Media’s Jim Crow coverage of Black men cost lives — today they have a responsibility to right those wrongs

OPINION: It’s useful to look back at “the bad old days” to remind us how racism can lead not just to discrimination, but to the taking of innocent Black lives.

(Photo: Adobe Stock)

The torture and murder of 17-year-old Henry Smith in 1893 in Paris, Texas is one of the murders recounted in chilling detail in the new report. The Black youth was accused of the rape and murder of a White girl but was never charged with the crime. Nevertheless, Smith was burned to death in front of a crowd about 10,000 people after being tortured by a mob. 

A new report spotlights the history of media racism that has portrayed Black men as dangerous rapists, robbers and killers who are guilty until proven innocent. The short report tells horrific stories of Black people who were never convicted of any crime but were murdered by White vigilantes in decades past.

Sadly, the assumption by far too many Whites that Black people are up to no good and pose a danger is still with us today. Witness the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd in 2020. Fortunately, in those cases the killers were convicted, but only because the murders were captured on video. Many other Black people have been murdered by racist killers — some of whom were police officers — but without video evidence the guilty have gone free.

Eric Terrell, vice president of the National Action Network, holds a banner with photos of William Roddie Bryan, Travis McMichael, Greg McMichal and former Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson outside the Glynn County Courthouse as the jury deliberates in the trial of the killers of Ahmaud Arbery on November 24, 2021 in Brunswick, Georgia. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

The focus of the short new report is the flagrantly racist news coverage by The Associated Press from many years ago. The headline sums it up: “AP spread racist Jim Crow-era coverage to a national audience.”

The AP provides news stories to newspapers, broadcasters and websites around the world. Fortunately, the news service founded in 1846 has dramatically improved its coverage of the Black community in recent decades. But it’s useful to look back at “the bad old days” to remind us how racism can lead not just to discrimination, but to the taking of innocent Black lives.

The new report on the AP was produced by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism and Capital News Service at the University of Maryland in collaboration with six other universities (five of them Historically Black Colleges and Universities). 

At the time, The Associated Press called Smith a murderer and rapist and reported on how trains brought thousands to watch him be killed, labeling his murder “the unparalleled punishment of the fiend for his unparalleled crime.” 

Smith’s murder was treated like an entertainment event. The AP story on his lynching began: “Henry Smith, the negro ravisher of four-year-old Myrtle Vance has expiated in part his awful crime by death at the stake.” 

Mob watches lynching of Henry Smith
Mob watches lynching of Henry Smith, a Black boy accused in the rape and murder of White 4-year-old girl named Little Myrtle Vance in 1893. (Photo: Photo by J.L. Mertins, Paris, Texas, Feb. 1st 1893/Library of Congress)

The university report quotes the current AP Vice President and Editor at Large for Standards John Daniszewski as saying that “the AP reported on lynching and other forms of racial violence over many years, sometimes in disturbing detail with flaws and omissions. These shortcoming clearly reflected the attitudes and prejudices of the era in which these reports were written but that is no excuse and we regret them.” Indeed.

But while media coverage and the treatment of Black Americans has improved over the past 70 years, any fair observer would have to acknowledge that still more improvement is needed. This is particularly true among right-wing news organizations and Republican politicians now hyperventilating about critical race theory (CRT) by spreading lies about this academic concept sometimes studied in colleges and law schools.

CRT simply looks at the role that race and racism have played in American society and in our laws throughout our nation’s history. It isn’t even taught in elementary and secondary schools. 

CRT is not designed to make White young people hate themselves or hate America. It is not designed to make Black young people hate Whites or our country. It is simply designed to give an accurate picture of America’s past to help us better understand the present and build a better future. 

The Placentia Yorba Linda School Board discusses a proposed resolution to ban teaching critical race theory in schools. (Photo: Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The best way to stamp our racism is to hold a mirror up to it and see it clearly in all its ugliness, look at the role it has played in America since the first enslaved Africans were brought here in chains in 1619, and figure out how “we shall overcome,” as the famed civil rights anthem so beautifully states.

Germany gives us an example of how to look at the horrors of the past. The nation doesn’t try to hide the Holocaust that murdered 6 million Jews, or Nazi Germany’s slaughter of millions of other innocents in World War II. It requires that young people learn about this sad chapter of their country’s past so history doesn’t repeat itself.

No news organization, institution or individual can travel back in time to right the wrongs of the past. But The Associated Press and some other news organizations have acknowledged their errors of earlier days and are working to present a far more accurate picture of Black Americans today. It’s long overdue.

Donna Brazile Headshot

Donna Brazile is an ABC News Contributor, veteran political strategist, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, and the King Endowed Chair in Public Policy at Howard University. She previously served as interim Chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and of the DNC’s Voting Rights Institute. She managed the Gore campaign in 2000 and has lectured at more than 225 colleges and universities on race, diversity, women, leadership and restoring civility in politics. Brazile is the author of several books, including the New York Times’ bestseller “Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House.” @DonnaBrazile

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