An Island of Blue
Asheville, North Carolina As An Early
Progressive Bastion in Jim Crow’s
Richard Curley
Today, Asheville, North Carolina enjoys a reputation as one of the most progressive
cities in the United States. In fact, Asheville has such a progressive reputation that it is referred
to by many as the “San Francisco of the South.” This progressive attitude is not a recent
development for Asheville. In fact, it can be seen reflected in the coverage of one of the seminal
tragedies of the civil rights movement, the Birmingham church bombing of 1963, in Asheville’s
local paper, The Asheville Citizen. This coverage more closely resembled the desired response, of
civil rights organizers, of the national press than the response of a local paper in Jim Crow’s
Following the unsuccessful civil rights campaign in Albany, Georgia from 1961 to 1962,
the organizers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference came to the realization that a
change in strategy was needed. During and prior to the Albany campaign, the SCLC had
followed a strategy of persuasion. Their goal had been to try and persuade their opponents that
segregation was wrong and needed to be changed. This strategy garnered little press coverage
and even fewer results, particularly in Albany, where the local leadership ensured that there was
little to no violence against demonstrators.1
What the SCLC realized was that the best way to garner attention from the national press
and support from the federal government was to be on the receiving end of unprovoked violence.
Albany had demonstrated that no violence equaled no national attention and no national attention
equaled no concessions. National attention was needed in order to persuade those who were
either undecided or ambivalent to the evils of segregation and thus bring greater pressure against
the system of segregation. The SCLC needed to show the maliciousness and senselessness of
Fleming Cynthia Griggs, In the Shadow of Selma (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2004), pg. 150
segregationist violence. Moreover, they needed this violence to speak to the more progressive
elements in society to achieve the goal of ending segregation.2 Segregation could not end without
ceasing to be seen as a regional issue, it must be seen, for what it really was, a national issue.
Without extensive and sympathetic national press coverage this would not be possible.
The SCLC chose to participate in the Birmingham campaign, specifically, for its history
of violent opposition to the civil rights movement. Birmingham represented the worst face of
southern racism and its violent opposition to change. Martin Luther King, Jr. even stated that “if
we can crack Birmingham, I’m convinced we can crack the south.”3The SCLC’s campaign in
Birmingham would lead to both one of the movement’s greatest triumphs and greatest tragedies.
By the end of the campaign the movement would achieve the transformation of segregation into
a national issue and the passage of both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act
of 1965.
The Birmingham civil rights campaign was marked by significant levels of violence
throughout. Eugene “Bull” Connor, Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety, lived up to
his reputation, and unleashed a wave of violence upon peaceful demonstrators. These actions
created a large amount of media coverage both nationally and internationally. Connor’s use of
dogs on the demonstrators provided front page photos for numerous papers around the world.
The actions of Connor and the rest of Birmingham’s leadership would indeed garner the
necessary national sympathy and federal attention to force concessions.4 However, the action that
Garrow, David J., Protest at Selma: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (New Haven, Conn.:
Yale University Press, 1978), pg.2
Fleming, pg.150
would outrage the national conscience, to a degree never before witnessed, and enough to
demand federal action would actual take place as the result of these concessions.5
The event that so stirred the national conscience and cost four little girls their lives
happened early Sunday morning on September 15, 1963. On that day in September, at 10:22am
the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed, resulting in numerous injuries and
the deaths of four young girls. This bombing shattered the false sense of relief felt by many in
Birmingham, following the first, relatively peaceful, week of school integration in the city. The
bombing also touched off violence throughout the city that left two more black youths dead and
many more citizens, black and white, injured. It gave the national media a seminal event with
which to show the hideous and horrifying nature of segregationist violence, which in turn created
the necessary political pressure to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 6
The national media quickly condemned the bombing and placed the blame squarely on
the forces of segregation. One article blamed it on the “long-steeping racism of Birmingham’s
whole seamy past” and the climate created by George Wallace through his defiance of the law
and courts.7Moreover, the response to the ensuing violence was criticized, particularly the fact
that only black crowds were dispersed, while whites were allowed to freely congregate.8One
article in Newsweek, published shortly after the bombing, noted that Saturday was day that
everyone had anticipated violence. It also offered a telling quote about how the supporters of
segregation were perceived outside the south. Saturday was “a dangerous day when rednecks
Mendelsohn Jack, The Martyrs: Sixteen Who Gave Their Lives For Racial Justice (New York: Harper & Row,
Publishers, 1966),pg.103
Ibid, pg.103
Carson, Clayborne, et al., Reporting Civil Rights Part 2: American Journalism 1963-1973 (New York: The Library of
America, 2003), pg.28-29
Ibid, pg.29
with nothing much to do would tank up in jook joints.”9This quote, without saying it directly,
clearly places the blame for the fear and violence on the segregationists and places them outside
the norm of society.
