Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
Communication and Information
Dwight L. Teeter
Ed Caudill, Paul Ashdown, Suzanne Kurth
In 1949, The Oak Ridger became the first successful independent newspaper to serve residents of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, previously called the “Secret City” because of its participation in the World War II Manhattan Project. Alfred and Julia Hill founded the newspaper, and Richard Smyser was the founding managing editor. The Hills were fully aware of the reciprocal relationship between financial statements and editorial content. The paper had to create ties with local businesses and readers for it to survive.
The paper paid special attention to the Civil Rights Movement. Oak Ridge was a unique southern city, and Oak Ridge schools were the first in Tennessee to willingly desegregate. As journalists take an objective approach to covering the news, the paper took a middle ground approach to civil rights. Letters to the editor indicated that not all residents were prepared for immediate and total desegregation in Oak Ridge. The Oak Ridger attempted to negotiate for peaceful change without upsetting those who had been raised with the southern tradition of segregation. By taking this moderate approach, the newspaper was able to develop a working relationship with both segregationists and integrationists. The newspaper published advertisements and statements from both sides in its coverage of desegregation.
The Oak Ridger’s coverage of 20 local and national civil rights events occurring between 1949 and 1969 was analyzed in this study. Among the vents selected were the Brown v. Board of Education decision that made school segregation illegal, demonstrations at Oak Ridge establishments that refused to serve all races, and the integration crisis at neighboring Clinton High School. In total, 424 issues of The Oak Ridger were examined, producing 135 news articles, 35 editorials and 48 letters to the editor.
Smyser said he favored desegregation in school and other public places, but was not supportive of demonstrations. He preferred nonviolent negotiations between the two sides rather than the sit-ins that could become volatile. It was important to keep residents from developing harsh feelings toward each other. The more difficult it would have been to bring social change, the longer its negative effects would have been felt. This was seen in Clinton where two years after the turbulent desegregation of its high school, a dynamite blast destroyed the school.
The desegregation of Oak Ridge schools was relatively tranquil. The newspaper covered news of the event, and wrote positively of it in a January 1955 editorial, saying integration was “a necessary and desirable move forward toward making democracy strong.” When violence erupted in Clinton and Little Rock, the paper took an editorial stand against the segregationists’ violence. One editorial expressed the guilt and worry felt by residents. About the black students targeted by the violence, it asked, “How can we rest when they shudder?”
Years after the Civil Rights Movement, Smyser said it was Oak Ridge residents that made the paper “so good on black issues.” Because there were “enlightened” groups actively seeking change, the paper often wrote about the issue. The influence of the federal government and its insistence on integration helped the newspaper be “more liberal, more courageous.”
Drews, Amy Rebecca, "The Pursuit of Community Journalism in a Segregated Tennessee Town, 1949-1969: Richard Smyser and The Alfred Hill Family. " PhD diss., University of Tennessee, 2007.