For those who remember me as the wild child of Atlanta journalism (remember the costumed gorillas who tried to arrest Fulton Commission Chairman Shag Cates for monkey business in 1976 ?) it may come as a surprise to learn the my first job in the city was with The Atlanta Constitution. Tom McRae, the courtly managing editor of the morning newspaper hired me in the summer of 1969 after I was chased out of Meridian, Miss. by the KKK for reporting on the police killing of a 14-year-old black kid.
Tom must have sensed something crusading in me, a potential throwback to the Jack Nelson era of golden glory for southern newspapers fighting the good fight against fear and hatred. Maybe.
I wound up on the copy desk. Like most, it was a horseshoe of tabletops with the scowling, elephantine chief copy editor in the middle, barking “copy!” like a terrier. every five minutes He checked stories for trim length, headline fit and everything for potential libel. Since the days of Ralph McGill, segregationists had walloped the Consti with libel suits on an almost weekly basis. It was their way of strangling a free and inquisitive press. But it made the Consti very careful about checking the facts.
The job began just before the moon landing in August 1969. The newsroom came to a dead stop as everyone, from the superstar reporters Jeff and Achsah Nesmith to this kid two years out of college gathered around the TV to watch Neil Armstrong muff the most historic words in science since “Eureka!”
After the televised moon show, we filtered back to our jobs, editing wire copy and staff stories for the next day’s Consti.
One AP squib was about a Defense Department probe of Goodrich Tire for alleged falsification of tests on a new tire for fighter jets. I edited it for length and wrote two or three words noting the essence of the story for the headline to come later in the evening. The edited copy went via copy boy in a wire basket into the bowels of the building to be set in molten lead type on a hellish contraption called the Linotype. The machine’s inventor went crazy and pressmen who set the type by punching large keys to convert a liquid silver tub of 600-degree lead into lines of reversed letters tended to die in whole battalions of lead poisoning. But I digress.
About three hours after I sent the edited tire story to composition, I got word that the tire probe story now needed a two line, two column 24 point headline. So I wrote:
Feds probe Goodyear on bogus tire charge
In those antique times, the newsroom didn’t use computers. I didn’t have any information to base my headline upon since hard copy had long since gone south into the terrifying composing room. My scribbled story note said only “tire probe.” And so the headline above is what I wrote. Hell, Goodyear popped into mind because it had the blimp, its ads were all over the place. Goodrich? What the fudge was a Goodrich?
When the bulldog edition came out (this was a short press run so copy editors and others could check the pre-first edition for mistakes) I went to all my stories and headlines. I saw “Goodyear” in the headline. I felt crystals of ice form in my blood. Shitshitshit. Story says Goodrich; headline says Goodyear. I immediately circled the error and it was fixed before the statewide edition was printed. No harm done. Public never saw it. The copy editor warned soto voce: No next times, Lewis.
Kathleen and I lived at Juniper and Third in Midtown in a yellow brick apartment building located where the Confederates had hanged Andrews’ Raiders during the Civil War. The first Atlanta Pop Festival had just been held and hippies were arriving in Atlanta from throughout Dixie. I felt I was on my way to becoming a big city journalist.
All would-be cub reporters at the Consti had to work for a year on the copy desk and commit the AP Stylebook to cold, solid memory. My dad was proud, Kathleen had just landed a job in Rich’s Store for Fashions bargain basement selling clothing and life was going to be good in Atlanta. Wave goodbye to the Kluckers of Mississippi!
Two days later, Tom McRae called me into his office. He closed the door and asked me whether I wanted a Coke or a coffee. Geez, I thought. Only six weeks on the job and I’m gonna be offered a promotion already for my rapier wit and sly punning headlines.
“Boyd, I really like your work, but we’re going to have to let you go. At the end of the shift tonight, take whatever you brought and give your ID to the guards.”
It was, he explained, the Goodyear headline thing. I admitted it was a careless inattention to detail, a verboten quality on the copy desk. But in defense, I said I’d caught the error before the papers ever left the building. Defending the defenseless, I said that the elephantine barking chief copy editor had told me it was carelessness, easily corrected and that he had often confused the two similarly named tire companies.
Tom McRae said he was sorry, he truly was, but my career at the Consti was over. Kathleen was crushed. I looked over Atlanta’s media scene and it was a most goddamned dismal scene. The Journal, still its own paper, wouldn’t touch me if the Consti had tossed me in the trash. Cox Communications owned all. The biggest TV station, the planterly ratings king WSB radio, the only daily papers and Georgia’s largest auto auction lot. Flippin’ monopoly, it was. I sold blood for cash to pay the rent.
That’s how I wound up in my most satisfying job in my entire career in journalism: as “White Boy with the Black Press.”
Then, J. Lowell Ware, publisher of The Atlanta Voice, took a risk in 1969 by hiring me as a reporter. The paper had been started by Ware and the late Ed Clayton, who served as SCLC’s communications director under Dr. King after the assassination. I was immersed in the world of Martin King: the people who knew him, taught him, risked their lives with him on the lonesome, deadly roads of the rural South and who argued with him over the bill at Alex’s Barbecue Heaven. The Consti copy desk could have never introduced me to this.
On a fall day in 1971, I met Tom McRae in Piedmont Park. He had a magnificent old Rolleiflex TLR and was taking photos of the foliage.
“I tried to save your job,” he told me. “I liked your work and it wasn’t fair to fire you over a minor mistake that the public never saw. But the guys in advertising…” I began to see the picture emerge. “…At that time, they were negotiating with Goodyear over a set of display ads and wanted to show the clients that The Atlanta Constitution was there for them, protecting the interests of Goodyear.”
“I fought the decision, but you were gone and that was that.”
As we walked around Lake Clara Meer, we talked about photography, journalism and life in general. “The same thing happened to me, sort of,” McRae told me.” About a year later, I got into a brouhaha about the influence the ad department had over news decisions. They pushed me out. I was offered early retirement with no other options.”
We parted and I never saw him again. A career spanning 27 years had begun for me in Atlanta journalism. Another black newspaper hired me away from the Voice. I did programs for Radio Free Georgia and columns for the Great Speckled Bird. I became the first news editor of Creative Loafing. WABE hired me as public radio news reporter, anchor and producer for NPR programs for a total of 17 years. Then two years writing scripts for the anchors of CNN’s main evening newscast.
I wouldn’t change anything that has happened, even the Goodrich/Goodyear shenanigans. It all had its purpose, quite cleverly concealed at the time.
And it led me to using what little I know about the English language to teach 12 year-old Latino kids in the barrio schools of South Central and East Los Angeles. I love it. I should be here. This is right. This is where I’ll be until the work is ended.
But none of it would have happened if I hadn’t been sacked by The Atlanta Constitution back in those cicada-humming mists of memory. I dedicate this remembrance to the late Tom McRae. Selah.