James Ormond Powell (1919–2010)

James Ormond Powell was a newspaperman who guided the editorial policies of the Arkansas Gazette from 1959 until 1985, a period when the paper was a lonely voice for racial equality and progressive government. Powell, a native Alabaman who spent his early career in Florida, arrived at the Gazette to succeed Harry S. Ashmore, the controversial editor who had led the paper during the historic school desegregation crisis in Little Rock (Pulaski County) in 1957–1959.

James O. Powell was born on October 24, 1919, in Andalusia, Alabama, a city of about 4,000 near the Florida panhandle. He was the youngest of three children of Abner Riley Powell, who was a lawyer, and Maggie Gertrude Deer Powell. Powell studied at the University of Florida in Gainesville and the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and eventually received a bachelor’s degree in journalism at the University of Florida. He had taken a respite from his studies for a year to report for the Columbus Free Press in Ohio and the Alabama Journal in Montgomery to see if he wanted a career in newspapers. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II, returning home to work for the Alabama Journal. He traveled around Cuba, and then joined the staff of the Tampa Tribune, covering the city hall, running the newspaper’s bureau at Sarasota, and setting up the newspaper’s state capital bureau at Tallahassee.

He tried his hand at politics, serving as chief of staff for U.S. Senator George Smathers of Florida for a year, but found it frustrating and decided his career ought to be newspapering. He married Ruth Hogan of Andalusia; they had two sons. She was a leader in the U.S. Department of Agriculture at a time when few women held professional positions there.

In 1956, he rejoined the Tampa Tribune as an editorial writer and the editor of the paper’s editorial page. Ashmore, who had won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1958 and supervised the paper’s coverage of the school crisis at Little Rock that won a Pulitzer for public service, decided to leave the paper in 1959 to become editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica and president of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, California. John Netherland Heiskell, the paper’s longtime editor, had been vacationing in Florida during the summer and became familiar with Powell’s work at the Tribune. Hugh B. Patterson Jr., Heiskell’s son-in-law and the publisher, called Powell and asked him if he would be interested in taking Ashmore’s place, not as the executive editor of the Gazette but in the more limited role of editor of the newspaper’s editorial section. On September 7, the day that Powell visited the Gazette to interview for Ashmore’s job, segregationist supporters of Governor Orval E. Faubus dynamited the Little Rock school headquarters, a car in the fire chief’s driveway, and the front of the City Hall. Powell would always joke that the Labor Day bombings on the day of his interview were his invitation to take the job. He joined the paper later in the fall.

Although his writing lacked the flamboyance of Ashmore’s, Powell carried on the paper’s tradition of advancing the cause of complying with federal court decisions mandating an end to segregation. Although Ashmore had long believed that all manifestations of segregation were both unconstitutional and immoral, the newspaper had mostly limited its editorial advocacy to the cause of complying with court orders—that obedience to law was a foundational principle of the country. Under Powell and his successor, Jerry F. Dhonau, the paper moved toward the principle that segregation and inequality were immoral as well as unconstitutional. The newspaper first editorialized that the civil rights bill that President John F. Kennedy proposed in 1961 violated the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution by dictating that commercial activities could not discriminate against African Americans. Powell would later say that he deeply regretted the stand. But the editorials evolved into a wholehearted endorsement of the bill, which Congress finally approved in 1964, and also the desegregation laws that followed—the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Although the newspaper never fully endorsed Republican Winthrop Rockefeller in his four races for governor, Powell editorialized for most of the reforms that Rockefeller proposed—improvements to the penitentiary, higher taxes for education and health care, tough insurance regulation, and an end to capital punishment.

Powell’s editorial page supported the elections and reforms of Democratic politicians who followed Rockefeller: Dale Bumpers, David Pryor, and Bill Clinton. The editorials particularly favored Senator J. William Fulbright, whose opposition to the Vietnam War in the late 1960s made him a political target, nationally and in Arkansas. He would collaborate with his son Lee Riley Powell on a biography of Fulbright.

Although he never attracted the level of vitriol that Ashmore did nor became quite the political target his predecessor was, Powell became a frequent target of conservatives enraged over the Gazette’s liberalism, such as when the paper condemned Lieutenant William Calley for the massacre of more than 500 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai during the Vietnam War, or when it supported countywide school consolidation in the early 1980s. For periods, he would receive angry phone calls at work or early-morning calls at home excoriating him for the editorials. He bought a whistle, and when he picked up the phone before daylight he would blow the whistle into the phone, until one day it was a staff member calling.

Powell retired as editor of the editorial page in 1985 but continued to write columns three days a week. After the Gazette was purchased by Wehco Media in 1991 and the newspaper was closed, he continued for a time to write periodic columns for the Jonesboro Sun.

Powell died on March 10, 2010. He is buried in Pinecrest Memorial Park in Little Rock.

For additional information:
Arkansas Gazette Project. David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. https://pryorcenter.uark.edu/project.php?thisProject=2 (accessed July 30, 2021).

Obituary of James O. Powell. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 12, 2010, p. 6B, 7B.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas


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