Bill Minor documentary shown at MSU

Contact: Zack Plair

Ellen Ann Fentress, producer, director and co-writer for the documentary “Bill Minor: Eyes on Mississippi,” attended a public showing of the film Tuesday [Oct. 27] in the John Grisham Room at Mitchell Memorial Library. The documentary follows the early career of Mississippi journalist Bill Minor, specifically focusing on his coverage of civil rights issues. (Photo Randall McMillen)

STARKVILLE, Miss.—Mississippi served as a prime battleground for many of the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and ’60s now etched firmly into the national history. Renowned journalist Bill Minor wrote that history as it happened, and a new documentary aims to tell his story.

At 93, Minor still is a working journalist whose syndicated columns on politics appear in many Mississippi newspapers. Illness kept him from attending a public screening Tuesday [Oct. 27] of “Bill Minor: Eyes on Mississippi” in the John Grisham Room of Mitchell Memorial Library at Mississippi State University. Yet, those on-hand to watch the film still heard much of Minor’s story in his own words.

The hour-long documentary tracks Minor’s career from his arrival in Jackson as a New Orleans Times Picayune bureau reporter in 1947 through the late ’60s when the Civil Rights Movement started gaining a firm foothold in the state. It addresses his coverage of the Willie McGhee conviction and execution in Laurel in 1951, the integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962, Medger Evers and the Jackson Movement, and the murders of three civil rights activists in Neshoba County in 1964.

“This is history that needs to be captured,” said Ellen Ann Fentress, the film’s producer, director and cowriter. “It’s an important story for Mississippi to know, and it’s about a Mississippi hero.”

Fentress, along with film editor and co-writer Lida Gibson, spent five years producing the documentary. Their efforts were supported by the Mississippi Humanities Council, Community Foundation of Greater Jackson and several private donors.

Along with Minor, the film features interviews with former Justice Department attorney John Doar; New York Times civil rights journalist Claude Sitton; Myrlie Evers, widow of slain civil rights leader Medger Evers; Jackson physician Robert Smith; former Gov. William Winter; New Orleans Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss; and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Hank Klibanoff. Also featured are photographs and video news footage from 15 U.S. archives.

A native of Hammond, Louisiana, Minor is portrayed as one of the few Mississippi journalists of his day who attempted to give a fair voice to African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement. While working as a Times-Picayune correspondent, Minor often submitted stories to national publications, such as the New York Times and Newsweek, most of which were published without his byline.

When the Louisiana daily closed its Mississippi bureau in 1976, Minor purchased an existing weekly newspaper, The Capitol Reporter, and continued his investigative reporting career.

Stories Minor covered as a crusading editor sometimes cost him advertising dollars and brought threats to his personal safety. After a six-year run, the paper’s unprofitability forced him to cease publication.

Fentress, a Greenwood native who landed her first job out of college with Minor at The Capitol Reporter, said she spent every Tuesday afternoon for almost three years at Minor’s home collecting footage for the documentary. Between his and other interviews, she said she compiled more than 40 hours of footage that she hopes to use in future Minor documentary projects.

Mitchell Memorial Library also is home to Minor’s journalism collection, which includes 28 boxes of papers and artifacts from his career.

“Having his collection here, it means so much to be able to bring this full-circle by hosting a showing of the documentary,” said Stephen Cunetto, MSU Libraries systems administrator.

MSU is Mississippi’s leading university, available online at www.msstate.edu.