The Mighty Pen

On May 9, 1962, sophomore Jim Dinsmore penned a column, “Cluttered Heart Cries for Expression on Issues,” in The Auburn Plainsman. The column wandered over a variety of topics. One paragraph would ignite a firestorm.

That was it. A single paragraph on integration that turned out to be accurate in its forecast.

But meetings and statements and letters later, Dinsmore would step aside from the newspaper staff for a year. He would be disqualified from running for editor, probably because of that column. And The Plainsman would be suspended from summer publication for the only time in its history, perhaps because of that column.

When the article came out, the AP quoted President Ralph Draughon as saying Dinsmore “has no limits on extremism. He doesn’t represent the thinking of the institution.” Dean of Students James Foy described Dinsmore as “highly intellectual, and highly confused.”

The Publications Board (predecessor to today’s Board of Student Communications), met on Friday, May 17, to discuss how to respond to the column. The chair, Foy, was also concerned with the sentence that followed the integration paragraph: “On the state of Alabama: At the present time it can only be characterized as a haven of general ignorance, prejudice, and narrowmindedness.”

Paired with the fear-inducing mention of integration, it had the Publications Board running scared — of the Board of Trustees, and even the Alabama Legislature.

Professor Paul Burnett, who taught journalism classes within the English Department, “reminded the Board that the Trustees considered last spring the discontinuance of the newspaper” (after a pro-integration column by editor Jim Bullington), according to meeting minutes.

Burnett was afraid that the Trustees would suspend Plainsman publication for the next academic year if the Board did not take action.

He was not overstating the hazard. The year before, after Bullington’s pro-integration column, the board had stipulated that before any article “having a bearing on the good name of Auburn University” was published, the editor would advise Dean Foy.

Draughon took the board’s action to mean that Foy could direct The Plainsman editor not to run such an article, and the editor would have to comply. In other words, the board and Draughon said Foy was empowered to censor The Plainsman.

Draughon told Foy to inform Bullington that if he failed to follow this directive, he would be removed from office as editor. (Bullington never submitted an article to Foy for review and would step down as editor shortly before the end of spring quarter 1962 and before the board could remove him.)

In addition, Draughon warned, “If further instances should occur, The Plainsman would have to be discontinued,” Foy wrote to Bullington in a letter that is included in the archives with the Publications Board minutes. So Burnett’s fears were strongly founded.

(In the letter Foy, trying to begin with a conciliatory tone, informed Bullington that his ODK shield signifying his membership in the honorary would be arriving soon. Then he dropped the presidential beatdown.)

The Board voted to reprimand Dinsmore for writing the article and Bullington for allowing its publication. They did not suspend Dinsmore from the newspaper staff, however, because they didn’t have to.

During the debate, incoming Plainsman editor Charles McCay “stated that he hoped he would not have to bring this up, but first of all Jim Dinsmore and he thought that it would be to the best interest of everyone concerned if he would not write for The Plainsman next year,” the minutes noted.

So The Plainsman editor half-suspended Dinsmore, and Dinsmore half-suspended himself. But in fact he did not write for The Plainsman that next academic year.

At its meeting the week before, the day the Dinsmore article came out, the Publications Board had noted that no qualified editor candidates had stepped forward to edit the summer edition. Two candidates had applied, but the board considered them unqualified, whether by lack of experience or lack of coursework.

So the board voted not to publish The Plainsman for summer quarter 1962. No provision was made to wait and seek a more qualified candidate.

Did the Dinsmore column firestorm cause the Board to seek a cooling down, Plainsman-free summer quarter, with the candidate situation providing a convenient excuse? The minutes don’t say; still, this is the only time that happened. The Plainsman has produced a smaller issue, in print or later online, every summer since.

This drama had its epilogue in spring quarter 1963. Dinsmore tried to run for editor, but his application was disqualified because it had arrived a day late.

In a letter to the editor that ran in the March 27, 1963 edition (whether by Foy’s permission or not is uncertain), Dinsmore explained that he had spent spring break at home for minor surgery. His mother had mailed the application before the deadline, but it had arrived after.

Dinsmore acknowledged his procrastination in the letter (an eternal theme with college students). But he noted that late applications had been accepted in the past and he argued that he had “submitted” the application before the deadline, as stated in Publications Board policies.

