Bill Minor was a major force in Mississippi

Published 9:53 am Thursday, April 6, 2017

The late Chicago newspaperman Mike Royko said — I paraphrase — that every columnist has five (maybe it was three) good ideas.

It’s what you do with the thousands of other deadlines that can make a career remarkable.

Mississippi muckraker Bill Minor died last month at age 94. Those alliterative words sound good: Mississippi muckraker. Minor had been covering Mississippi for 70 years, since segregationist Theodore Bilbo’s funeral and Hector was a pup.

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Unlike so many reporters who parachuted into Mississippi during “the troubles” and then went back to New York or Washington with reputations made, Minor stayed. He was there at the trial following Emmett Till’s murder, there when Ross Barnett stood in the door to block James Meredith at Ole Miss, there after Medgar Evers was shot, there when three missing civil-rights workers were found buried in Neshoba County clay.

And he was there a lot of days when nothing dramatic was happening, when subcommittees and committees of the Mississippi Legislature were working their quiet mischief in the halls of Jackson’s “new” capitol. When Cliff Finch was doing wheelies on the mansion grounds or when William Winter was passionately pushing for public kindergartens.

When I moved to Jackson in 1979, Minor was a legend, the “dean” of Mississippi journalists. I met his wife, Gloria, first, worked with her at the Mississippi Research and Development Center.

After I took a job with the Memphis newspaper, I got to know Bill Minor, who was as nice and welcoming in person as he was hard-hitting in print. If ever I had a question about the state’s history, I knew where to turn. He had answers.

That’s what you call “institutional knowledge,” as valuable to the reporting trade as a pen and notebook. While a parade of ambitious young reporters at the local paper were trading “Mississippi experiences” at parties in the 1980s, many of them eager to see the state in the rearview mirror, Minor simply was doing what he did: afflicting the comfortable in a place he knew inside-out.

The last time I saw Minor was not in Mississippi, but Athens, Georgia, when he took part in the last of the John Popham Seminars. Named for the first Southern correspondent of The New York Times, the annual gathering for 30 years was a Who’s Who of civil-rights reporters who had been in the trenches. They were war buddies keeping in touch.

In 1999, some were tired. Some sick. Most were retired. I saw my friend Bill Emerson, for instance, former head of Newsweek’s Atlanta bureau, hobbling up the hotel walkway with his oxygen tank and a bottle of whiskey. I never saw him again.

In the past there might have been petty squabbles and jealousies, but now it was a grand reporters’ reunion, a match of wits and oratory and photos of grandchildren.

Minor wrote great columns till the end, recalling in an October essay how he received some of the most “vicious and vile” letters of his long career when in 1992 he praised Hillary Clinton’s “engaging personality and brilliant intellect.”

She was, at the time, campaigning in Mississippi for her husband.

Like almost everyone else, Minor thought Hillary was poised to break the ultimate glass ceiling. This time, he was wrong.

Bill Minor did not write to please or appease. He kept at it a long, long time.

Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a Mississippi resident and a syndicated columnist. You may reach her at rhetagrimsley@aol.com