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<br />Newspaper veteran maintains ‘first love’

  • Written by George E. Hardin
The year was 1953. ... And it was the year that I joined the Tri-State Defender at age 19, two years after the newspaper’s founding, as its first full-time staff photographer.
 George Hardin in 2011

 George Hardin in 1953

The year was 1953.

The NAACP Spingarn Medal was awarded to Paul Williams, the Los Angeles-born black architect – whose parents were from Memphis – who designed the original St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

It was the year when whites in Chicago began rioting after blacks moved into Trumbull Park, a public housing project. James Baldwin published “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”

And it was the year that I joined the Tri-State Defender at age 19, two years after the newspaper’s founding, as its first full-time staff photographer.

It was instructive and inspirational to work under the eminently qualified Lewis O. Swingler, the newspaper’s first editor. The newspaper’s officers were housed in the Randolph House, a rambling Victorian mansion at Beale and Lauderdale.

Born in Crittenden, Ark., Swingler earned a journalism degree at the University of Nebraska, where he helped organize the first Alpha Phi Alpha chapter in 1927. He became editor of the Memphis World in 1931, and he taught journalism at LeMoyne College. John H. Sengstacke, the Defender’s founding publisher, recruited Swingler as editor when he established the newspaper paper in 1951. L. Alex Wilson, a veteran newspaperman who had worked at the Chicago Defender, was Swingler’s assistant.

I had left Tennessee State University after my freshman year. (I would later reenroll.) Upon joining the staff I set up a darkroom with my own enlarger and other equipment, and used my own camera – one I still have and which works although I no longer use it.

Not having a car, I had to hitch a ride if a reporter was on the same assignment; if not, I took a city bus (weekly deadlines were not tight). Sometimes, though, especially at night, I was authorized to call a taxi and get a receipt in order to be reimbursed.

Earlier, as a member of the Manassas High School Newsette staff, I had become interested in the Defender since my history teacher, Addie D. Jones, was the newspaper’s first society editor, and often mentioned in class the work she did for her column.

The Defender from its beginning mounted an aggressive campaign for black rights and dignity, promoted education and exposed racism, injustice and police brutality.

I left the Defender after about a year to work in commercial photography but would return later, first as photographer and again, in 1978, as executive editor. My years with the Defender were among my most rewarding, not only for the feeling that I was helping promote justice, but also for the friendships with talented co-workers. Included were Moses J. Newson, Burleigh Hines, L. F. Palmer, McCann L. Reid, Charles Tisdale and Robert Sengstacke, all of whom went on to make history in their own way. Newson covered the Emmett Till trial for the Defender and later was one of the original Freedom Riders.

In 1959 Palmer, the newspaper’s editor, and I covered the violence surrounding the reopening of Little Rock Central High School. He and I and several other black journalists were shot at from a passing car while standing on the lawn at the home of L. C. and Daisy Bates, mentors of the Little Rock Nine. The bullets went astray into a nearby house.

Palmer and I also were in a group of black journalists that was chased from the steps of the Arkansas State Capitol by an angry mob when we tried to cover a segregationists’ rally. On the Little Rock assignment, Ernest C. Withers, a lifelong friend, took a photo of me being interviewed by a white Little Rock reporter, apparently because he had never seen a black photojournalist before.

In 1960 Palmer and I were assigned to take a one-week trip throughout the South to cover the sit-ins that were erupting for all the newspapers in the Defender chain, visiting Montgomery, Atlanta, Nashville, Richmond, Norfolk, Durham and Greensboro, where four North Carolina A&T College students initiated the sit-ins. Palmer interviewed and I photographed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders.

Throughout our trip we no trouble with police. However, a few days after we returned the first Memphis lunch counter sit-in took place at McLellan’s 5 & 10 Cents Store on Main Street and I was the first photographer on the scene. An odd thing happened: The police let the students go and took me to the station house. Their questions indicated they thought the Defender instigated the sit-in to get an exclusive story. (The students did not let the daily newspapers and broadcast media know about the sit-in because they didn’t believe their coverage would be fair.)

Subsequently, I was arrested twice, during sit-ins at the Cossitt Branch Library and the Walgreens at Main and Madison.

The expression “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” has been used in various contexts, but it was first applied to newspapers. In my view, that is a commendable goal for the noble profession of journalism, and especially an alternative newspaper.

During my career, I worked for a number of newspapers (as well as magazines), in Memphis and other cities, as a photographer, reporter and copy editor. But the Tri-State Defender was my first (newspaper) love at age 19, and it remains the same in the autumn of my years.

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