The Times-Dispatch's 'Massive' Apology

Published:July 22, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe

Moton School, Prince Edward County, Closed

The Richmond Times-Dispatch published an editorial on July 16 headlined “Our Past,” in which it apologized for its support of Massive Resistance during the 1950s and beyond. (Our entry on Massive Resistance provides the requisite background.) The newspaper admitted its complicity in championing segregationist policies, writing that “the record fills us with regret.”

Massive Resistance inflicted pain then. Memories remain painful. Editorial enthusiasm for a dreadful doctrine still affects attitudes toward the newspaper. Many remember. We understand. Words have consequences. Artful paragraphs promoted ugly things. Stylish sentences salted wounds. Euphemism was profligate. As members of the Fourth Estate these pages did not keep a proper distance, either. The debate is over. It is done.

One commenter on the website was not impressed:

Certainly Massive Resistance is regrettable and was a mistake. I’m at a loss, however, to see how the Times Dispatch editorial adds anything new or helpful. Apologies spoken or written by those with no connection whatsoever to those who offended impresses me as being pointless, self-serving, presumptuous, and insulting.

What struck me was the editorial’s last line: “We will not forget.” But what does it mean to remember? Taking this question seriously would have been, I think, a more important gesture than ginning up mock gravitas with short sentences that say very little (“The debate is over. It is done.”). What did the Times-Dispatch do, exactly, and what precisely were the consequences of its actions? And once you’ve answered those questions, once you’ve displayed the proper courage to remember what you can’t forget, then what are you going to do now? How will you remember?

Remember. That’s an action verb; it means more than simply not forgetting.

See our entry on Virginius Dabney, the Times-Dispatch‘s editor during Massive Resistance, for more background.

PS: For what it’s worth, I get that the Times-Dispatch (in the block quote above) was probably using god-awful writing as a clever and ironic contrast with its previous “artful paragraphs” and “stylish sentences.” But bad writing rarely accomplishes much good, while good writing, while it once defended the indefensible, can still be used for good. (Or, put another way, it wasn’t the writing’s fault! It was your fault!)

IMAGE: Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia, photographed on July 27, 1962, during the period of Massive Resistance in which Virginia state and local officials closed public schools rather than comply with Supreme Court desegregation mandates. Courtesy of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.