KERRY HUBARTT: A little News-Sentinel history, as it pertains to MLK Day

Kerry Hubartt

The recognition of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday Monday gives the nation pause to acknowledge his work in fighting for civil rights. A Fort Wayne man deserves recognition, too, for his crusade against racism here in the early 20th century — the first editor of The News-Sentinel.

An article by Peggy Seigel of Fort Wayne, who now lives in Santa Fe, N.M., appeared in the Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 113, No. 4, December 2017, and serves to tell an important story about a journalist who laid the groundwork for The News-Sentinel’s strong conservative editorial position against corruption, bigotry and racism.

The article, “A Fearless Editor in a Changing World–Fort Wayne’s Jesse Greene,” is prefaced by an abstract that aptly summarizes the impact of the man who first came to Fort Wayne as a newspaper editor in 1903:

“During the first three decades of the 20th century, Fort Wayne newspaper editor Jesse Greene used his bully pulpit to attack vice and bigotry in his city. Greene became particularly well-known for exposing the deeply entrenched racism of the Ku Klux Klan after they moved into Fort Wayne in 1921. For two years (until Greene’s death in 1923), his newspaper, the Fort Wayne News and Sentinel, condemned the ‘intolerance, prejudice and hatred’ of the organization that Greene considered a ‘menace to Americanism.’ As an important voice of the Progressive Era in the Midwest, Greene shaped public opinion across northeast Indiana and throughout the state. Greene’s life and work remind contemporary readers of the indispensable role of a free press.”

Born in Indianapolis and a graduate of Wabash College, Greene eventually got his start in the newspaper business at the Crawfordsville Journal in 1891. In 1901 he became editor of the Terre Haute Tribune then moved to Fort Wayne as editor of the Fort Wayne News in 1903 and later became editor of the News and Sentinel following a merger with the Fort Wayne Sentinel 15 years later.

Seigel writes that while 13 local African Americans were organizing the first Fort Wayne chapter of the NAACP in May 1918, “the Ku Klux Klan was also rising throughout the country, finding particular strength in Indiana.” Greene and The News and Sentinel launched a two-year assault on the group in 1921, “assuring Klan organizers that Fort Wayne would not tolerate their ‘dangerous’ and ‘barbaric’ Invisible Order.” Seigel writes that “the record of Greene’s fight to shape public opinion suggests a deeply rooted conviction against racism.”

That fall the News and Sentinel was the only Indiana newspaper and one of 18 leading papers nationally to publish a 21-day series of full-page articles written by the New York World exposing the corruption of the Klan.

“Greene’s editorials relentlessly condemned the Klan’s bigotry,” Seigel writes. He denounced the Klan as “the most un-American, vicious and impossible organization that ever insulted the nation.”

Klan organizers recruited extensively in Fort Wayne in the summer of 1922, Seigel writes. She quotes historian Leonard J. Moore, who pointed out that every week between July 1922 and July 1923, “an average of more than 2,000 Indiana men joined the Klan” and by the end of the year the group boasted 118,000 members in the state. That number eventually grew to 250,000. But, according to the Indiana State Library, by the end of the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan was “crippled and discredited” as its numbers dwindled to about 4,000.

Greene’s death in 1923 of liver disease came at the height of the Klan’s rise to power in Indiana. But his campaign against their hatred and discrimination forged a legacy through The News-Sentinel that added a strong voice to the groundwork of civil rights in this nation.

Kerry Hubartt is the former editor of The News-Sentinel.