The Asheville Citizen, unlike many southern newspapers, coverage was very much in
line with the national coverage. The paper ran many headlines and front-page articles concerning
the bombing and its aftermath, directly from the AP, without change or editorial comment, with
one notable exception. They also printed a number of editorials and letters to the editor
concerning the events that were critical of the actions of the white supremacists and leadership in
Alabama. It is true that not all the letters to the editor were critical of the segregationists and
elements of paternalism appear in some editorials. However, when taken as a whole the coverage
of the paper shows little of the regressive nature of the Jim Crow south it and its city were a part
Ironically on the day of the bombing, The Asheville Citizen, ran a reprint of an AP article
that spoke of the lack of violence during the previous week. “Despite the frightening violence
which preceded the breakdown of racial barriers in Birmingham and which authorities grimly
expected to continue, there have been no bombings, no gunfire, no angry mobs roaming the
streets since Negro students went to class at once white schools.”10Moreover, it noted that school
attendance at these newly desegregated schools was 85% of normal and that the students were
well behaved, with things only getting rough when parents became involved. Finally, and
perhaps most telling, the article used the term race-baiting, to describe the activities of the
Thomas, Rex. “Many Alabama Students Go Along With Integration.” Asheville: Greeneville-News Piedmont
Company, 09/15/63. WCU Collection.
National States Rights Party11. Given the negative connotations of such a term as race-baiting,
the fact this term was not edited out of the AP article by the paper can be seen as evidence of
progressive leanings.
Also that day there appeared an editorial in The Asheville Citizen that was, for a southern
paper, surprising critical of the Alabama Governor, George Wallace. This editorial accused
Wallace of using state troops to usurp local authority, when he tried to deny the first AfricanAmerican students access to their new schools. Wallace’s actions had violated his own pledges
to fight to enforce, not only the State’s rights, but the rights of the local communities and the
individual citizens of Alabama. An argument very similar to those made by many in western
North Carolina against the Confederacy and Governor Vance, during the civil war. Moreover, it
labeled Wallace as a coward only concerned with the bolstering of his own, self-made, image.
Wallace’s only accomplishment was to create a harmful view of Alabama and flee from a
confrontation with President Kennedy.12
The day after the Birmingham bombing, The Asheville Citizen headline for the day read
“Four Negro Children Die in Birmingham Bombing” under the caption “MORE UNREST
FORESEEN.” 13This headline was accompanied by a photo of some of the bomb damage to the
surrounding neighborhood. Moreover, the front page contained the headlines accompanying
article and another article. The second article was entitled, “Lesson Title Quite Ironic: Studies
Twisted Into Terror, Death” a reference to the Sunday school lesson the girls had heard that
Thomas, Rex. “Many Alabama Students Go Along With Integration.” Asheville: Greeneville-News Piedmont
Company, 09/15/63. WCU Collection.
The Asheville Citizen, “Wallace Stages an Inglorious Retreat.” Asheville: Greeneville-News Piedmont Company,
09/15/63. WCU Collection.
