Elecia Dexter moved from Chicago to small-town Alabama months ago and took a part-time job at a local paper, thinking it would allow her to spend time with family while searching for another job. But after the newspaper's publisher praised the Ku Klux Klan in an editorial earlier this month, he stepped down amid nationwide outrage and named Dexter publisher of the The Democrat-Reporter.
The whole situation feels kind of "surreal," Dexter tells Bustle. Goodloe Sutton was roundly condemned by local officials for writing that it was "time for the Ku Klux Klan to ride again," and Dexter says that he knew the paper needed to "go in a new direction" and that he was not the person to take it there.
His decision to hand control of the paper (which he still retains ownership of) to Dexter, who is new to the journalism business as an HR professional, gives her the opportunity to reimagine this news source for the Linden, Alabama community.
"I didn't want the article to define this community," she tells Bustle. "My dad is from here, my grandmother is from here. I'm here now, my daughter's here. There's so many roots and connections to family that are here, and hopefully I can change things."
That Sutton chose Dexter to take over still comes as a bit of a shock to her. "Technically, we don't know each other," she says. "[The paper's] been in your family for almost 140 years...yet you're giving me an opportunity to carry the legacy on in a way that I think is best."
Dexter's life experience has been fundamentally different from that of an 80-year-old white Alabaman like Sutton's. Dexter grew up in Chicago, and though she’s never encountered the KKK directly, she says she's dealt with racist comments herself. As for her family, she says the "logical conclusion" would be that her ancestors, some of whom are descendants of slaves, did encounter what she calls "the group" during the Jim Crow era.
"I've grown up and heard stories about things that happened," she says. "Not the stereotypical white sheets, but you know, 'Hey boy, what you doin' over here? You must be lost.'"
Given her family's experiences, Dexter was taken aback when she read Sutton's editorial. "There's a responsibility in your words," Dexter says. "I was caught off guard, I was prepared to tell [Sutton] I was not going to be able to stay there and work with him."
Instead, he offered her his job. Dexter tells Bustle that she considered him a pretty decent boss up until the editorial calling for the KKK to "ride again" was published.
"I think sometimes people assume by what [the paper] has written that I was treated by him every day to reflect those words," Dexter says, stopping to explain she doesn't want to apologize for what Sutton said or what he believes. "But I would never stay at a place where I felt someone was subjecting me to that type of treatment, and that hadn't been the case."
"I'm not condoning or justifying, but what I'm saying is... he's been respectful to me," she adds. "Now, however, when the article came out, I was kind of like, 'What just happened here?'"
As for the future of The Democrat-Reporter, Dexter plans to focus the paper's coverage on what she says keeps the Linden community chugging along: family and neighbors supporting one another. She describes the town as small, with a population of just 2,000 people; the kind of place where there’s just one Shell gas station where locals grab a coffee on the way to work and say hello to the same familiar faces.
But Dexter says in the wake of Sutton's editorial, this small town may be grappling with whether it's better to have racist beliefs out in the open. "It's the devil that you know versus the devil that you don’t," she says.
She doesn't quite know yet what role the newspaper will take in exploring race in small-town America. "Is there some form of racism here?" Dexter asks, answering herself that maybe, in some places, there is. Census data for the town isn't available, but Linden lies in Marengo County, Alabama, which is 51 percent black and 45 percent white.
"Is there a predominant tension which you would relate with an article like that? No, I don't feel that," she adds, noting that other black residents who have been in town longer might feel differently. "I can't answer that fully just yet, but I definitely want to know from people, what are the things we need to work on here?"
While Dexter has those conversations — and works on gaining everyone's trust in the wake of Sutton's editorial — she wants to keep the paper focused on what’s most important to the community.
"This is their paper," she says.