Periodically, NextTribe will present profiles of midlife women who have risen from daunting childhoods or difficult pasts to accomplish much and make a difference.
Donna Ladd, 57, is one of the most significant editors of a regional newspaper in America. Her Jackson Free Press has won numerous awards, helped widely reveal the racist education of political candidates (including one who just won election), and helped defeat the onerously sexist Personhood amendment, in addition to being a voice for progressive politics and the complex task of reckoning in a state, Mississippi, that has long been thought of as the most racist in the country.
And she got to where she is the true way—and the hard way.
Donna grew up in Neshoba County, dirt-poor. Her father was an alcoholic with mental illness and depression and didn’t get past third grade. Her mother, Katie Mae, had no education at all; Donna would read to her. “We moved from rental house to rental house and didn’t have indoor plumbing until I was in first grade,” Donna recalls. Donna’s mother picked cotton to make ends meet, and, as a baby and toddler, Donna partook of “poor woman’s day care”—she was plopped in the cotton sack strapped to her mother’s back, right there on top of the cotton bag.
Donna’s childhood world included wall-to-wall racism. “Kids called chocolate candy ‘n***er’s toes,'” Donna once told me, when we first got to know each other some years ago. “Grownups would say, ‘They want our kids to go to school with those monkeys!’ You couldn’t get away from those messages!” Even as a child, Donna hated those horrible ideas.
When she was seven and saw a movie about a lynching on TV, “a black man hanging from a tree while his house burned,” she says, “I just fell apart, I couldn’t stop crying! I said, ‘Momma! Did they do that because he was colored?!’” Her mother just held her and said, “Oh, Donna Kay, your heart’s too big for your body.” Little did Donna know that, five years earlier, on a hot June night when she was two, a group of men from her town had shot—execution-style—three Civil Rights workers for helping black people vote, and those killers had gotten away with it. There were murmurs that “something” had happened, but the white adults in Donna’s town kept that “something” held in—a dark secret. The victims were Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, both white and Northern, and James Chaney, a black Mississippian. It was those heinous murders, which made headlines in northern papers, that led to the Voting Rights Act.
Discovering what the ‘nice’ men in her town had done made Donna run in disgust from Mississippi.
Because her home life was so chaotic, Donna had memories of adults who seemed to be protectors and helpers: supposed good guys. They included Sheriff Lawrence Rainey and his deputy, Cecil Price, and Billy Wayne Posey, an outgoing man who worked at the local gas station and gave little Donna M&M’s whenever she rode with her daddy to get gas. Only when she was 14—and, as she puts it, “precocious, skinny as a French green bean and with a mouth filled with bad country grammar”—did she dare to forage in the library and find out, with her heart in her throat, that these “nice” men and three others she knew, had been the killers of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. None of the six were prosecuted by the local courts—until, many decades later, one of them was tried and convicted of manslaughter just before he died as an elderly man.
Discovering what the “nice” men in her town had done made Donna run in disgust from Mississippi. After full-scholarship college, she got her masters at age 40 from the Columbia University School of Journalism, writing her thesis on the Chaney-Schwerner-Goodman murders. She was happy in New York. Then, in 2001, she had an epiphany: When Mississippi voters voted two to one to keep the Confederate symbol on the state flag, “I realized that if everyone who disagreed with the state left it, nothing would change. I had to come home.”
The Call to Come Home Again
Initially on a shoestring, and now with a local advertising base, she and her partner, Todd Stauffer, launched the now-thriving Jackson Free Press—named in honor of a venerable paper that Civil Right martyr Medgar Evers had founded—starting an honest and progressive, but empathic, conversation toward changing Mississippi.
Staffed and read by blacks and whites who longed for that change, the paper has affected policy: importantly exposing the “segregation academies” that go by the nice name of “private schools” and through which rich white kids used to be taught white racial superiority and “the fallacy that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery.” The paper has reported on these schools for 16 years, and their latest article on the subject went viral. It ran last November, when Cindy Hyde-Smith, who talked about a “public hanging” was running for U. S. Senate against Mike Espy, who is black and is the former Secretary of Agriculture. Hyde-Smith won by a comfortable margin—but that doesn’t mean that Donna’s fight is over. It just means there’s more to do.
I realized that if everyone who disagreed with the state left it, nothing would change.
