“There was no evil that could be said of Bill Evjue that he would not print in his newspaper. ... Evjue printed what they said and then taunted them to come outside.”
— WCOW-AM, Sparta, Wisconsin, 1970
When Capital Times founder William T. Evjue died on April 23, 1970, on the morning after the first Earth Day celebration, presidential candidates and senators, television network executives and newspaper publishers, labor leaders and even a few enlightened business executives sent their tributes on fine stationary. Resolutions were printed on fine parchment by the legislatures, county boards, and city councils that honored the passing of the 87-year-old publisher of The Capital Times.
Then the handwritten letters began to arrive, sometimes with two or three stamps on the envelope and the hand cancellation of a rural post office. They came from small towns all over the state of Wisconsin. From Merrill in the north, where Evjue had been raised, from Spring Green to the west, and from Beaver Dam to the east. Some western Wisconsin Democrats sent along a note asking that “Mr. Evjue be remembered as a man who believed that all men are born equally free.” An old socialist wrote from northeast Wisconsin to thank Mr. Evjue for “keeping the channels of political communication open” in the darkest days of Joe McCarthy’s “red scare.” An even older progressive recalled how, “In those earliest days, when the fighting was all uphill, he (Evjue) had answered the call of Bob La Follette: Who will stand at my right hand and hold the bridge?” The letters from across Wisconsin and beyond ran for week after week in the “Voice of the People” columns of The Capital Times. Most sent along sentiments like those of Alfred Swan, a retired United Church of Christ pastor who sang Evjue’s praises (“great was his courage, far seeing were his insights, profound were his human sympathies”), but concluded with a charge for those who would carry The Capital Times forward: “So hammer those typewriters and keep alive the great tradition your Founder leaves you, and be founders of a few things in your own right for the rest of the 20th century.”
How could The Capital Times say “no” to that call to arms?
Evjue’s paper continued hammering the wealthy and the powerful, through the remainder of the 20th century and right on going into the 21st, as boisterous and indignant and impassioned as it was on the December day in 1917 when Evjue started the presses. The presses still rumble and roll each week, but the paper is mostly online now.
Evjue wouldn’t have minded. He liked the ink and the paper, but he appreciated new technologies. What mattered most to this old-school journalist was the character of the paper. And that’s what mattered to the people who worried when he died that they might lose the one newspaper that was on their side. It was like they said on WCOW — yes, as in “cow” — the radio station up in Sparta, Wisconsin, which honored Evjue by announcing: “When he expired, everybody was mad at him, except the people. They loved him.”
It was not so difficult to keep the character of the paper. There were plenty of politicians to expose, plenty of campaign donations to reveal, plenty of corporate schemes to investigate. There were wars to oppose, polluters to shame, racists to call out. There were grass-roots movements to celebrate, rights to defend, liberties to proclaim. And then the moment came, as the 100th anniversary year was arriving, when all the pieces of the past and the present came together.
A new president was being sworn in and, as with so many presidents in the past, Republicans and Democrats, The Capital Times was unimpressed. Everyone was saying that Donald Trump represented something new in American politics, that his election reflected a change in how Americans were communicating — and how the media held candidates to account, or failed to do so. But something about Trump seemed very familiar; something about the way in which he bent the truth and attacked the journalists who dared to question him rang a bell.
“As The Capital Times editorial board reflected on how best to respond to the beginning of the presidency of Donald Trump, we recalled this newspaper’s response to the re-election almost 65 years ago of Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy — a similarly disreputable and dangerous demagogue,” this editorial page announced on the eve of the new president’s inauguration.
“Donald Trump is ignorant and cruel — the worst combination in American politics,” the paper explained. But The Capital Times also noted signs of the resistance that would be filling the streets in a few days with women’s marches like the one that would draw 100,000 to the streets of Madison.
Times change, that editorial concluded. But the charge to carry Evjue’s fight forward remains.
“As we resisted Joe McCarthy, we will resist Donald Trump. We do not resist merely for purposes of opposition and obstruction. We resist to clear the way for a better future,” The Capital Times declared. “Just as progressive forces finally prevailed against McCarthy and McCarthyism in Wisconsin and nationally, progressive forces will finally prevail against Trump and Trumpism in America.”
William T. Evjue’s sledgehammer was still swinging on the day Trump took office. It will be swinging on the day he is run out of office. This fight is as righteous as it is necessary, and we will carry it forward — from one century to the next.
The Capital Times is still The Capital Times. And we will never tire of striking blows for justice and for peace.
This editorial is adapted from the closing chapter of the new book by Dave Zweifel and John Nichols: "The Capital Times: A Proudly Radical Newspaper's Century Long Fight for Justice and Peace" (Wisconsin Historical Society Press).
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