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WNEW's Gene Klavan (left) and Dee Finch.
Ira Harkey had a degree in journalism, some experience as a reporter and a powerful social conscience when he bought the Pascagoula Chronicle in 1949. Harkey, the son of a wealthy New Orleans businessman and a graduate of Tulane University, had worked as a reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune after being discharged from the Navy at the end of World War Two, and gladly seized the opportunity to publish a newspaper of his own in the small Mississippi Gulf Coast town not far from the Florida border.

Harkey immediately began making changes in the Chronicle. First to go was the newspaper’s practice of referring to only whites as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” and blacks simply by name; Harkey dropped the titles for all. He also did away with what was then common practice in Southern newspapers of describing all non-whites mentioned in articles as “colored”; Harkey omitted all references to race except where it was material to the story. These and other subtle but revolutionary (for the Deep South) changes inflamed many in the local community. Harkey took over editorial writing for the Chronicle in 1951, and the newspaper began to earn a statewide reputation as Jackson County’s lone voice for civil rights and against Mississippi’s long-standing Jim Crow laws. In 1954 after the Supreme Court ruling on school integration, a cross, attributed to the Ku Klux Klan, was burned in front of Harkey’s home.

Ira Harkey, publisher and editor of the Pascagoula Chronicle.
In 1962, Harkey incurred the wrath of many in Pascagoula with his editorials calling for the peaceful admittance of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi. That December Harkey published a series of articles titled "The Oxford Disaster... Price of Defiance" by Pascagoula lawyer and state legislator Karl Wiesenburg which argued that the state’s ardent segregationist governor Ross Barnett had no legal basis for his actions in opposition to the integration of “Ole Miss”. Once again a cross was burned at Harkey’s home, bullets were fired into the Chronicle’s front door, and a shotgun blast took out Harkey’s office window.

Local racists, who had bused to the University of Mississippi to protest and prevent integration, formed an organization, the Jackson County Citizens Emergency Unit, and called for a boycott of the Chronicle and the advertisers that supported it. Harkey got threatening phone calls telling him, "We need about 200 killings starting with Kennedy and working down to you." Even those advertisers who had no beef with Harkey feared the consequences of continuing to buy space in the Chronicle. With no advertising revenue and shrinking circulation, Harkey’s newspaper was on the brink of financial ruin.

The story of the embattled Pascagoula Chronicle made the news reports on January 23, 1963, wedged between the rock and roll hits and commercials on New York’s radio station WNEW, where it caught the attention of disk jockey Dee Finch.

Following the 7:45 a.m. newscast, Finch, the straight-man partner of comedian Gene Klavan in WNEW’s morning team of Klavan and Finch, took a moment from the duo’s irreverent “Anything Goes” music and sketch comedy program to speak his mind. Calling attention to Harkey’s courageous stand for social justice, Finch told his audience that he was going to buy a subscription to the Chronicle and invited listeners to do the same.

Despite the early hour, the switchboard at WNEW began to light up. By the end of Klavan and Finch’s morning shift, some 500 listeners had called to say that they, too, were going to subscribe to the Pascagoula Chronicle. WNEW’s popular midday DJ William B. Williams repeated Finch’s appeal and another 250 calls were received. By the end of the day more than 1,000 WNEW listeners had called the station pledging to subscribe to the small-town newspaper some 1,250 away.

Among those who heard Finch’s appeal was Stark Hubbard, president of International Fiberglass Corporation, who decided to use the $180 a day the company normally spent on advertising in the New York Times, then on strike, to advertise in the Chronicle. Other New York area businesses followed suit, and several New York ad agencies announced plans to encourage their clients to buy ad space in Harkey’s newspaper.

Within days, hundreds of new subscriptions and thousands of dollars in advertising purchases from New York poured into the Chronicle’s offices. Even in those pre-internet, pre-viral days, the story of the courageous little newspaper and the big city radio station with a social conscience was picked up and circulated around the country… and beyond. In a February 6, 1963, letter to WNEW, Harkey wrote of having heard from students, religious workers, writers and others from as far away as Ireland and Wales who claimed to have heard his story broadcast on WNEW. “[Receiving] much adulation that embarrasses me and I cannot read many of them at a sitting,” wrote Harkey. “Have been so snowed that I am unable to write my daily column for editorial page. ... Please pardon me for having thought a few weeks ago that radio was a languishing field. Wow!”

The resulting publicity won back most of Harkey’s local advertisers and subscribers and earned him new ones. The Chronicle had been pulled back from the brink of forced extinction. On May 6, 1963, Harkey and his newspaper made headlines again when he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. The Jackson County Citizens Emergency Unit – now under investigation from the FBI as a result of the attention afforded the Chronicle - crumbled and fell apart.

Stress and continuing death threats against him and his family, though, had taken its toll on Harkey. He sold the Chronicle in July 1963 and moved to Reno, Nevada. In 1965 he accepted a post as professor of journalism at Ohio State University. He later taught at the University of Alaska and Columbia University before retiring to a cattle ranch in Texas. Ira Harkey died at age 88 in 2006.

Dee Finch retired from WNEW and radio in 1968 due to a heart ailment. In 1983 Finch was found dead in his car, having suffered a fatal heart attack after attending his mother’s funeral in Binghamton, New York; he was 65 years old. Although the obituaries that ran in the New York newspapers remembered fondly Finch’s years of entertaining New York radio listeners on WNEW, not one recalled how, 20 years earlier, Finch had taken time out from drawing laughs and spinning the hits to speak up for justice and the righteous cause of a small, out-of-town newspaper and a courageous editor under siege.

Originally posted to Richard Riis on Tue Jan 15, 2013 at 05:25 AM PST.

Also republished by History for Kossacks.

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