The 2008 AltWeekly Award winner for Feature talks about her work.
Donna Ladd returned to her native Mississippi in 2001, 18 years after she left. Along the way, she worked, studied and taught in Washington, D.C., New York City and Colorado Springs, Colo., where she also helped launch the city’s first alt-weekly. After returning to Jackson, Miss., Ladd helped start her second alt-weekly, Jackson Free Press, which quickly became known for its investigations of racial issues and its dogged coverage of the city’s mayor.
Ladd earned two AltWeekly Awards this year, one for Feature Story and the other for contributions to JFP‘s Public Service efforts. Ladd reported the story of the Seale family, which has long ties to the Ku Klux Klan, but has tried to ameliorate its past by donating the local Klan headquarters to a black preacher, who turned it into a Missionary Baptist church. These benefactors are related to James Ford Seale — one of two men responsible for un-prosecuted Klan murders in the 1960s — who only faced justice after the JFP revealed, in a series of sprawling investigations in 2005, that he was still alive, although state and national media had reported that he was dead.
Where did you find your idea for your feature?
Well, all of these stories [the JFP‘s series of stories about the Seale and Briggs families and the murders of Henry Dee and Charles Moore] are very intertwined. When I did that first story about the original trip to the area with Thomas Moore [the brother of Charles Moore], he had given me copies of FBI files that had a Klan witness talking about what happened to Dee and Moore in 1964.
The murder of Dee and Moore was very investigated in the ’60s, but people hadn’t really cared because the victims were black. I then got a phone call from John Briggs [the son of a black minister in Roxie, Miss., whom the Klan had targeted.] I decided I wanted to do a feature story about his father. I kept going down and talking to Briggs about his father over the course of the year. Finally, I interviewed Doris Norman, this delightful woman, who talked about how Reverend Briggs empowered her to apply for a job in a church back in the ’60s. She then told me that the church used to be the Klan headquarters, and that the Seale family had given the old Klan headquarters to the community to be a church, and that led me to the feature. She also told me that James Ford Seale’s white cousin was a pastor in that black church.
It was this long chain of stuff; I just had to keep following one dot to another.
Your investigations have touched on some potentially raw issues. How have your readers responded to them?
Our pieces didn’t ruffle that many feathers — I think it’s how I write about it. I’m not like a reporter who isn’t interested in our race history at all, who just comes down looking for a Klansman. Those superficial stories can make all Mississippians look like racists, or they make it look like no one is responsible. So we end up with people whose feathers are ruffled because it’s just bad media coverage of the issue. But increasingly, people want us to re-examine our past. People here really want to come together. People were ready. They said, “OK, we’re just sick of this.”
How did your childhood in Mississippi affect you?
I was three when the Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner murders happened; I was 14 when I found out about them. That conspiracy of silence is what has inspired me to go into journalism. I must add that it was living outside of Mississippi that sent me home — being at the Columbia J-school, which was not a very diverse program, and the level of superiority many displayed toward my home state, and level of denial about racism all over the country helped me realize that the stories I needed to tell the most were from my home state.
Why and how did you decide to pursue this specific story?
In June 2005, the state prosecuted the “Mississippi Burning” case — Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner — from 1964. We had not reinvestigated that case, though we were part of the climate that helped bring that prosecution back into the public eye. The media was already looking for closure, they already wanted to wrap it up in a little box as the “last” prosecution of a civil-rights cold case, but I wanted to find a different way to approach the story. So we decided to look at a less well-known cold case — a cold case on the guys who were thrown in the Mississippi River in 1964, a case with only black victims.
How do you connect with your sources?
I find the best way is to just have absolute interest in what they’re saying. So, I become this open vessel, in which I want to bring everything I can about them. I have no judgment when I’m sitting in front of someone. I am a sponge.
Read the story that garnered Ladd a first-place finish in Feature (circulation under 55,000):
“We Are Family”
Part of the 2008 “How I Got That Story” series, in which Academy for Alternative Journalism fellows reveal the processes of the writers and editors who won first-place AltWeekly Awards. These interviews also appear in Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2008.