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Review from Linda C. Brinson

Greensboro News Record, June 8, 2014

When Ed Williams entered college at Ole Miss in 1960, the university, like nearly everything in the South, operated under a rigid system of racial segregation. When Williams was a sophomore in 1962, a riot sparked by the admission of James Meredith as the university’s first black student resulted in two deaths, and President Kennedy sent in U.S. Army troops.

Williams was inspired to start working for the student newspaper. He kept writing for nearly half a century.

In 2008, the year Williams retired, Barack Obama, a black man, was elected president of the United States with the help of voters in North Carolina, where Williams had spent 35 years of his newspaper career. Those two events bookend this look at the United States, the South and North Carolina through one thoughtful journalist’s eyes.

Williams came to The Charlotte Observer in 1973 as an editorial writer. Ten years later, he became editorial page editor. He observed and opined during interesting times in North Carolina and the rest of the South. He also worked for newspapers over a period that might be seen as their golden years, followed by the beginning of their decline.

Now, six years after his retirement, Williams presents readers with a collection of his writings, mostly from the Observer years, but also a few pieces from earlier days in Mississippi and a few written since 2008 for publications including the Observer and Creative Loafing, a free weekly paper in Charlotte.

The book offers what first were published as unsigned editorials and as signed columns, along with a few news stories from the Mississippi years.

Newspaper readers often express frustration at the unsigned editorials, those opinion pieces that usually run on the left side of the editorial page. Callers demand to know who wrote a particular piece, and many of them don’t accept the concept that the editorials are not signed because they are not the personal opinion of the writer, but rather the opinion of the newspaper as an institution in its community.

To those of us who have worked for newspaper editorial pages, the distinction is clear and important. Most editorial writers are not asked to write something with which they completely disagree, and most would not do so. But what an opinion writer will say in an editorial that represents the newspaper through its editorial board is often somewhat different from what that writer will say when writing a column that’s clearly personal opinion. And a writer will tackle some topics in signed columns that the newspaper would not address in editorials.

Williams had the good fortune to work under publishers who allowed him considerable freedom to formulate the editorial policy for the Observer. As he makes clear in this book, he was driven by an idealistic belief that newspaper editorial pages have an obligation to tell people the truth about what’s happening in their world, even if that truth is unpopular, unpleasant or widely ignored. Year in and year out, he tried to do that in an articulate, thoughtful and sometimes courageous way. Journalism students of today and tomorrow should study this book to see how good some newspapers were back in the days when most people in a community read them, and how good they can be.

Articles written for a daily newspaper are usually written in haste, on deadline and without the benefit of hindsight. Daily newspapers capture moments in time, and their opinion pages reflect understanding and insights that might change with later developments. Any day’s newspaper is not necessarily a reliable history. But take what’s in a good newspaper over months and years, and you get a good history not only of what was considered important but also of how understanding evolved. That’s one of the great values of this collection.

Most people probably will not sit down and read straight through this book. It is organized not chronologically but into sections with headings such as “The Newspaper Life,” “Presidential Matters,” “Rights — Race, Crime and Punishment, Gays, Guns,” “Religion” and “Sports.” Of particular interest is the section called “Senator No,” about Jesse Helms, the five-term U.S. senator who was never endorsed by the Observer.

A good index makes browsing for Williams’ take on specific events and issues easier.

“Liberating Dixie” is a book well worth reading for those who are interested in the recent history of North Carolina, the South and the United States — and for those who are interested in the history of American journalism.