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Harry Scott Ashmore, Journalist: An Appreciation And Exorcism

January 10, 2007

Over the weekend, while reading an Eric Arnesen book review of Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff’s The Race Beat (2006) in the Chicago Tribune, I ran across the name of Harry Ashmore. Here’s the excerpt from Arnesen’s review:

“Among the heroes of The Race Beat are those Southern editors like Ralph McGill and Harry Ashmore who broke ranks with their racist counterparts, counseled patience and obedience to the law, and eventually came around to accepting integration. ‘Ashmore’s courageous editorials and civic leadership,’ Roberts and Klibanoff believe, ‘would show his southern brethren that they could challenge racial and political orthodoxy, survive, and get national praise and prizes.'”

Before seeing his name in the review, Ashmore had been in the back of my mind for some time. In researching the great books idea for my dissertation his name came up in relation to Robert Hutchins. The two best books on Hutchins are Mary Ann Dzuback’s Robert M. Hutchins: Portrait of an Educator (1991) and Ashmore’s Unseasonable Truths: The Life of Robert Maynard Hutchins (1989). As an historian, Dzuback’s account was much more satisfying in a scholarly way – and shorter: Ashmore’s was comprehensive but conversational, anecdotal, and about 600 pages long. Plus Ashmore’s book had been pushed on me several times, causing me to develop a contrarian aversion to giving it too much credence. No matter how hard you try, it’s amazing how emotional decisions can creep into one’s scholarship.

Before Arnesen’s review, however, I only vaguely understood that Ashmore was a journalist – and I certainly didn’t understand he was a journalist of consequence. Not that a journalist’s status or place in history would’ve altered my use of his or her work, but perhaps I would’ve at least given it more respect.

Ashmore is notable enough to have garnered a Wikipedia entry. The entry is relatively short but at least provides an outline of his life. A more satisfying account of Ashmore’s importance to journalism is provided by the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture. From both sources I learned that Ashmore was the editor of Little Rock’s Arkansas Gazette during the 1957 Central High School crisis. In fact, Ashmore and Governor Orval Faubus were friends. Here’s an important footnote, however, to the 1954 Brown decision:

“Between the speaking circuit and running the editorial side of the newspaper, Ashmore found time to take on other projects. His first book, The Negro and the Schools (1954), was a report from a multi-year Ford Foundation research project on the disparate system of bi-racial education in the South. Advance copies of the report were given to members of the Supreme Court. Chief Justice Earl Warren later told Ashmore that the report was used as a source when the Court members were drafting the implementation decree for the Brown II decision in 1955.” [from the Encyclopedia of Arkansas entry by Nathania Sawyer]

Ashmore worked for the Arkansas Gazette from 1947 until 1959, when he moved to Santa Barbara, CA to work for Hutchins’ Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions (the link is to a weak Wikipedia entry). At the Center, Ashmore’s relationship to Hutchins was cemented. Hutchins helped direct aspects of the Ford Foundation in the early 1950s, so they likely met through the Foundation’s activities. In 1969, Ashmore would become the director of Hutchins’ Center after a thorough reorganization, and remained on board there until 1974. Ashmore died in 1998 in Santa Barbara.

I guess by writing this I’m exorcising at least one ‘dissertation demon.’ These are the scholarly spirits that become attached to your soul when, in writing, you’re forced to skim many books of importance, neglecting an author’s hard work and research. I always felt bad that I didn’t devote more thought to Ashmore. I have many of these immaterial lodestones attached to my scholarly soul, but with this entry I can move on to exorcising another. – TL

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