His mistake, of course, was giving the Publications Board a quick and easy excuse to reject his application without having to address the column of the year before.

Dinsmore would go on to make one more statement about integration. At the beginning of winter quarter 1964, the day Harold Franklin was allowed to register, students were warned to leave him alone as he walked from his dorm room to the library.

But two members of The Auburn Plainsman staff approached him as he left the library and welcomed him to Auburn. They were detained and questioned by police and released. One was Bobby Boettcher, yet another pro-integration columnist.

The other was Jim Dinsmore.


Remembering Paul Davis


To learn that Paul Davis had passed away certainly caused sadness to many who love journalism and appreciate its rich history in Alabama.  Those of us who knew him were bummed too.

The basics: Paul died Monday after a brief illness. He had been in declining health for some time.  The sad news of Monday brings to an end a newspaper career that will not be replicated – not because of the changing nature of the industry, but because Paul represented a generation of journalists whose fire and advocacy seems a lost flame today.

There are those who knew Paul better than me, and the Alabama Press Association’s obituary has great detail on his career.  But I will do my best to remember the man as I knew him.  Maybe others can fill in the blanks in the comments section.  Here is what I admire most about Paul:

1. At the age of 25, he was there when Gov. Wallace stood in the door of Foster Auditorium, refusing to allow African-American students to enroll at the University of Alabama.  When Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach arrived with the Alabama National Guard, he met privately with Wallace.  Only one journalist would be allowed to report on the meeting, and Paul’s name was drawn.  He even came away with a photo of him with Katzenbach and Wallace.  Not surprisingly, I could not find the photo on the Internet.  (Getting it scanned is definitely on my to-do list.)  But I use him as an example to my students of someone who was not intimidated by the weight of a historic moment.

2. Paul’s crusade in the late 1960s uncovering mistreatment of mentally handicapped kids and mentally ill adults at state hospitals represents the best of journalism – advocating for those unable to speak for themselves.  His work in the Tuscaloosa News was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and though his work was not selected, the rewards of having federal courts intervene on behalf of the patients was far greater.  Eventually, he would be appointed to the state Department of Mental Health Board of Directors.

3. I met Paul in 1977.  He had purchased the Auburn Bulletin from the Neil Davis family, and the Bulletin had been awarded the printing contact for The Auburn Plainsman.  We certainly made life miserable for Paul’s production crew, which included his son Allen, who is now an executive with Media General.  Well, maybe our damage was limited to Wednesday nights. The old print shop is now Bloodhound’s.  I visited the building for the first time in 2003, when it was the Auburn Ale House.  Heavy deja vu walking up and down those stairs.  Thank goodness the ink smell was gone.

4. From then on, these past nine years, Paul enjoyed his “lion in winter” phase.  He continued to publish the Tuskegee News.  After Tallassee News Publisher Jack Venable passed away, his family accepted Paul’s bid to purchase the newspaper, wishing it to be sold to someone who believed in community journalism.  His columns continued, and while his conclusions might have irked many, his reporting was spot-on.

And the honors rolled in.  The Lifetime Achievement Award from the Alabama Press Association.  The first community journalism award from the Auburn University Journalism Advisory Council.  The Memorial Service Award from Auburn’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors.  And others.

Appropriately, Paul was a frequent visitor to our Friday morning breakfast group. It had started as a book discussion group by Neil Davis at The Grille.  Before I started attending, apparently a roof tile fell on Paul one morning, sparking conspiracy theories. As his health began to fail, his visits became less frequent, but he was always on our minds, and in our prayers when word came that he was not doing well.

A few weeks ago, I was at Golden Corral with a friend.  Paul and his wife, Gayle, were there with one of his sons, and he insisted that we join them.  He seemed tired – the edge of his wit did not have me backpedaling, as it usually did – but he was enjoying the meal.  I did not know it would be the last time I would interact with Paul.  Now, I feel blessed that it was granted me.

I’m glad to be a faculty member of the journalism program at Auburn.  Maybe we have the next Paul Davis among our current or future students, or maybe even among our alumni.  But for now, I’m grateful for the work and the example of the original.