A flag announcing “A MAN WAS LYNCHED YESTERDAY” is flown from the window of the NAACP headquarters on 69 Fifth Ave., New York City in 1936. (Photo: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

by DeNeen L. Brown —

For decades, hundreds of white-owned newspapers across the country incited the racist terror lynchings and massacres of thousands of Black Americans. In their headlines, these newspapers often promoted the brutality of white lynch mobs and chronicled the gruesome details of the lynchings. …

Lynchings took different forms. Some Black people were bombed, as four little girls were in a church in Birmingham, Alabama. Black men were whipped by mobs to silence them. (In Mississippi) Emmett Till was kidnapped, tortured, beaten and thrown into the Tallahatchie River with a cotton-gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire.

“Printing Hate,” a yearlong investigation by students working with the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland, examines the scope, depth and breadth of newspaper coverage of hundreds of those public-spectacle lynchings and massacres.

The investigation was inspired by DeNeen L. Brown’s reporting on the Red Summer of 1919 and the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, which was sparked by the sensational coverage of The Tulsa Tribune, specifically a May 31, 1921, front-page story: “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl In an Elevator.” …

The series uncovers the widespread practice of publishing headlines that accelerated lynchings and massacres. That included newspapers announcing “Negro uprisings,” publishing uncorroborated stories of Black men accused of “assaulting” white women, and printing false allegations of arson and vagrancy — all in an attempt to justify racist terror inflicted on Black people.

Many of the newspapers examined in this project ran racist headlines, calling Black people “brutes,” “fiends” and “bad Negroes.” Newspapers across the South greeted readers with “Hambone’s Meditations,” a racist caricature created by The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tennessee. (The Commercial Appeal was owned by Scripps-Howard from 1936 to 2015, when the company spun off its newspapers. The Scripps Howard Foundation supports the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland.)

Some of the newspapers advertised upcoming lynchings, often printing the time, date and place where mobs would gather. Some white reporters watched, took notes and wrote riveting accounts of the barbarity of mobs, documenting the horror of the wounds inflicted, with blow-by-blow descriptions of the attacks, as though they were writing about a sporting event. 

But those reporters, as skilled as they were as writers, often failed to practice good journalism, by undertaking the basic job of reporters — pursue and tell the truth. Many of those reporters failed to identify white people in the mob. They also failed to hold government officials accountable by asking hard questions of the sheriffs, judges and other local law enforcement officials who stepped aside while white mobs attacked Black people.

This series found that the collective impact of those accounts was devastating. Triggered by front-page headlines, Black people were often dragged from their homes, ridiculed, tormented and whipped with straps so sharp their flesh was shredded. …

The fact that lynchings took place is generally known, and the fact that some newspapers incited lynchings is generally known. But the Howard Center’s reporting shows how widespread this incendiary coverage was. …

Not all white-owned newspapers were guilty, and there were degrees of guilt. In some instances, editors looked the other way. In other instances, they not only covered the fire; they lit the fuse.

“Printing Hate” examines white-owned newspaper coverage of lynchings and massacres from the end of the Civil War in 1865 to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. During those 100 years, thousands of Black people were murdered in massacres and lynchings. …

A multifaceted investigation

The series of stories in “Printing Hate” resulted from a multifaceted investigation by 58 student journalists from the University of Maryland, the University of Arkansas and five historically Black colleges and universities: Hampton University, Howard University, Morehouse College, Morgan State University and North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University. …

“As someone who has worked in the industry for a long time, I understood newspapers to be imperfect institutions that nonetheless served as guardians of truth who righted wrongs and exposed corrupt officials,” said Sean Mussenden, data editor at the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism, who worked with student journalists who built a database to allow many papers to examine their past lynching coverage. 

“I was shocked by the role so many papers played in promoting a culture of racial terror.”

… This investigation of newspaper coverage of lynchings comes at a time of “racial reckoning” in newsrooms. The stories dive into the country’s racist history, at a time when states are passing laws to prevent that truth from being told, under the guise of banning the teaching of critical race theory –  designed to be taught in law schools. The series begins at a time when several major newspapers have issued statements, acknowledging and apologizing for racist coverage. 

“Printing Hate” attempts to add to this discourse by providing a more comprehensive review of that racist historical newspaper coverage that incited the deaths of thousands of Black people.

Rollout

“Printing Hate” will roll out over the next three months, publishing to the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service and Howard Center website. It is set to be published by Word In Black, a “groundbreaking collaboration of the nation’s leading Black news publishers,” and is scheduled to appear on the National Association of Black Journalists’ website. …

“Printing Hate” contains interviews with current newspaper editors who have issued apologies and with those who have not. The project examines how the U.S. government failed to enact anti-lynching legislation to prevent the murder of Black people. …

Victoria A. Ifatusin, a graduate student at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism, said working on the project was a profound experience.

“We talk about social injustices today and how Black people were treated back then quite often,” Ifatusin said. “But I don’t think that people, including me before this project, really understood how Black people were horrifically mistreated, to the point that their lives were taken just for their skin color. And newspapers, a medium of truth, aided in that mistreatment. 

“As a young reporter, it deeply hurts to know that reporters of this time who were meant to seek truth, deliberately printed false information that harmed Black people. This only contributes to the passion I have for journalism in efforts to tell stories truthfully without creating harm to anyone.” 

The package of stories is unflinching. But it is required reading because the role some white-owned newspapers played in inciting racist terror lynchings and massacres against Black people in America is undeniable.

(DeNeen L. Brown, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Maryland, produced this story for The Howard Center for Investigative Journalism. Vanessa Sanchez and Brittany Gaddy contributed to this report. Read a fuller version at https://bit.ly/3BiDR5O)