Publication Date



On April 5, 1960, Ray Jenkins, a city editor for the Alabama Journal,the afternoon paper in Montgomery, was having lunch at his desk and skimming through the old papers that had piled up. They included a week-old copy of the New York Times. He spotted an item that had a local angle, and he wrote a thirteen-paragraph story for that day's paper. "Sixty prominent liberals, including [former First Lady] Eleanor Roosevelt, have signed a full page advertisement in the New York Times appealing for contributions to 'The Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South,'" it began. He reported the ad as saying King and the students were facing an "unprecedented wave of terror" in Alabama. He noted several minor factual errors. While the ad said, "Negro student leaders from Alabama State College were expelled" after they sang "'My Country 'Tis of Thee' on the state Capitol steps," Jenkins said they were expelled for "leading a sit-down strike at the Courthouse Grill."' The article caught the attention of Grover Hall, the editor of the Montgomery Advertiser. "Lies, lies, lies-and possibly willful ones," he wrote in an editorial that appeared two days later. "The Republic paid a dear price once for the hysteria and mendacity of abolitionist agitators. The author of this ad is a lineal descendant of those abolitionists and the breed runs true." Hall gave a copy of the New York Times ad to an attorney for the city and urged him to "show it to City Hall" because it "libeled every one of them." How is that for a strange beginning to what became the most important freedom-of-the-press case in the Supreme Court's history? It took a local newspaper editor to report on a paid ad that had appeared in an out-of-town paper, that in turned riled up a local editor who urged city officials to take umbrage and to sue. Thanks to these local newspapermen, Montgomery's Commissioner of Public Safety L.B. Sullivan learned he had been "libeled" in the New York Times by an ad which, as has often been noted, did not mention him. Notice too the mindset reflected in Hall's editorial. Nearly a century after the Civil War had ended slavery, Hall referred to the abolitionists as "agitators" given to "hysteria and mendacity."' As the Alabama editor saw it, the Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. King was engaged in a campaign of slander against the South, one that could provoke violence.