Spring 2009: Features

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Fifteen Months of Fame

The True Story of the Atlanta Times

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By Hank Klibanoff

On June 12, 1964, as civil rights legislation was steaming toward certain passage in Congress, as Northern college students were heading South toward certain violence during Freedom Summer, and as a presidential campaign was quickly becoming defined by bitter racial politics, a silver-haired former congressman stood inside a new, first-class newspaper plant in Atlanta and hit a switch he hoped would stem the tide of history.

James C. Davis 14C, surrounded by a smiling, upbeat crowd of well-wishers and investors, watched as a set of newspaper presses kicked into gear and started rolling. Within minutes, the presses were printing the Atlanta Times, which many conservative Georgians hoped would serve as a voice for the status quo—racial segregation in the South. The editor, Luke Greene, hired from the Atlanta Journal, signed copies of still-warm papers while state and local political and business leaders arrived, as did Abigail Van Buren, the advice columnist better known as Dear Abby.

Onlookers cheered as they saw the first papers come off the press with the headline, “Hello, We’re Here!” stripped above the nameplate. It was the rare and bold beginning of a newspaper, but it was also the initiation of a cause.

The newspaper’s board of directors, first formed in July 1961, included well-established bankers, an automobile dealer, a real estate developer, a radio executive, a timber man, a clothing manufacturer, and a carwash owner. They had raised about $3 million from some five thousand Georgians who had purchased company stock. On the streets, drivers in green-and-white delivery trucks filled green-and-white newspaper boxes and encountered crowds waiting for them. “I’ll want two,” said one customer. “Give me five,” said another. “I’ll take twenty-five,” said yet another. For their nickel, buyers were glad to have an alternative to the Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Constitution, and they didn’t mind jamming Atlanta traffic at street corners to buy it.

Davis explained his motives to Atlanta magazine: “Atlanta has newspapers with out-of-state ownership that promote radicalism in every form, the New Deal, the Fair Deal, Modern Republicanism, and have completely disregarded the right-thinking, sound-thinking people of Atlanta and Georgia. There is a tremendous need for a paper that will present the news factually, without bias.”

Others believed Davis had more personal motives. A longtime judge in DeKalb County, he had more recently been the congressman from Georgia’s Fifth District, dominated by Atlanta, and had been re-elected with ease seven times. But in 1962, both the Atlanta Constitution and Atlanta Journal had opposed Davis and vigorously supported a young progressive lawyer, Charles Weltner. Davis lost, and quickly became engaged in an ambition he had harbored for many years: building a rival to the established daily newspapers.

On that June day in 1964, when 175,000 copies of the hefty 128-page premier issue were printed, the Atlanta Times appeared likely to give the larger papers a spirited fight with its editorial positions against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and for Barry Goldwater. But its conservatism was to be broader, Davis said in a page-one editorial: “We will support freedom of religion, freedom of speech, the preservation of individual rights, and the rights of private property. We will support the principle of rule of the majority and the idea that proper diffusion of governmental power is the best preventive of socialism. We will stand for efficiency and economy in government.”

In 1964, when newspapers served as the public’s primary source of news and opinion, the advent of a new paper in a major market was a big event, and the launch of the Times drew national coverage. No reporter gave closer examination to it than the Atlanta bureau chief for Newsweek magazine, Joe Cumming Jr. 81G. And no institution has benefited more richly from Cumming’s expansive reporting—and generosity—than Emory’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL).

When Cumming retired from Newsweek in 1979, he began working on his master’s degree at Emory and arranged for twenty-eight years’ worth of Newsweek files to be transferred from its Atlanta bureau to MARBL. The files, sorted in nineteen boxes, contain a breathtaking exploration of the South’s modern history, its famous datelines, flashpoints, and memories. Newsweek opened its operation in Atlanta at a propitious time, in 1952, two years before the Supreme Court in its Brown vs. Board decision signaled that life in the South would no longer be the same.

