|Thomas Sancton in 1942|
In the flood of commentary about the shakeup at The New Republic, there have been numerous criticisms of the magazine as being, in the words of Ta-Nehesi Coates, “an entirely white publication, which published stories confirming white people's worst instincts.” [Atlantic, 12/9/14] That may be true of the Peretz era, but there was a time in TNR’s earlier history when the magazine was famous—or infamous in some circles—for the race articles by its firebrand Managing Editor demanding immediate and full racial equality. That man was my father, Thomas Sancton (Sr.), who served as M.E. from 1942 to 1945.
During those years, Sancton published dozens of articles denouncing segregation and taking to task the timidity of most other liberals on the race question. I can’t say whether his personal passion for racial equality represented TNR’s editorial position at the time—the main focus then was on the war against Hitler—but Sancton took advantage of his rank to place his own articles in the magazine throughout his tenure. “I controlled the pages,” he once told me, “so I could publish whatever I wanted.”
Sancton was almost unique among southern liberals for his radical stand on the race question. Among other things, he wrote about lynchings, race riots, the so-called Negro Press, the work of black writers, the northward migration of southern blacks. He even called FDR to task for not speaking out against segregation and racial discrimination, an article that Eleanor Roosevelt herself promised to “bring to the attention of the President.” He befriended prominent black intellectuals, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Roi Ottley, Henry Lee Moon. His race articles were denounced on the floor of the House of Representatives by the segregationist congressman John Rankin—a call-out that he wore as a badge of honor—and attracted the attention of Henry Luce, who hired him away from TNR to write about racial issues for LIFE. After a brief stint there, he decided in the late 1940’s to move back to his native New Orleans to write novels. At that point, he largely dropped off the radar of the East Coast intelligentsia.
Historians of the civil rights movement, however, did not lose sight of his crusading work in TNR, The Nation, Harpers, and other publications. John Egerton cited Sancton’s contributions prominently in his 1994 book Speak Now Against the Day. The New American Library anthology, Reporting Civil Rights, excerpted passages from his TNR articles. In 2007, Lawrence P. Jackson of Emory University devoted the bulk of a long article to Sancton’s work in the The Southern Literary Journal, which he expanded and included in his 2011 book, The Indignant Generation. In Jackson’s view, “Sancton had no peer” among liberal writers and thinkers as a champion of racial equality. Earlier this year, TNR itself paid him a recent, if belated, tribute (TNR 9/15/2014) as a “pioneering civil rights reporter” and reprinted part of his 1943 article on the Detroit race riots.
For anyone who is interested in researching Sancton's TNR articles, here is a link to nearly two dozen of them online. More information on his writing and career is available in the Wikipedia article on Thomas Sancton and in the obituaries following his death in April, 2012, at the age of 97: Rosenwald Foundation obituary and Times-Picayune
And anyone seriously interested in researching the career of this early civil rights champion will find his voluminous papers and correspondence at The Historic New Orleans Collection.