On the pages of Wesley Pruden's Washington Times, the South rises again

On June 14, Washington Times editor-in-chief Wesley Pruden penned a column denouncing the Senate's resolution formally apologizing for its past failures to pass a federal anti-lynching law during the height of Jim Crow-era violence. He focused his criticism on the resolution's authors, Sens. George Allen (R-VA) and Mary Landrieu (D-LA) (whom he referred to throughout his column as “Mzz Landrieu”), writing: “Mzz Landrieu and Mr. Allen put on a demonstration of manufactured remorse last night in the Senate to persuade their colleagues to apologize for having never enacted a federal anti-lynching law.”

Though Pruden is one of only a few nationally syndicated columnists to have explicitly condemned the Senate's resolution, the apology has inspired passionate criticism from across the ideological spectrum. For instance, in a June 28 Salon.com opinion piece, African-American author Debra J. Dickerson said of the apology: “It's too damn little, much too damn late.” Pruden was careful to note that he opposed the apology on the grounds that it was a politicized “morality play,” not a historical corrective to the legacy of racism in the South: “We have much to regret in our history, and slavery and the treatment of blacks is at the top of the list. But cheap apologies only dilute authentic shame and genuine remorse.” Pruden's argument then veered down a troubling route, using an archaic Confederate term -- “the War Between the States” -- to describe the Civil War.

The day after Pruden's column appeared, the Times published an editorial characterizing banking firm Wachovia Corp.'s apology for profiting from the slave trade as giving in to the “slavery-reparations movement,” which “sees gold in corporate boardrooms.” (Wachovia has offered no reparations to the descendants of slaves, but is consulting with civil rights groups on how to proceed.)

The reasons Pruden offered for attacking apologies for slavery and its legacy are vague and, at times, contradictory, so it may be impossible to conclusively determine his motives for such criticisms. Besides Pruden's strident tone toward the Senate and Wachovia, he has made numerous other sympathetic statements about the Confederacy and employs a neo-Confederate activist in the Times newsroom. As Pruden wrote in his June 14 column: “Only the Lord knows the depth of a man's sincerity in these matters, so we're left to measure as best we can.”

Pruden's father, Wesley Pruden Sr., was the chaplain to the Capital Citizens Council in Little Rock, Arkansas, a segregationist group that battled integration throughout the 1950s and 1960s. When President Dwight Eisenhower sent Army troops to protect nine black teenagers attempting to integrate Little Rock Central High School in 1957, Pruden Sr. reportedly told an assembled mob, “That's what we gotta fight, niggers, Communists and cops.” Pruden Sr.'s admonition was depicted on page 225 of historian Roy Reed's book, Faubus: The Life and Times of an American Prodigal (University of Arkansas Press, 1997), a biography of former Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus. According to Reed, Capital Citizens Council leader “Justice Jim” Johnson was the senior Pruden's ally in the struggle against the integration of Little Rock Central.

In 1995, the younger Pruden published two op-eds by Johnson in the Times, on June 23 and September 12. According to Salon, Johnson's June 23 op-ed was part of right-wing billionaire financier Richard Mellon Scaife's Arkansas Project, a $2.4 million scheme in which “sources” were paid to help produce anti-Clinton stories that later turned out to be false. Then-independent counsel Kenneth Starr relied in part on quotes from the June 23 op-ed, which baselessly accused U.S. District Judge Henry Woods of being a Clinton crony, to successfully argue for Woods's removal in March 1996 from a case involving then-Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, according to Salon.

Pruden is outspoken in his sympathy for neo-Confederate causes. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), in 1998 he made a speech to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, in which he declared, “Southerners ... hold loyalty to two countries in our hearts.” The second country is one “baptized 137 years ago on this very field in the blood of First Manassas, a country no longer at the mercy of the vicissitudes in the tangled affairs of men, a country that lives within us, a country that will endure for as long as men and women know love. ... God bless America, God bless the Confederate States of America, and God bless you all.”