Far more than its larger rival, Time magazine, Newsweek encouraged its reporters to leap on the emerging civil rights story. Atlantan Bill Emerson, the first bureau chief, got it started; he brought in Cumming and many others who raced across the South and filled file cabinet upon file cabinet with carbon copies of their dispatches to the Newsweek editors in New York. Some files contain their handwritten notes, tear sheets from other publications, letters, fliers, handouts, and other ephemera and junk that reporters gather when they’re on assignment.

The record they created was not only about race; there are files on the 1962 Paris plane crash that killed many of Atlanta’s prominent arts leaders, on Georgian Ty Cobb, on college football and UFOs.

The reporters’ dispatches to New York that are held by Emory are partial and full reports, some written as strung-together raw notes but more frequently sent as stories that were composed, crafted, and comprehensive. In cases where Newsweek would send two or three reporters, their dispatches would be read by editors who would knit them together and rewrite them, casting aside vast amounts of information that, today, are remarkable renderings of truth.

The files represent an extraordinary complement to MARBL’s holdings of the papers of other important journalists: Claude Sitton 47Ox 49C and John Herbers 49C, reporters in the South for the New York Times from the late 1950s through the 1960s; Robert Churchwell, the first black reporter on a mainstream metropolitan white newspaper; Alice Allison Dunnagin, the first black woman to get White House reporting credentials; New South editor Henry W. Grady; William A. Emerson Jr.; and renowned writers Frederick Allen, Margaret Mitchell, Celestine Sibley, and, of course, James C. Davis’ nemesis, Constitution editor Ralph McGill.

“MARBL is committed to acquiring papers on multiple aspects of American history as a part of both its Southern history and African American history collections,” says Randall Burkett, curator of African American Collections. “Emory, like many historically white research universities, once collected material on Southern history primarily through the eyes of white folk. This includes rich materials on African American history and culture, whether in plantation records, papers of Confederate soldiers, or in materials documenting the history of slavery. It is our job to preserve multiple points of view on the areas in which we collect.”

Mark Sanders, chair of African American Studies at Emory, says the MARBL collections are without peer—even more so in recent years as the vast expansion of the African American Collection has pushed Emory into the top echelon in that field. He says there’s a reverent feeling that comes with opening a first edition of a book from Langston Hughes’ personal library and discovering Hughes’ thoughts and observations scribbled on the margins. “These kinds of things, handwritten things, you wouldn’t find anywhere else,” Sanders says.

Inside MARBL also lies ample evidence that newspaper publishers Davis and McGill were on a collision course in 1964. Among journalists, McGill’s 126 boxes of papers constitute one of the library’s larger special collections. But they pale in comparison to the 223 boxes that Davis, a 1914 graduate of Emory College at Oxford, left to the library.

As early as 1952, Davis was angling to start a newspaper in Atlanta, an urge that grew as the years went by. His papers reveal his deeply racist attitudes, his defense of the segregated way of life, and his antipathy for the Atlanta newspapers.

McGill’s papers, too, show how he evolved: from believing in 1942 that segregation would never end, to predicting in early 1953 that the Supreme Court would strike segregation down, and, finally, to playing a significant role in pushing the South to question its fealty to misguided demagogues. The Cox family, which had purchased the Journal in 1939 and the Constitution a decade later, gave the editors wide latitude. The progressive positions they staked out were in line with views held by the family patriarch, James Cox, who served three terms as governor of Ohio and was the 1920 Democratic nominee for president with Franklin D. Roosevelt on the ticket.

McGill, who by 1964 was publisher of the Constitution, and Gene Patterson, the Constitution’s editor, each wrote daily columns. They could discern when issues—urban vs. rural, dry vs. wet, public schools vs. private schools, improved roads vs. public transit—were simply proxies for the fundamental issue of race. Those would become the editorial battlegrounds that saw the greatest disagreements between the Cox newspapers and the Atlanta Times.