The Asheville Citizen, “Four Negro Children Die in Birmingham Bombing.” Asheville: Greeneville-News Piedmont
Company, 09/16/63. WCU Collection.
morning, The Love that forgives. A passage from this article states, “Who knows on what part
the four Negro children were reading when their bodies were hit by flying glass and mortar?
Maybe they had reached the end of the lesson, with a passage from Matthew: “But I say unto
you, love your enemies.”14A rather poignant way to emphasize the innocence of the victims, and
to point out the malice of the perpetrators.
The headline article from September 16th continues on page two of the paper and it
contains an interesting change to the headline of the article. The column of the continued article
has a new headline. Whereas on the front page it contains the phrase, “Four Negro Children” on
the continuation, this is changed to simply “4 Children Die In Church Blast.”15 This may seem a
slight change, but in reality, it conveys a sense of shared humanity, and that it is superfluous to
delineate race when it comes to the death of a child.
On September 17th, the paper’s headline, once again, was about the bombing in
Birmingham. This headline read “Negro Leaders Call For Federal Troops” with an
accompanying article from the AP and a photo of an integrated group of school children
returning to school.16 There was also a second front page articles concerning a planned march on
Montgomery to protest the bombing. This article was also an AP reprint, but as with previous AP
reprints, it was not edited by the paper and contained a couple of quotes critical of Governor
Wallace and the federal government. “If the Federal Government had done its job Gov. Wallace
Purk, Jim. “Lesson Title Quite Ironic.” Asheville: Greeneville-News Piedmont Company, 09/16/63. WCU Collection.
The Asheville Citizen, “Four Negro Children Die in Birmingham Bombing.” Asheville: Greeneville-News Piedmont
Company, 09/16/63. WCU Collection.
The Asheville Citizen, “Negro Leaders Call For Federal Troops.” Asheville: Greeneville-News Piedmont Company,
09/17/63. WCU Collection.
would be in jail right now” and If the government had done its job…the 16th Street Baptist
Church would not be a bombed Church.”17
Both front page articles from September 17th contain quotes or information
critical of the white leadership at the federal, state, and local levels. However, this did not stop
The Asheville Citizen running the articles as is, or from running a headline drawing attention to
those articles. The paper chose not to shy away from articles critical of the violence, its
perpetrators, or the response to it. This gives the impression that there was not a fear of a
significant backlash from their readership or that its circulation would be hurt by its coverage.
Throughout the rest of the week after the bombing the paper would continue to run
reprints of AP articles concerning the bombing and its aftermath. Although several of these
would be on the front page, there would be no more headlines. This does not mean that the paper
ignored the situation or that it was backing off its coverage. In fact, it was during this time that
they published the one and only editor’s note to an article on the bombing. The editor’s note was
for an article by Jules Loh, entitled “What’s in Store for Birmingham, A City That Spawn’s
Disorder? The note reads, “Racial violence in Alabama reached a sickening peak Sunday when
four children were killed by a bomb. What is the deep-seated situation in a city which seems to
spawn disorder? Here is a penetrating look at what has passed and a glimpse of what may be in
store for Birmingham.”18
The Asheville Citizen, “March On Capitol Planned At Rally In Birmingham.” Asheville: Greeneville-News Piedmont
Company, 09/17/63. WCU Collection.
The Asheville Citizen, “Editor’s Note.” Asheville: Greeneville-News Piedmont Company, 09/22/63. WCU
The article for which the Editor’s Note was written is one that is highly critical, not only
the perpetrators of the violence, but of Birmingham’s white residents and white establishment.
While the article places blame for some of the issues facing Birmingham on forces outside the
control of the average white resident, it does not exonerate them. Saying of Birmingham’s whites
residents after the bombing, “it is certainly true today that while the Negro’s search in this city is
upward, the white man’s is inward.”19It would be hard to imagine that an editor for a newspaper
in Alabama or Mississippi, would have been willing to draw attention to such an article.
