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A spirit that is not afraid

Auburn's Journalism Advisory Council strips award from editor who wrote Klan editorial

Goodloe Sutton is the editor-publisher of The Democrat-Reporter in Linden, Alabama.
Goodloe Sutton is the editor-publisher of The Democrat-Reporter in Linden, Alabama.

UPDATE 11:48 p.m. The Journalism Advisory Council has officially stripped the award from Goodloe Sutton after initiating a vote of the council's membership Tuesday morning.

UPDATE 4:45 p.m. The Alabama Press Association has censured Sutton and suspended his paper, The Democrat-Reporter. The association may vote at its next meeting on expelling the paper from the group.

The members of Auburn University's Journalism Advisory Council moved quickly Tuesday to revoke a community journalism award from Goodloe Sutton, the editor-publisher of The Democrat Reporter who published an editorial last week calling for the return of the KKK.

After initiating the vote Tuesday morning, a majority of the members have already voted to rescind the award. Some members have not yet voted.

The Auburn Plainsman first reported the nature of the editorial, which published on Feb. 14 under the headline, "Klan needs to ride again." In it, the paper's editor, Goodloe Sutton, called for the Klan to "raid the gated communities" of Democrats and "Democrats in the Republican Party" who are "plotting to raise taxes in Alabama."

Journalism Advisory Council Chair Anthony Cook — the executive editor of Consolidated Publishing, which owns the Anniston Star — said the council is voted today by email to strip the award.

"For a lot of people, the response is just shock," Cook said. "The initial thought was hopefully this is satire. But looking at the reporting around the editorial, we see that he has not backed down from anything he said in the editorial. In fact, he's doubled down."

The Montgomery Advertiser called Sutton for comment. He confirmed he wrote the editorial and went further, falsely claiming former slaves were among the members of the Klan. And further still, suggesting the revived Klan could "clean up D.C." by lynching Democratic leaders.

"Our members are all over the region and the country, so we have initiated a vote of our members by email to withdraw the award that was given to Goodloe Sutton," Cook said.

Sutton and his late wife Jean, the paper's managing editor and chief reporter until her death in 2003, earned Pulitzer Prize consideration and other journalistic accolades during the 1990s for reporting that exposed corruption in the Marengo County Sheriff's Office. The award honors small-town newspapers.

Linden, the small town where the paper is published, is the county seat of Marengo County in West Alabama, near the Mississippi state line. It has a population of less than 2,000. Sutton and The Democrat-Reporter have received more than a dozen Alabama Press Association awards.

Auburn awarded the pair the Distinguished Community Journalism Award in 2009. Sutton received the award for himself and his wife, who was honored posthumously. Her award is not being reconsidered, Cook said.

"We're holding him accountable for what he said," Cook said.

The paper, published in the small town of Linden, Alabama, has a history of publishing a wide range of offensive editorials. The content runs the gamut from homophobic pieces to calls for public hangings.

"We'll get the hemp ropes out, loop them over a tall limb and hang all of them," Sutton told The Advertiser. He went on to compare the KKK to the NAACP, saying, "The Klan wasn't violent until they needed to be."

U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Alabama, the state's only black member of Congress, and Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, have publicly called on Sutton to resign from his post at the paper.

"For the millions of people of color who have been terrorized by white supremacy, this kind of 'editorializing' about lynching is not a joke – it is a threat," Sewell tweeted Tuesday. "These comments are deeply offensive and inappropriate, especially in 2019. Mr. Sutton should apologize and resign."

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The University of Southern Mississippi said in a statement that Sutton has been removed from the school's Mass Communication and Journalism Hall of Fame. Jean Sutton has not been removed from the hall of fame.

"The School of Communication strongly condemns Mr. Sutton’s remarks as they are antithetical to all that we value as scholars of journalism, the media, and human communication," the statement read. "Our University’s values of social responsibility and citizenship, inclusion and diversity, and integrity and civility are the foundation upon which we have built our School and its programs."

U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, echoed those sentiments in a statement.

“The rhetoric displayed by the Democrat-Reporter is disturbing, disgusting and entirely unacceptable," Shelby said. "I urge the newspaper to issue an apology and the publisher to resign from his duties. We cannot tolerate this sort of repulsive speech, particularly from our fourth estate.”

The Alabama NAACP president Benard Simelton spoke with, telling the publication that the editorial should warrant an investigation.  

“He’s out of touch with reality," Simelton said. "It’s obvious that he’s a racist, and I know it’s a private newspaper apparently. But this is going out into the public domain, and he should do himself a favor and resign.

"In addition, I think it needs to be looked into by the FBI because, in my opinion, he’s making threats to legislators and telling them that the Klan essentially needs to take care of the Democrats."

Since The Plainsman's initial tweets and the story from the Advertiser, national and international publications like The Washington Post and BBC News ran stories on Sutton's editorial.

As a newspaper editor himself, Cook said he was appalled and offended by the editorial.

"This is a byproduct of a really small paper operating where there is not somebody there to say, 'Hold on, are you sure we want to print this?'" Cook said. "For me as an editor at a newspaper, I just can't imagine something like that going into our newspaper and being presented as the voice of the paper. And I don't imagine that ever being allowed even as a column."

Cook said the editorial is not in line with how society has progressed.

"It's not in keeping with what we stand for as an organization," Cook said. "It's certainly offensive to me personally. Particularly as an African-American editor, I feel a responsibility to that part of the community that this newspaper serves. I just consider it a betrayal."

The Council voted unanimously to revoke the award.

"I can't imagine it being anything other than a unanimous vote," Cook told The Plainsman before the final vote was is. "It's pretty clear what he said. I would be shocked if I learned anyone in our organization espoused those types of views."

Chip Brownlee | Editor-in-chief

Chip Brownlee, senior in journalism and political science, is the editor-in-chief of The Auburn Plainsman.

Mikayla Burns | Managing Editor

Mikayla Burns, senior in journalism and Spanish, is managing editor of The Auburn Plainsman.

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