Joe Cumming’s lengthy reports to the New York office of Newsweek told how the Atlanta Times took shape and moved toward its first day of publication. Editor Luke Greene began lining up reporters, editors, and syndicated columnists. Other than Greene, there had been no significant defections from the Journal or Constitution, which had been doggedly investigating antediluvian practices that had kept small-town, small-minded politicians in control of the state.

Davis brought in a general manager, Irving Orner, to run the newspaper’s operations, and an advertising director, Robert Carney, to tap into Atlanta’s deep-pocketed businesses. The circulation manager, in what history would prove to be a fatally futile declaration, said the newspaper would remain focused on Atlanta and not seek statewide delivery. “We don’t plan any flashy campaign to flood the whole state with our papers,” J. C. Akins said. “Instead, we plan to start at the core and build up . . . here in the city.”

After the first few days, the Times expected circulation would settle between 100,000 and 125,000. The afternoon Journal’s circulation was 254,600, the morning Constitution’s was 200,600, and their combined Sunday circulation was 505,000.

The Times had a newsroom of forty people; each of its rivals had twice as many. In casting itself as the conservative alternative, the Times made a decision to have no liberal columnists, local or nationally syndicated. The Journal and Constitution did have conservative columnists; in fact, they had better ones, and they were able to hold onto them. Perhaps most painful for the Times was this: While it was planning to throw all its editorial might behind Barry Goldwater’s campaign for president against President Johnson, the Constitution was endorsing Johnson while printing Goldwater’s column.

Six days before the newspaper was to launch, Cumming sent an eight-page memo to Newsweek in New York. Having spent considerable time watching the organization come together, he was prepared to make a prediction. “In the long run it is still my personal conviction that the Times will falter and fall,” he wrote.

As the first few days of the newspaper’s distribution, it was clear the Times had not landed advertising business from the largest retailers—Rich’s, Sears, and Davison’s. Over time, they did sign up for the Times, but the commitment to the Journal and Constitution dwarfed the space purchases for the new paper.

Still, the paper appeared popular on the streets. It was, as predicted, conservative, on its editorial pages and on its news pages. On July 2, 1964, three weeks after the Times was launched, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The story stripped across the top began, “Georgians can expect to see sudden, drastic changes in their way of life . . .”

For the most part, though, especially compared to other Southern newspapers whose editorial animus for civil rights spilled into the news every day or led them to ignore events altogether, the Atlanta Times played news straight. When a black Army Reserve officer, Lt. Col. Lemuel Penn, was gunned down in Madison County, the Times played the story big; when four Ku Klux Klansmen from Athens were arrested, their photographs and a large story were at the top of the front page. The paper rode the Goldwater wave as he won handily in Georgia and lost disastrously nationwide in November 1964.

Yet other times, the newspaper’s coverage was uneven. Editorially, the newspaper called for the killers of Penn and the three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Mississippi, to be brought to justice. But, it added, “Let us remember that these civil rights workers went into Mississippi knowing full well that the people of Mississippi despise the indiscriminate integration of whites and Negroes. . . . Those who incite to violence by their actions and by their fanatical insistence upon invading a state with the avowed intention of revolutionizing its social and political life must know they live with the risk of violence hanging over their heads day and night.”

The Times, ironically, had a problem with its point of view. Luke Greene was deeply concerned that in the cauldron of the South, his paper would be branded as racist and petulant, rather than conservative and thoughtful. He hoped to steer an editorial course that tacked right but avoid getting too close to white supremacists, Klansmen, and Lester Maddox. The paper’s board of directors was also divided on how deep its conservatism should run. Some did not want to publish Reverend Billy Graham’s inspirational column because Graham had extolled Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and the humanity of the civil rights movement.

The Journal and the Constitution decided on a tactic early, and never veered: They ignored the Times in print. While the Times would write about its rivals—even carry stories about the Journal winning statewide journalism awards and McGill receiving various commendations—there was not a word about the Times in either rival other than an early story about Greene leaving for the Times. Internally, the Cox papers paid attention to the Times’ ad rates, deadlines, marketing, and staffing; in fact, some believe the Times actually pushed the Journal to become more editorially conservative. But externally, they acted as if it didn’t exist. “We were never too much worried about it,” Jim Minter, then the executive sports editor and later the top editor at the Journal, recalled recently.

