Ray Jenkins, the city editor of The Alabama Journal, was eating a bologna sandwich at his desk on April 5, 1960, and thumbing through a week-old copy of The New York Times when a full-page ad caught his eye.
Prominent liberals, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie Robinson, were appealing for money for a legal-defense fund for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, who was facing a trial in Alabama on perjury charges — a good local angle for The Journal.
The ad, titled “Heed Their Rising Voices,” castigated Alabama officials for what it called “an unprecedented wave of terror” against leaders of the civil rights movement.
Within minutes, Jenkins tapped out 13 paragraphs about the ad; his article appeared in the paper that afternoon.
Apparently no one else had noticed the ad until then — The Times sold 394 papers a day in Alabama in 1960. And so Alabama officials were startled and enraged after reading Jenkins’ report, which pointed out that the ad contained some factual errors.
They filed a libel suit against The Times, which ended four years later in a landmark ruling by the United States Supreme Court in the paper’s favor. The case, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, made it harder for public officials to sue for defamation and remains a bedrock legal principal upholding freedom of the press.
Jenkins died Oct. 24 at his home in Baltimore. He was 89. His wife, Bettina Jenkins, said the cause was congestive heart failure.
Jenkins always expressed amazement that his short, routine article about the Times ad — the piece didn’t even carry his byline — would prove so important. When he retired in 1991 from journalism after a distinguished 40-year career, he said it was “the most significant story I ever wrote.”
By then he had already won a Pulitzer Prize as a young journalist in the South, served as editorial page editor of The Baltimore Evening Sun, been named a Nieman fellow at Harvard and worked for two years as a press aide to President Jimmy Carter.
While living in Montgomery, Alabama, where The Journal was based, Jenkins covered the civil rights movement and developed a close relationship with King, then pastor of the city’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Nancy Jenkins-Chafin, Jenkins’ daughter, said in a phone interview that the two had spoken regularly in the church’s basement and that Jenkins had written often about King’s vision and mission.
“My father’s coverage may have helped to change hearts and minds of Southerners who had been living for generations in a deeply segregated society,” she said.
In one of their discussions, recalled by Jenkins in a column he wrote years later, King marveled that he, a descendant of slaves, was sitting and talking with Jenkins, a descendant of slave owners.
Jenkins asked King if he might include that thought in a speech some day. King did, in his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington in 1963.
“I have a dream,” King said from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, “that one day on the Red Hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
Carrell Ray Jenkins was born on Sept. 25, 1930, in Sylvester, Georgia, about 200 miles south of Atlanta. His mother, Eunice (Thornton) Jenkins, was a homemaker, and his father, Herbert, sold tractors for International Harvester while also farming cotton, corn and tobacco.
Ray was the first in his family to go to college, receiving a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia in 1951.
He began his career at The Columbus Ledger in Columbus, Georgia, on the border of Alabama, and was a member of a team that won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for public service for exposing political corruption in neighboring Phenix City, Alabama.
While living in Columbus, he met Bettina Cirsovius, who had immigrated from Germany in 1952. They were married in 1956.
In addition to her and their daughter, Jenkins is survived by their sons, Sam and Mark, and four grandchildren.
Jenkins was named city editor of The Alabama Journal in 1959 and spent the next two decades covering the civil rights movement. But of all the articles he wrote and edited, the one he dashed off about the Times advertisement would prove to be one of the most consequential.
The ad never named any of the officials that it was taking to task, and the newspaper publicly apologized for the factual errors. Still, several Alabama officials, including L.B. Sullivan, the Montgomery city commissioner, who supervised the police, contended that they had been defamed by inference and filed suit against The Times.
“If the officials could win, they would almost certainly silence the civil rights movement in Alabama — as well as the newspaper that consistently covered it,” Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff wrote in “The Race Beat,” which chronicled the news coverage of the civil rights era and won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in history. “Silence, not money, was the goal.”
For a time, the lawsuits had their intended effect. Lawyers for The Times told the paper to keep its reporters out of Alabama while the matter was in litigation.
The Times lost in the lower courts. But on appeal to the Supreme Court, the newspaper prevailed.
In a unanimous 1964 ruling, the court held that the First Amendment protects newspapers even when they print a false statement, unless a complainant can prove that the newspaper had made the statement with “‘actual malice’ — that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”
Jenkins was not involved in the case but was interested in the law. He took night classes and in 1977 received his law degree from the Thomas Goode Jones School of Law, now part of Faulkner University in Montgomery.
He became managing editor of The Journal, then editorial page editor and in 1978 was named executive editor of both The Journal and The Montgomery Advertiser, sister papers owned by the same company.
When the papers were sold soon thereafter, Jody Powell, Carter’s press secretary, offered Jenkins a job at the White House. Jenkins worked in the press office until Carter lost his reelection bid in 1980. (The Journal closed in 1993.)
He joined The Baltimore Evening Sun in 1981, becoming a columnist and editor of the editorial page. Over the years he also wrote frequently for The Times. After his retirement he continued to write columns and essays, often about civil rights. He also wrote “Blind Vengeance: The Roy Moody Mail Bomb Murders” (1997), about mail bombs sent in 1989 that killed a federal judge in Alabama and a civil rights lawyer in Georgia.
In a tribute to Jenkins in The Sun, Ernest Imhoff, a retired editor of the newspaper, said, “Ray was a fine Southern gentleman who offered us a bit of guidance and wisdom from another time that helped us as Northerners understand that part of the country a lot better.”