American Times: Jackson Mississippi: Voice of Deep South's fading Black press keeps torch alight

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The Independent Online
JAMES RUNDLES is a fine writer, which is the main thing that you need to know about him. His column in the Jackson Advocate, "Up and Down Farish Street", chronicles life in the Mississippi state capital. It is a mixture of local gossip, state affairs and national politics. It is robust, funny, provocative and direct, written in his own unique style, which is rare enough among American newspaper columnists. Most, these days, are like factory-produced cheese, with a plastic taste and texture.

There is something that marks out the Advocate from other papers: it is one of the few remaining black newspapers in America, owned by, written by and aimed at the black community. Once, there were thousands of black papers, but as the black middle-class has expanded and black writers have moved into once all-white newsrooms, their numbers have shrunk. The Advocate is not only one of the last left, but one of the few to maintain a campaigning standpoint.

Mr Rundles started at the Advocate in 1946, straight out of the Marine Corps; after years in local radio, state government and the mayor's office, he returned a few years ago. He was born on Farish Street, once the centre of black life in the Mississippi state capital. "I'm what you call a native native," he says. "I'm writing about home." At 78, he is trim, fit and energetic.

Mr Rundles' big break, ironically, was the Second World War. "I got my first chance in the Marine Corps," he says with pride. He was the first black marine from Mississippi when the Corps started to admit blacks in 1942. It cannot have been easy, at home, or abroad: he landed at Iwo Jima in February 1945, when a Japanese counter-attack took a terrible toll of the black units.

When he returned, he wanted to be a journalist. Newsrooms were closed to black people, so he went to the Advocate, as assistant manager and columnist. He stayed for 10 years, then became the first black radio news announcer in Mississippi in 1954.

Mr Rundles carried on writing, for the Pittsburgh Courier and for the Chicago Defender, two other respected black newspapers, covering the civil rights struggle in Mississippi.

The piece he is proudest of, he says, is on the death of his friend Medgar Evers, a civil rights worker who was murdered in 1964. His description of the mourners gathering is tempered with sadness, but underlying it is a quiet, seething rage. Mr Evers' killer was finally brought to justice four years ago.

Mr Rundles is clear about the purpose of the black press and the Advocate. "The role of the paper is to be an instrument of truth and information, and an advocate of human rights and opportunity," he says. Above all, it is "an organ of protest".

The black press goes back to 1827 when John Brown Russwurm and Samuel E Cornish founded Freedom's Journal in New York. "Too long have others spoken for us," they said.

Black papers mushroomed at the turn of the century. The Pittsburgh Courier, founded in 1910, had a circulation of 300,000 in the Fifties and was perhaps the finest paper of the day. During the war, it sent correspondents abroad with black troops; afterwards, it covered the fight against segregation.

"It did all this, of course, at a time when white papers ...hired blacks only to operate elevators and covered them only if they killed white people," writes Ron Howell, who teaches journalism at Long Island University.

The Advocate started in 1938. The black press "was wildly successful in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties," says Mr Rundles. "There was a story on every street corner, a breaking story. It was usually bad." There were 30 black newspapers in America by the time of the Civil War; by the Seventies there were 2,700. Now, there are less than a third of that number, and more slip under every year.

The papers have suffered from integration, as the black middle class has drifted to the mainstream press. Those that remain in the inner cities face declining interest. "For some reason, blacks, and especially young blacks, stopped reading," says Mr Rundles.

The circulation of the daily Chicago Defender, which hit a high of 50,000 in the Fifties, has fallen to about 18,000. The Advocate is also suffering, with little advertising and low circulation. And Farish Street itself has changed, says Mr Rundles, as we drive past. "It was a hub of black activity for years," he says. Now it is quiet, full of boarded-up buildings.

It may be commercially weak, but the Jackson Advocate is still provocative enough to attract attacks. Only this year, the offices were firebombed. Mr Rundles is optimistic. He believes in its future, and in that of the black press. "I want to write about what we do and what we can do," he says. Or, as he would say in his column, "Semper Fidelis!"