THIS WEEK I'LL get to meet the man who is responsible for my getting a high school diploma from Longview High School in Texas.
I would have gotten a high school diploma from somewhere, but if U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice hadn't stepped in, it's possible I might have had to finish out as a Pine Tree Pirate or a Gilmer Bear.Judge Justice will speak Thursday night at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, concerning some of the decisions he made while on the bench, especially those that affected east Texas. Over time, his decisions have changed how we elect local officials and how school districts decide who goes to school where.
I won't defend or explain his decisions. He's perfectly capable of doing that himself, and y'all are welcome to come hear him do so. I will tell you why I admire him, and why I am grateful for what he did for me.
In early 1972, a few friends and I started an "underground" newspaper. I was a high-school junior, already addicted to ink and newsprint, working as a part-time photographer at the Longview newspaper. We started the paper because we felt the official school newspaper was a tool of the administration.
Looking at our paper now, it was surprisingly staid and embarrassingly high-schoolish. We allowed no profanity and didn't call anybody names. We had no advertising and planned to give the paper away, so it was financed by our part-time jobs.
Our catalyst to publish was a decision to ban books by novelist James Baldwin from the school library because they were considered obscene. We wrote a sarcastic editorial suggesting other books that should be banned, including those by Shakespeare and Chaucer, because they depicted lechery, incest and murder.
We called our newspaper The Mirror. I typed most of it on a manual typewriter while sitting in my parents' kitchen at the chrome dinette table. It consisted of four sheets of typing-size paper. In the first issue we used pseudonyms, but most everybody knew who we were. After that, we used our real names. I was managing editor. We didn't have a publisher, though unofficially I guess that was me since I was responsible for coming up with the money to pay the printer.
We broke school rules with the first issue and passed it out on campus on a Friday afternoon. By 8 a.m. Monday morning I was in the principal's office getting a major-league tongue-lashing from T.G. Fields, who had been running Longview High School since Old Yeller was a speckled pup. Eventually, my dad was summoned to the office, too, and then I had to explain to my parents what I'd been doing. They read our paper, said "What's the big deal?" and from that point backed me 100 percent.
With my father there, Fields called me a name you can't print in a family newspaper, which caused Dad to nearly go over the desk after him, only restrained by my grabbing on to his arm. Finally, we had a compromise. We would no longer distribute the paper on campus, and we would go before the school board to ask permission to distribute it on campus after school.
The school board turned us down flat, but we found a sales outlet (now we were charging a dime a copy, but still no advertising) that drove T.G. crazy. A classmate's uncle owned a dentist's office at the four-way stop that separated the main building from the annex at the old high school, now torn down. Three corners were high-school property, but one corner was private property. And when classes changed, the four-way was a high-traffic area. His uncle gave us permission to sell The Mirror there. Soon we were selling a few hundred issues, which of course came nowhere close to paying the print bill. I'm happy to say I've gotten a little better at the business side of newspapering since then.
After three issues, I got a call from my dad while working my part-time job at the Longview newspaper. "You've been expelled," he said.
I asked for how long. "Forever," he told me. "They don't ever want you to come back."
Two of us were kicked out for a newspaper we produced on our own time and distributed on private property. Even at 16, I had a strong suspicion the administration couldn't get away with this.
I called the American Civil Liberties Union and was put in touch with an Athens lawyer named Bill Kugle, who did ACLU cases. It had to be for free because my parents couldn't pay legal fees. We filed suit a few days later and asked Judge Justice for a restraining order to put us back in school.
Four days later, on a Friday, we were in the federal courthouse in Tyler. A hearing was held, but we were told to wait in the hall, and I never saw Judge Justice. When the lawyer came out, he said Judge Justice had entered the order putting us back in school, and our case had been linked to a similar case about to be heard by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. If those students won, we would win. If they lost, we would go to trial. I was back in school the following Monday.
The upshot was, the students in the other case won, so we won, too. We ran out of money and lost interest, and the paper died. But I've been in the newspaper business ever since, and I graduated as a Longview Lobo.
I never got to meet Judge Justice, though I covered a couple of trials in his courtroom and saw him up on the bench. I'm looking forward to being able to tell him thanks in person.