Particular, one that so clearly points out that the need for soul searching, fell not on the
opponents of segregation and segregationist violence, but on its perpetrators.
On its editorial pages during the first week of the bombing, The Asheville Citizen, had
only two editorials. One of these was a national columnist, William S. White, and though critical
of Alabama, offers more of a glimpse into “Old South” paternalism, with an interesting twist.
The other editorial was from the paper’s editorial staff. This editorial exhibited none of the
qualities of “Old South” paternalism and does not shy away from affixing blame for the tragedy.
On September 17th, the paper published its editorial, “Hate Exacts A Price in Troubled
Alabama,” addressing the tragedy in Birmingham and pulls no punches in affixing blame. First
and foremost, the editorial acknowledges the human toll of the tragedy and its aftermath, with
four killed and 23 injured in the bombing and two more killed and scores more injured in the
aftermath. Secondly, it does not blame the Civil Rights protesters, it blames political
demagogues, the White Citizens Councils, police authorities, and others in official positions. In
Loh, Jules. “What’s In Store For Birmingham, A City That Spawns Disorder.” Asheville: Greeneville-News
Piedmont Company, 09/22/63. WCU Collection.
fact, it calls Governor Wallace “the most assiduous tiller”20 of the seeds of racial hatred.
Moreover, it also blames Alabama’s newspapers for assuming Governor Wallace’s stand on
segregation and stoking racial hatred. Finally, it laments the silence of the responsible leadership
of the state and hopes the tragedy spurs Alabama’s moderates and business leaders to take an
active role in restoring reason.
“Hate Exacts A Price In Troubled Alabama” pulled no punches in its critique of the
situation in Alabama and the causes of the Birmingham bombing. Furthermore, it does not fall
into the time tested tactic of blaming the victim, which was the case in many areas in the south.
In fact, it acknowledges the innocence of the bombing victims. Moreover, it directly names and
holds responsible, Governor Wallace and the White Citizens Councils, a man and a group rarely,
if ever, vilified within Jim Crow’s south.
In contrast to the editorial staff’s editorial, William S. White’s editorial, published on
September 20th, and entitled “Alabama Hurts South’s Cause,” shows little progressive qualities.
As its title suggests, Mr. White, is not an avid opponent of segregation. In fact, Mr. White sees
the ending of segregation on private property as a matter of choice and that it is the South’s duty
and cause to resist the more extremist aspects of the civil rights agenda. It is his feeling that
ground should only be given gradually in the name of ordered freedom. In other words, we see a
repeat of the “too far, too fast” argument of paternalism. By resorting to violence, the people of
Alabama have brought emotion into the issue and only gave power to the extremist in the civil
rights movement. However, there is one point that Mr. White makes that differs from “Old
The Asheville Citizen, “Hate Exacts A Price In Troubled Alabama.” Asheville: Greeneville-News Piedmont
Company, 09/17/63. WCU Collection.
South” paternalism, he acknowledges that voting is a right and that steps should be taken to
“vindicate actual negro rights.”21
This editorial, even with its acknowledgment that African-Americans have certain, if not
the same as whites, rights differs starkly from the editorial from the staff of The Asheville
Citizen. Unlike The Asheville Citizen’s editorial, Mr. White fails to truly acknowledge the horror
of the bombing and does not mention its human cost. Rather, than lamenting the death of six
innocent people and the injuries to numerous others, it laments the injury to a cause marked by
hatred and violence. In essence, Mr. White is trying to remind the forces of white supremacy to
remember Albany, Georgia and forget about Birmingham. When comparing Mr. White’s
editorial, with the editorial of The Asheville Citizen, the progressive nature of Asheville and its
paper becomes much more evident.
Along with its articles and editorial, The Asheville Citizen’s and Asheville’s progressive
nature can be seen in its letters to the editor. Although in the week after the bombing there were
only two letters that were published, these letters offer a glimpse into Asheville’s character of the
time. Moreover, the papers printing of the letters, both of which were of a progressive bent, were
not accompanied by the editorial and public vitriol that accompanied such letters elsewhere.
