September 25, 2011
The news came in an email from the Society of Professional Journalists, a 103-year-old organization dedicated to programs that perpetuate a free press. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, the organization is known to newspaper professionals as SPJ.
“It gives me great pleasure to inform you that the Board of Directors of the Society of Professional Journalists has selected Grover Cleveland Hall (Sr.) to become a Fellow of the Society,” the email said. “Fellow of the Society is the highest honor SPJ bestows upon a journalist for extraordinary contribution to the profession.”
This week I will travel to the annual SPJ convention in New Orleans to accept this great honor for Hall, who was editor of the Montgomery Advertiser when he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928. Hall was an outspoken challenger of the Ku Klux Klan and, like SPJ, a champion of a free press. His series of editorials in the Advertiser exposed the Klan for racist crimes.
Here is an example of one of Hall’s editorials, which showed that he became particularly angered when he learned of an assault on a young farm wife in Florence: “So long as masked men may go into an Alabama home, drag a woman from her bed, and flog her until their lust for cruelty is satisfied, so long will Alabama harbor anarchy and barbarism.”
A 2004 Montgomery Advertiser article about Hall said the editor accused Gov. Bibb Graves, legislators, the law and other newspapers of failing to stand up for justice, and he sought to make the issue crystal clear for Advertiser readers.
“There are not but two classes of people in Alabama — those who condone flogging by masked cowards, and those who condemn such outrages,” Hall wrote.
According to the SPJ release about the Fellow of the Society award, which is being given to three individuals, “Hall became so widely known and liked that when his cat Clarabelle died, The Associated Press ran a national obituary.” Clarabelle, it seems, lived in the editor’s office and, according to many of Hall’s writings, she advised the editor on matters of great importance.
A Dec. 16, 1940, Time magazine article said this about Hall:
“Another editor once called Grover Hall ‘a fat radical advised by a cat named Clarabelle.’ Famous through the South was Clarabelle, Grover’s office cat. When she died last fall, Associated Press put her obit on the wire. For the Advertiser Editor Hall wrote an editorial a column and a half long. Said he: ‘At this moment of sadness the Advertiser beseeches its friends and the followers of Clarabelle NOT to give this office another cat! The Advertiser is fed up on cats and does not wish to be bothered with another.'”
Hall’s crusading was documented in the Advertiser’s own book, “Central Alabama Memories: Commemorating the 175th Anniversary of the Montgomery Advertiser.” On page 61, Hall was remembered “for his editorials opposing the Ku Klux Klan and its ‘gangism, floggings and racial and religious intolerance.’ Despite threats against him and the newspaper, he continued to challenge Alabamians to oppose the Klan.”
In recent years, Hall’s cousin, Lee Frazer, seems to be the keeper of family memories as they relate to Hall. As a cousin of the Halls, Frazer was a little girl when Hall died in the 1940s. According to a story in the Advertiser in 2004, “Frazer keeps the scrapbook handed down to her from his son, Grover Hall Jr., who also was an Advertiser editor and is deceased.”
I spoke briefly with Frazer a few weeks ago when we got word of the SPJ award, just to let her know that her cousin was still remembered as one of the great newspaper editors, and that his professional peers will be holding his journalism up as some of the best ever in the history of our free American press.
“He wrote what he felt — and it didn’t bother him who liked what he wrote or not,” Frazer said in the 2004 article. “He was his own man.”
When he died Jan. 9, 1941, Hall’s passing was even briefly noted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Former journalist and author Wayne Greenhaw cited Hall as one among Montgomery’s “cream of the crop” in Greenhaw’s book, “Montgomery: The River City.”
“Each morning, the well-dressed editor with carefully clipped mustache, reddish hair, rosebud in his lapel, and a cane with an onyx handle in his hand, strode down Lawrence Street from his home on Wilson Street, about five blocks away, and entered the Advertiser offices at the corner of Lawrence and Dexter Avenue,” Greenhaw wrote.
Grover Cleveland Hall Sr., it seems, was not just a treasure of this newspaper but he was a treasure to journalism and Montgomery. That’s why, in accepting the award this week I will use a video produced by our newsroom staff with voices from this community to describe the significance of Hall’s contributions.