Why not? While the newspapers’ editorial positions may have put them at odds with the power structure outside Atlanta, their top brass, even above McGill, was very much in sync with the progressive business and political leadership in the city, Minter said. Rich’s Department Store, for example, would advertise in the Times, and did, but Richard Rich, among others, was not going to jeopardize the progressive influence in the city by undermining the Journal and Constitution.

The Atlanta Times seems to have understood that early. Only a month after the newspaper launched, it abandoned its core plan to contain its ambitions within Atlanta. Board members understood that the liberal-conservative divide in the state tracked the urban-rural and Atlanta-Georgia divide.

Professionals inside the business departments were opposed. For one thing, the paper already had gnarly circulation problems it could not resolve; going statewide, across the largest geographical mass of any state east of the Mississippi River, would cost at least $60,000 extra each month. For another, the newspaper hadn’t distinguished itself in a way that justified taking it statewide. It didn’t look radically different from the Journal; and by being so determined to play it straight, the Times had taken the edge and personality out of stories.

But the board decided to go statewide anyway. It had done something neither McGill nor Patterson had done—it had succumbed to the seduction of good reviews. “Ego had taken over,” the Times’ advertising director later wrote.

That decision meant new presses, which meant more money, which meant selling more stock, which was never enough. As had been the case from the outset, the purchasing was extravagant, and the costs were greater than expected. The general manager sprung for new automatic typesetting machines—six at first, then two more. Eight units of a new top-of-the-line press arrived, at a cost of $1.2 million. It sat idle, its wires dangling, because of a legal dispute.

The board, at odds with its staff, also began fighting with Davis, and stripped him of authority just before Thanksgiving 1964. Orner, the general manager, scrambled to put the business in order, then went on vacation. On his way out, he told associates everything would be fine. He boarded a cruise, but never returned. He suffered a heart attack and died at sea. During the next eight months, there would be three more general managers.

By Christmas, six months after the launch, payroll checks were bouncing. By mid-February, a quarter of the staff had been fired, including the sports editor, the women’s editor, the ad director, and the circulation director.

By mid-March, a rescue effort by a DuPont heir had fallen through. Advertising dried up. There were days when the paper had no more than the next day’s supply of newsprint on hand, and the paper would be eighteen pages. By August, top executives had called in a pastor, gathered everyone in the city room, and held a prayer service.

The paper struggled through the summer, its circulation below 80,000. Finally, on August 31, 1965, having lost between $2 million and $3 million during its fifteen-month life, the Times waited to find out if anyone would rescue it. Staffers prepared two front pages: One, if the paper lived, had the routine news of the day; the other was its final edition.

Just before deadline, the word came down. It was over. “Times suspends publication,” the headline announced.

Only when the Times had died did the news pages of the Constitution and Journal finally make direct reference to the upstart. Both carried small stories about the Times’ death at the bottom of their front pages. Neither wrote its own story, but opted to run wire reports.

Coincidentally, on the day the Times died, the Constitution’s front page signaled the death of Georgia’s official resistance to school desegregation. In an editorial titled, “School-Opening Was Day of Pride for Atlanta, Georgia and the South,” the Constitution concluded with a message that, at least in retrospect, seems to have had double meaning for the departure of the Atlanta Times: “A great deal of the good rearing on which the South prides itself was shown and much of the locked-in practice based on old prejudice, hurtful to both races, was quietly moved off the center-stage at last.”

Hank Klibanoff is coauthor with Gene Roberts of The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for history. He has spent thirty-six years as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Mississippi, Boston, Philadelphia, and Atlanta, where he arrived in 2002 as managing editor for news at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He left the newspaper last summer.

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