A journey from racism to reason Newspaper: The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., was once the most racist paper in the United States, until an offspring of the publishing family decided to make the paper -- and his family name -- respectable.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

JACKSON, Miss. -- The story of the Hederman family and the Clarion-Ledger newspaper should have been written by Faulkner. It is a tale of a man burdened by ancestry. Familial loyalty and duty are stained by revulsion toward the past. The corrosive effects of racism are deeply felt, the scent of decay is strong.

And Mississippi itself is a protagonist.

The Hederman family ran what probably was the most racist newspaper in the nation. Some of its past reporting, when reviewed today, is nearly unbelievable. The Clarion-Ledger covered the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic 1963 march on Washington with a picture of the mall littered by trash and a headline that proclaimed, "Washington Is Clean Again With Negro Trash Removed."

"It was really a terrible paper," says Lew Powell, a former Mississippi newspaperman now at the Charlotte Observer, "about as bad a paper as you can get. It was a mixture of incompetence and malevolence, especially on racial issues."

Rea Hederman represented the third generation in this saga of family and of Mississippi.

In 1973, he began transforming the newspaper from propagandist for white racism to voice of reason. He made the paper respectable, and even admirable journalistically.

He was sometimes opposed by his elders, the second generation -- brothers Bob, Henry and Zack and cousin Tom. They were able to keep their footing against some seismic change, but not all.

In 1981, Rea Hederman told his strict Baptist uncles and father that he was going to divorce his wife, and the family was finally thrown off balance.

Though his father stood by him, two of his uncles could not countenance divorce. Rea left town.

On April 1, 1982, his father and uncles, unable to work together any longer, sold the Clarion-Ledger and their nine other Mississippi newspapers to the Gannett Corp. for $110 million.

Rea used his money -- the legacy of Mississippi's racist past -- in 1984 to buy the New York Review of Books, a voice of liberal America.

Then he bought Granta, the free-wheeling British literary quarterly.

In a few short years, he had traveled an enormous distance.

"The Hedermans," says Hodding Carter III, member of a rival Mississippi newspaper dynasty, "were to segregation what Joseph Goebbels was to Hitler. They were cheerleaders and chief propagandists, dishonest and racist.

"They helped shape as well as reflect a philosophy which was, at its core, as undemocratic and immoral as any extant."

The Hedermans and Mississippi were intertwined, both revealing relationship that is difficult for an outsider to understand.

The Hedermans asserted their moral authority through their newspapers and their control of the First Baptist Church, the most powerful congregation in Jackson.

They were able to proclaim themselves devout Christians while holding many of their fellow men -- those of color -- in contempt.

"They weren't hypocrites," says Carter, whose family owned the Delta Democrat Times in Greenville. "They believed it. They believed blacks were the sons of Ham. The Hedermans were bone-deep racists whose religion 120 years ago decided that question."

The Hedermans were also stern Prohibitionists who nevertheless approved of the state's collecting a tax on alcohol during years when alcohol was illegal.

"This is a state of conundrums," says Bill Minor, a journalist who for years was considered the voice of conscience in Mississippi. From 1947 to 1976, he was Mississippi bureau chief of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

He still lives and writes here, chronicling life with a mixture of bemusement and outrage.

Minor enjoys telling the tale of Mississippi's taxing illegal liquor. Though Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Mississippi remained legally "dry" until 1966. But state officials saw no reason not to reap a financial benefit from liquor that was being sold in Louisiana and brought into Mississippi.

The state set up a highly organized system, getting a copy of liquor shipments from the Louisiana Department of Revenue and showing up on the door of the Mississippi importer and demanding 10 percent.

There was even an official stamp as proof of payment.

Though Minor, who is 74, has lived in Mississippi for 50 years, he has been able to maintain a sense of detachment, which allows him to appreciate the state's flair for peccadillo.

"I love this crazy old state," he says, "but I'm just not one of them."

He is not so forgiving of the Hederman family, especially the two older generations.

It was the Hedermans, says Minor, who gave Ross Barnett orders. He was the governor who blocked James Meredith's way at the door of Ole Miss.

"They took personal pride and responsibility for putting Ross Barnett in there," Minor says. "They were the thought-control experts of their time."

The first two Hederman brothers, Thomas M. and Robert M., came to Jackson from rural Scott County around the turn of the century. They arrived in a horse-drawn wagon and found work as printers.

They were hard-working and parsimonious, and it wasn't long before they took on the biggest printing job in town.

They bought the Clarion-Ledger in 1920, and left the paper along with their Baptist, teetotaling legacy to their sons.

Rea Hederman, born in 1945, had intended his life to take him elsewhere. He graduated from college in Mississippi, then left the state to study finance.

Everywhere he went, he would say later, the lowly reputation of the Hederman press haunted him. It embarrassed him.

Finally, he went home to change it.

He had made huge strides by the time the family broke apart. He hired aggressive young reporters from all over the country, 300 of them in eight years, and turned them loose on abuses the paper had ignored for years.

When he left Jackson in 1982, the paper was working on an education series that won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for meritorious public service.

Rea Hederman had accomplished his mission.

There is no great mystery to what set him on his course, his friends say.

"I just think he's a good newspaperman," says Cleta Ellington, a Jackson teacher and friend from childhood. "He's just a fine, fine man."

William Winter, the governor who was pushing the education reforms in 1982, says Rea Hederman had a very well-developed intellect and understood the old ways were not defensible.

"He made a generational leap forward," Winter says. "He acted on his idealism."

Hodding Carter III, who was President Jimmy Carter's press secretary and now teaches journalism at the University of Maryland, says he has never quite figured it out.

"But it's one of the great miracles of the modern generation," he says.

There are still Hedermans in Jackson. They're back to running a printing company, and they're respected members of the community, but without the old influence.

And last month, Rea Hederman was home again in Jackson.

He was there to bury his father, Robert, who died Dec. 14.

Pub Date: 1/05/97

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