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Edmond Freeman, newspaper publisher who shook up 1960s Arkansas, dies at 94

Edmond Freeman, a small-city Arkansas newspaper publisher whose principled editorials and ambitious news coverage influenced the course of race relations, politics and wilderness conservation, died May 3 at his home in Little Rock. He was 94.

The cause was cancer, said his son David Freeman, science bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal.

Mr. Freeman built the family paper, the Pine Bluff Commercial, into an institution known for quality reporting, advocacy of civil rights and as a launchpad for a generation of noted journalists.

Among the roster of alumni were Gene Foreman, who became managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer; Joe Stroud, who became editorial page editor of the Detroit Free-Press; Patrick J. Owens, a Newsday columnist and editorial writer; and Paul Greenberg, a nationally syndicated columnist whose civil rights editorials for the Commercial received the Pulitzer Prize in 1969 and who went on to run the editorial page of Arkansas’s largest newspaper, the Democrat-Gazette of Little Rock.

Mr. Freeman’s great-grandfather, a major in the Confederate Army, founded the Commercial in 1881. It became a leading news outlet in the agriculturally rich, deeply conservative counties of southeastern Arkansas, the most traditionally Southern quadrant of the state.

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Until Mr. Freeman took over as fourth-generation publisher, the paper had not challenged racial segregation, which dominated Pine Bluff and the rest of the South.

Under his leadership, that changed.

The newspaper opposed the 1957 effort by Governor Orval Faubus, a Democrat, to use the Arkansas National Guard to block Black people from attending Little Rock’s Central High School — a political showdown that led Dwight Eisenhower to send the Army’s 101st Airborne Division to carry out the Supreme Court’s desegregation mandate in the Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

“That was the most interesting, lively and critical experience the newspaper ever had during my time there,” Mr. Freeman told the Democrat-Gazette last year.

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“Some of my friends stopped talking to me,” he added, “and there were a lot of anti-Commercial letters to the editor for a while. We responded by attending and reporting on meetings of the White Citizen’s Council and we printed the negative letters. There was some falloff of ad revenue and we lost a few subscribers, but by and large the people stayed with us.”

The Commercial also editorialized against Jim Crow laws and, at one point in the mid-1960s, ran a story exposing a secret plan by the mayor of Pine Bluff to avert desegregation of the city fire department.

The Mr. Freeman family published the paper until 1986, when it was sold to Donrey Media Group. Today the Commercial is owned by Wehco media and published as part of the Democrat-Gazette newspaper in Little Rock.

Edmond Wroe Freeman III was born in Pine Bluff on May 31, 1926. He graduated in 1947 from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., where he captained the gymnastics team.

After military service on a carrier in the Pacific, he pursued a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Chicago. In 1950, he married June Biber, a Chicago classmate, and performed a standing somersault at the wedding. The couple settled in Pine Bluff.

In addition to his wife, of Little Rock, and son David, of Manhattan, he leaves three other children, Andrew Freeman of Frisco, Texas, Gretchen Freeman of Phoenix, and Eric Freeman of Little Rock; six grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

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Edmond Freeman was initially a reporter at the Commercial, and he and his brother, Armistead, quickly assumed management responsibilities. Edmond led the newsroom and editorial page, while Armistead concentrated on printing and technical issues.

Edmond Freeman recruited journalists from across the country, encouraged in-depth reporting, and pushed the paper headlong into several controversial topics. In addition to work on civil rights and local governance, the paper campaigned to save the Buffalo River wilderness in the northwestern part of the state from dams and development. In 1972, Congress passed legislation naming the Buffalo a “national river” protected by the National Park Service.

"Ed strongly believed that the Commercial had an institutional duty to provide leadership to the community," said Foreman, who was managing editor of the paper from 1963 to 1968. "He insisted that the paper provide informed commentary on public affairs and thought this was especially important during the 1960s with the disputes over desegregation."

The race issue was dominant in Arkansas during the decades Mr. Freeman was publisher, and the paper, under his leadership, did not waver in its support for the rule of law and civil rights for all citizens.

That was not a popular position in Pine Bluff. The Mr. Freeman family endured criticism, calls for an advertising boycott in 1957 and occasional threats of physical violence.

“We knew what we were doing was right,” June Freeman said in an interview this week, recalling the criticism she and her husband received from others in Pine Bluff.

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Family members and former colleagues recalled Mr. Freeman’s close partnership with Greenberg, whose editorials he meticulously edited. After Greenberg received the Pulitzer, he recalled telling others at the Commercial that he was fortunate to have a publisher who was also an editor.

He was corrected, Greenberg said, by a colleague who instead labeled Mr. Freeman “an editor who was also a publisher.”