Whose facts matter?

A Cautionary Tale

Part One: Ray Stannard Baker's race reporting

Decatur, Street, Atlanta Georgia, September 22, 1906. A Saturday afternoon.
In the bars, drunken white men seethed over headlines claiming black men were assaulting white women.
Newspaper publisher Hoke Smith stoked racial anger to boost his run for governor.
That anger spilled into the streets, setting off a pogrom that lasted three days. Dozens of black Atlantans were killed and injured.

The riots drew muckraking journalist Ray Stannard Baker to Atlanta. From 1907-8, Baker reported on racial issues in magazine articles that became a book, "Following the Color Line"

I have looked at the Negro as a plain human being.

Ray Stannard Baker
Baker's race reporting is useful for journalism historians as example of "objective" reporting at the time.

At 36, Baker had gained a reputation for exposing thorny social problems, much like Upton Sinclair, Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens. The editors of Booker T. Washington's papers described him as "one of the few reform-minded whites of his day to take a sustained interest in the issue of racial discrimination."

Social reformer Mary White Ovington introduced Baker to Atlanta University's W.E.B. DuBois.

[Ray's] a young person whose mother didn't know he was out.

Racial attacks on rising black communities had been happening across the country, such as in Wilmington, NC in 1898.
DuBois had hoped that empirical sociology would correct racial ignorance.By 1906, he'd concluded that wasn't enough.
We seldom study the condition of the Negro honestly..
Biographer David L. Lewis says as Baker consulted DuBois during his reporting, “[Du Bois] practiced consummate diplomacy....”
DuBois gave Baker books to read, suggested people to interview and offered feedback on his drafts.
The resulting work received wide praise. One sociologist called it, "the best account of race relations in the South during the period..."

Baker's reporting featured images and comments from some of Atlanta's leading black citizens, such as Rev. H.H. Proctor.

We can help.

How shall we protect our lives?

He noted the interracial Atlanta Civic League as a hopeful effort to improve race relations.

Du Bois was generally positive about Baker's reporting, but he did voice some concerns.
[Y]ou exaggerate the influence of crime upon the race problem.

Indeed, Baker wrote of the Negro "criminal type:" "The 'worthless Negro...causes most of the trouble in the South...giving a bad name to the entire Megro race."

In a memo, Du Bois took issue with Baker's repeated claim that white people were leaving the south for fear of black crime.“The reason for the white people leaving the Black Belt are social and economic and not criminal...There is less crime in the Black Belt than there is anywhere in the South. Less than there is in the white belt, less than there is in the cities. This can be proven by statistics....”

In a May 10,1907 letter, Baker responded.

“[I]t was my observation that in the South, talking with a great number of white people... that fear of Negro crime really is a very potent influence down there, especially among the women.”

In a May 20 letter on another article draft, Du Bois urged Baker to emphasize black voting rights: "It's the center of the problem. I know you came South thinking otherwise, but, believe me, without the defense of the ballot freedom, economic or spiritual, is impossible for Negroes."

Baker's response? "I am especially pleased to know you liked my last two articles..."

In his article, Baker argued,"[T]he vast majority of Negroes (and many foreigners and “poor whites”) are still densely ignorant, and[ have little or no appreciation of the duties of citizenship. It seems right that they should be required to wait before being allowed to vote until they are prepared."(p.303)

Baker reported seeing black children as young as six being criminalized. He saw black men being sentenced more harshly for minor offenses such as drunkenness. (p.47-8) He documented the struggle to fund and staff decent schools for black children. He acknowledged racial violence against law-abiding black citizens. He reported details of lynchings.

Scholar activists such as DuBois saw these conditions as evidence of a need for fundamental reforms: civil rights, suffrage, and equal access to education. For Stannard Baker, though, it's a challenge to benevolent whites and Negroes of good character to uplift the benighted black masses. He also waxes sentimental about former slaveowners::

"GENERALLY speaking, the sharpest race prejudice in the South is exhibited by the poorer class of white people, whether farmers, artisans, or unskilled workers, who come into active competition with the Negroes, or from politicians who are seeking the votes of this class of people...."
page 87
"The good landlord, generally speaking... is the old slave-owner or his descendant, who not only feels the ancient responsibility of slavery times, but believes that the good treatment of tenants, as a policy, will produce better results than harshness and force."
p. 88
Baker echoes social scientists who felt, "deficiencies characteristic of the race made Negro problems quite different from other people's problems."(Mia Bay)
In 1909,Baker agreed to become a founding member of the NAACP, although he declined committee service later said he favored Booker T. Washington's approach to civil rights over agitation.
Later, he won the Pulitzer prize for his biography of Woodrow Wilson, a segregationist.

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