Newspapers get interesting mail.
Some of our best news tips come out of an envelope. That’s how we traditionally received letters to the editor, although most now come via email. Heck, we even hear from local inmates about the goings-on in the Lakelands’ jails and prisons.
Among the most fascinating correspondences to arrive at this newspaper came in 1923, back when Greenwood’s daily was along Maxwell Avenue.
I’d like to imagine that Harry Watson, the first editor and owner of the Index-Journal, opened the letter himself and read it between cigar puffs while sipping bourbon.
Well, surely it was a smoke-filled newsroom, as was common in decades past, but he might have passed on the American-made whiskey because of Prohibition.
Or maybe he was just discreet.
Anyway, the correspondence, signed by the “K.K.K. Committee,” made it clear that whoever penned the letter did not care for the newspaper’s coverage of a man accused of shooting at police officers on April 8, 1923.
“At this point, we want to give everyone of you concerned, ‘a warning’ if another editorial appears against him, we are going to drop a bomb in that town that will wake up the depths below.”
The anonymous author suggested readers would be better served if the newspaper devoted its ink to gamblers and drunkards instead of a man firing at law enforcement.
This was at a time when “Birth of a Nation” was still getting regular play in theaters and the reborn Klan was seeing its ranks swell.
So what did The Index-Journal Co. do?
In the face of this threat, Watson did what any good newspaperman would do with that letter: He took it to the readers.
The Index published the letter in full, which also included criticism of police, on April 30, 1923.
Along with running the letter, the newspaper excoriated whoever was behind the letter.
“There is no danger of misinterpretation of its meaning,” the Index said in an unsigned editorial. “The town of Greenwood in general, its police force and The Index-Journal in particular are commanded to ‘go easy’ with Mr. Henry Augustine when it becomes necessary to go through with his trial on an indictment for assault with intent to kill. According to the ‘Committee,’ Mr. Augustine was entirely within his rights as an American citizen when he came on the streets of Greenwood at midnight with a rifle and began firing at three members of the Greenwood police force. The three officers, brave and true as they are, did not, evidently, play the game according to the ‘K.K.K.’ rules.”
By some miracle, the officers escaped serious injury while exchanging shots and Augustine’s worst wound was from a bullet that embedded itself in his elbow during the firefight.
While pointing out that the Index had yet to opine on the case, the newspaper said it was interested in seeing what Greenwood thought of this letter.
“We are also curious to see if the real K.K.K. through its Atlanta officials will endorse and commend this letter of ‘K.K.K. Committee,’” the editorial concluded.
Four days later, the Index received a letter on official Klan letterhead that denied the terror group had any connection with the letter and proclaimed that the “Ku Klux Klan is not a lawless organization, and no man who takes the oath of a Klansman can be a true Klansman and be lawless.”
The Klan, which evidently lacked self-awareness, took out an ad offering a $50 reward for the identity of the writer of the threatening note.
It took gall for a small Southern newspaper to publish something at the risk of angering a virulent, racist organization during the decade when it boasted more than 4 million members.
We strive for the same fearlessness today.
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