The first letter to the editor was published on September 18th, and was written by Edwin
Michael Hoffman. Mr. Hoffman’s letter was written as a refutation of speech by Alabama’s
Governor Wallace after the bombing. In his speech Mr. Wallace compared the events of
Birmingham to past events in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In his letter, Mr. Hoffman refutes
Governor Wallace’s speech point by point throughout his letter and points the blame back at
White, William S. “Alabama Hurts South’s Cause.” Asheville: Greeneville-News Piedmont Company, 09/16/63.
WCU Collection.
Birmingham’s segregationists for the violence. Mr. Hoffman closed his letter by stating that
“Philadelphia’s crimes” cannot be used to exculpate any Birmingham violence” and compares
the efforts in Birmingham and the attacks on them to the attacks on St. Paul and the early
The second letter to the editor was published on September 20th, and was submitted by
Allen Dillon. This letter was short and dealt with the need for better cooperation between the
north and south. It points out that both regions have their problems and included in those is race
relations. The letter states that the only way for these problems to be overcome is for the both
sides to forget the Civil War and live together as Americans. Although it seems a fairly
innocuous letter, the fact acknowledges the need to forget the differences between regions is
important. It again shows a progressive leaning not often found in the South of the 1960’s or
These letters to the editor were published without comment from the editorial staff.
Moreover, they were not answered with the violent and hateful reaction that similar letters
received elsewhere. One case in particular that stands out is the response to a letter sent to and
published by The Birmingham News, shortly after the bombing. In this letter, a female resident of
Birmingham questioned the Christian faith of segregationists and the bombers of the Church. In
response to this, the paper, printed, not only her name, but her address. The author of the letter
Hoffman, Edwin W. “Philadelphia Riot Unlike Birmingham.” Asheville: Greeneville-News Piedmont Company,
09/16/63. WCU Collection.
was then subjected to numerous threats of violence in the paper and over the phone and her home
was repeatedly vandalized.23A reaction that did not happen in Asheville.
It should be said that during the week after the Birmingham bombing, that The Asheville
Citizen did not only publish articles concerning the civil rights efforts in Alabama. The paper
also published numerous articles about efforts in North Carolina. Much as with the Birmingham
bombing, many of these were reprints of AP articles, but a few were by local writing staff. That
being said they showed the same willingness to publish facts without interpretation or
condemnation. This can be seen as yet more evidence of the paper’s and its reader’s progressive
Of course, we cannot take the absence of printed vitriol or items critical to the civil rights
movement, to deny the existence or support for segregation and white supremacy. The fact
remains that, contrary to perceptions, there is no, nor has there been, a homogenous community
opinion on this, or any other national issue. However, what we can say is that the reaction to the
Birmingham campaign, bombing, and its coverage in The Asheville Citizen, was of a decidedly
different character than past events, in which race played a prominent part. Absent were articles
praising the defenders of white supremacy and cartoons lampooning African-Americans. No
articles or editorials lamenting the growing political power of African-Americans and warning
whites of their own impending subjugation appeared. This absence, along with the actual
coverage of events, can be seen as demonstrable evidence of progress, particularly since the days
of Reconstruction and Fusion politics.
Mendelsohn, pg.100
In the terms of modern political discussion, Asheville and other parts of Western North
Carolina can be seen as an island of blue in the sea of red that marks the South. The coverage of
The Asheville Citizen and both the response and lack of response from their readership to the
Birmingham Bombing in 1963, shows that this was much the same case then. When reading the
articles, editorials, and letters, terms and opinions appear that today may not seem appropriate or
denote a progressive world view. However, they must be considered in the context and the time
they were written in. By the standards of 1963, Asheville and its hometown newspaper
demonstrated a world view that was indeed progressive and set them apart as an island of blue in
a sea of red.