Under Pruden, The Washington Times employs a neo-Confederate activist, Robert Stacy McCain, as its assistant national editor. McCain is a member of the neo-Confederate organization League of the South, which the SPLC called “rife with white supremacists and racist ideology.” The League's leader, J. Michael Hill, once declared: “The day of Southern guilt is over-THE SOUTH WAS RIGHT-and let us not forget that salient fact. NO APOLOGIES FOR SLAVERY should be made. In both the Old and New Testaments slavery is sanctioned and regulated according to God's word.” As the SPLC has noted, in 1998 McCain wrote a glowing obituary of former segregationist politician George Wallace for the Times in which he relied upon the insight of three* history professors, not disclosing that all of them belonged to the League of the South.

McCain has not been shy about his views on race. In one of many examples of McCain's postings on right-wing discussion websites that journalist Michaelangelo Signorile has documented, McCain wrote the following earlier this year on a website called Reclaiming the South:

[T]he media now force interracial images into the public mind and a number of perfectly rational people react to these images with an altogether natural revulsion. The white person who does not mind transacting business with a black bank clerk may yet be averse to accepting the clerk as his sister-in-law, and THIS IS NOT RACISM, no matter what Madison Avenue, Hollywood and Washington tell us.

Despite McCain's demonstrated sympathy for racist causes, he remains on Pruden's staff. But another member of the Times staff was demoted, and eventually “let go” after making racist remarks. In 1994, Pruden demoted then-Washington Times columnist Sam Francis to a part-time position for attacking the Southern Baptist Convention for “repenting” for its support of slavery. Francis was later “let go” by the Times after his remarks at an American Renaissance conference, in which he claimed that whites were more intelligent and less violent than blacks, were published in The Washington Post. The Post reported on October 19, 1995:

Francis was let go late last month after his views on racial differences were quoted by author Dinesh D'Souza in The Post's Outlook section. Francis had said at a conference that his fellow whites must “reassert our identity and our solidarity, and we must do so in explicitly racial terms through the articulation of a racial consciousness as whites. ... The civilization that we as whites created in Europe and America could not have developed apart from the genetic endowments of the creating people.”

Sources at the paper say Editor in Chief Wesley Pruden decided he did not want the Times associated with such views after looking into other Francis writings, in which he advocated the possible deportation of legal immigrants and forced birth control for welfare mothers.

“We mutually decided we had irreconcilable differences, and Sam resigned and we accepted his resignation,” Pruden said.

Still, upon Francis's death on February 15, the Times printed a laudatory obituary in which MSNBC analyst and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan called Francis “a fine writer and a brilliant scholar, who had the courage of his convictions.”

Pruden recently told C-SPAN that he plans to resign his editorship at the Times within a few years. His likely replacement, Times managing editor Fran Coombs, is an inspired choice. The Times has published some 35 articles by Coombs's wife, Marian Kester Coombs, two of which cited British National Party (BNP) official Nick Griffin as an expert on Muslim culture, as the SPLC has reported. Kester Coombs failed to note that the BNP is an ultra-right, whites-only organization. Kester Coombs has written articles (including a piece on “Making the Whole World England”) for The Occidental Quarterly, an anti-Semitic, white-nationalist journal that has defended the legitimacy of eugenics. She penned a May 2004 article for the anti-immigrant website VDARE.com in which she declared that Spanish, “like Ebonics, is a dialect of people who are not educated enough to master English, encouraged by a government not strong enough to demand that they do" (links in original article).

Kester Coombs also wrote the following in a March 2004 article on alleged homosexual influence on American society for the conservative journal Chronicles:

In my view, becoming homosexual is primarily a function of flawed embryogenesis: Stress on the mother interrupts the vital action of testosterone upon the male fetus, leaving his brain insufficiently male. This theory explains why there are so many fewer “gay” women than men, why so many lesbians are discretionary or situational (á la Anne Heche), and why the homosexual orientation (inversion) is so deeply, intractably rooted in a person's very being.

Responding to an SPLC query regarding Kester Coombs's work for overtly racist publications, Fran Coombs refused to discuss his wife's writings for The Occidental Quarterly, stating merely that he had “no relationship” with the journal. He also refused to answer questions about her work for the Times.

*Correction: The original version of this item incorrectly stated that Robert Stacy McCain's obituary of George Wallace quoted four history professors. In fact, the obituary quotes only three history professors. Media Matters for America regrets the error.