Being a daughter of white racist Neshoba County has helped Donna explain the complexities of Mississippi to outsiders. “America needs to understand that the whole country”—white power structures everywhere, including in the North—“played a role in segregation for economic reasons. The state has never been this hateful single island disconnected from the rest of the country. People have to support the good things going on here, not just wave Mississippi away.” She conducted a rural “listening tour” of white Southerners who are in favor of the flag, and her reporting in the resulting story was nuanced, as perhaps only someone of her background could make it. She didn’t rail against “ignorant rednecks” but opened a humane conversation that touched on how wealthy interests—including in the North—manipulated poor whites into believing that the Confederate flag was a symbol of desperate pride against poverty.
Donna has seen—and she and her reporters have helped to make—progress. When she formed the Jackson Free Press, “you couldn’t find one public person who would speak out in favor of abortion rights; they were afraid to. The Nation magazine tried to find someone and ended up, in 2001, with … me.”
But, in 2011, the Personhood amendment came up for a vote, staunchly supported by the governor. If passed into law, the amendment would have made fertilized eggs the full equivalent of human beings and forbidden abortion even to save the life of the mother. Donna approached the issue beyond the pro- and anti-abortion binary. “I hired an evangelical reporter who was anti-abortion to report on Personhood,” and even that reporter said the law went too far by including the provision outlawing in vitro fertilization, which members of the “pro-life” wanted to hold on to. More important, “we gave voice to the ‘grass roots mamas‘—realistic women, black and white—who knew the bill was punitive to poor women “and who fought across political lines to defeat it.” Personhood was voted down in Mississippi (but it just became law in the neighboring state of Alabama). That was a victory.
She has written for years that whites in Mississippi have to admit to and rectify the racism inculcated into them.
Donna has a national presence—she tweets widely about a wide range of issues, most recently angry that Megyn Kelly was paid her full $69 million to leave NBC over what were perceived as racist remarks after she replaced talented and popular black star reporter Tamron Hall.
She has written for years that whites in Mississippi have to admit to and rectify the racism inculcated into them—no one is going to do it for them. And she has gratifyingly reported when many have done so. Her paper helped open a very cold case against a racist murderer and helped get him prosecuted. Now the granddaughter of the black minister whose journal helped prosecute that case—a young woman hip-hop artist Genesis Be—has created a thriving and growing movement to take the Confederate symbol off the flag.
Donna has for years has been harassed on blogs, on social media, by email, and sometimes in public for the positions she takes on race and politics. One attorney even lunged at her in a bar one night because she did not endorse his choice for mayor. “It’s the ‘well-heeled,’ educated people who harass me,” she says, laughing, “I get along fine with rednecks. Cause I am a redneck.”
A Unique Perspective
Growing up with uneducated poor parents in the heart of racist Mississippi—amid “friendly” men who got away with murdering three Civil Rights workers—gave Donna a perspective few others have. She had to carefully separate the ideas she grew up with from the people, some of whom would have loved to think differently if that was ever a possibility. People like her mother.
It was ‘forbidden’ for her to believe in racial equality, but I know she believed it.
In 1966, two years after the still-unprosecuted Schwerner-Chaney-Goodman murders, Katie Mae Ladd was with Donna, then four, at the very place that a local protest march led by Martin Luther King Jr. was starting. Donna—her mother recalled—was stunned at the violence visited on King by whites, but her mother took her there precisely to witness that racism. “She wanted me to lead us both to some new place. It was `forbidden’ for her to believe in racial equality, but I know she believed it.”
Donna started Jackson Free Press for people like her mother—and for young people, many the sons and daughters of the white elite, who wanted to know the past about their state so they could change it. It wasn’t—and isn’t—too late, for her state or, for that matter, her mother, Katie Mae Ladd—whom Donna considers the most compassionate woman she’s ever met and who, by the way, taught herself to read … at the tender age of 63. Now that’s a triumph in itself, equal to any other.
Sheila Weller is the author of seven books (three of them New York Times Bestsellers), the best of which is Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon—and the Journey of a Generation, which Billboard magazine recently named #19 of the best music books of all time. She has been writer of major features for Vanity Fair, a recent longtime senior contributing editor at Glamour, a has written for the New York Times Opinion, Styles and Book Review and for just about every women’s magazine in existence. She has won 10 major magazine awards.