that takes place within the African American community. The media tends to depict African Americans as monolithic and simplemindedly loyal to the Democratic Party, just as it once depicted us as monolithic and simplemindedly loyal to the Republican Party. The story of Taylor shows that this simply is not true and never has been. Even the decision to support a major party over an independent party with more racially progressive views, which happened in 1904 and has happened many more times since then, is part of this discussion and is a matter of pragmatism, not blind allegiance.