By Gregory Crofton
I interviewed a reporter named Bill Minor in 1999 as part of earning my master’s degree in journalism from the University of Mississippi. Minor suffered a stroke and had been slowed down, but he still made time for me to visit his home and let me listen to what it was like to be a reporter in the South during the Civil Rights Era.
Unbelievably Minor is still going strong in 2016.
For years he reported for the New Orleans The Times-Picayune in Jackson, Miss., covering the state and often tipping off or writing important national stories for The New York Times and Newsweek. Today, at 92, he still writes an occasional column for the largest circulation newspaper in the state, The Clarion-Ledger. He’s cranked out important, trustworthy stories for almost 70 years.
Fortunately there’s a new documentary about Mr. Minor’s work, EYES ON MISSISSIPPI. Earlier this week it was screened by director Ellen Ann Fentress at Seigenthaler First Amendment Center in Nashville. It is packed with invaluable historic civil rights black-and-white film footage, some of which has never been seen, or at least not since it was broadcast on TV in Mississippi in the 60s. Minor’s reporting was key in breaking these stories of protest, violence and murder.
Fentress worked with Minor at The Capitol Reporter, a newspaper Minor owned and ran out of Jackson. Her film is called EYES ON MISSISSIPPI because that’s the name Minor once used for his column. “This is just a story that I so believe needs to be captured,” said Fentress, taking questions after the screening.
Fentress said “needs” because she’s working to raise $15,000 to pay broadcast rights fees required to air it on PBS in Mississippi. The documentary threads together historic footage from 17 archives around the country. Fentress also plans to make a second film about Minor’s work that picks up after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
She’s already worked on the project for five years, three of which were spent interviewing Minor every Tuesday afternoon. She managed to record 40 hours of footage with him. “There is amazing material for a whole ‘nother documentary,” Fentress said.
EYES ON MISSISSIPPI has already cost $40,000 to produce. Much of money came from his long-time readers who gave donations ranging from $20 to $5,000.
What this documentary delivers is at times shocking. The 1951 electrocution of Willie McGee, a black man accused of rape in Laurel, Miss., took place inside the courtroom where he was convicted. Photographs captured the terror of the man as he sat without a blindfold awaiting death.
Some of the first civil rights protest sit-ins took place in libraries in Jackson. Police officers glowered at African-American students as they sat and tried to study in a “whites only” area before being sent out of the building.
In 1962 Minor was front and center in covering Gov. Ross Barnett and the riot at the University of Mississippi, provoked by the registering of its first black student, James Meredith. And Minor played a hidden but fascinating role in the 1967 conviction of seven men on charges related to the murder of three civil rights workers — Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney — who had been helping register voters in Neshoba County Mississippi.
Through his work Minor became a friend of Medgar Evers, the African-American activist who worked in Jackson and was assassinated in the driveway of his own home by a shot from a rifle. He died later at the hospital, which at first refused to admit him because of his race. His last words: “Turn me loose. Set me free.” The director said the high point of her work on the film was being able to know and visit with Evers’ widow, Myrlie, and her daughter.
Check for upcoming screenings of the film at its Facebook page. Tax-deductible donations can be made to the Eyes on Mississippi Fund, according to Fentress, either online to cfgj.org or by mail to the Community Foundation of Greater Jackson, 525 East Capitol Street, Jackson MS 39201.