Without a doubt, I recall white supremacist Richard Barrett as one of the wackiest critters I ever covered in close to four decades of reporting for the AJC. But I never thought he would end his days on the planet as a victim in a gruesome homicide. Since murders and weird people seem to have made up more than half of the stories I did, Barrett seems worth a farewell (or good riddance, take your pick) piece for Like The Dew.
The guy was truly bizarre, even when compared with others of his ilk, like the late J.B. Stoner and his associate “Doctor” Ed Fields, who found hate mongering more fulfilling, and perhaps more profitable, than being a practicing chiropractor. Fields may still be around, though he must be crowding 80 years old.
Back to Barrett, who I first ran into covering the 1987 racial disturbances in Forsyth County when Hosea Williams led a civil rights march into what was then a virtually all-white locale. Barrett’s trademark was blue jeans, suspenders, a light blue shirt and a ball cap with a cotton boll patch.
When the Democrats held their 1988 National Convention here in Atlanta at what is now the CNN Center, the city had cleared a nearby parking lot as a “free speech zone” for protesters of all kinds, from animal rights activists to vegetarians and outfits from every extreme of the political spectrum. Mayor Andy Young had given the first 90-minute slot of the four-day convention to the far political right — as I recall. Young’s reasoning was that this bunch was most likely to attract or cause problems, so let’s get them out of the way first.
About 100 KKK sorts had gathered at a staging area near Atlanta Stadium and were going to pep-rally at the Capitol — it was a Sunday — then drive to the “protest area” near the convention.
When I got to the Capitol, there were already 500 young militants — all of them in their teens and early 20s — gathered to “confront” the racists, screaming, throwing firecrackers and bottles. About 300 cops kept them at bay as more than 50 reporters kept watch. It looked and sounded worse than it was.
Suddenly, who comes tooling by himself down Washington Street in a pickup truck but Barrett. I guess he hadn’t gotten the word about staging at the stadium, or maybe he didn’t care. For another 90 minutes, all of us in the press corps were a captive audience as Barrett admonished Police Chief George Napper and Maj. W.W. Holley that he had a constitutional right to go to the DNC. I called the city desk, and Scott Thurston, then an assistant city editor, told me “don’t let Barrett out of your sight.”
I assume that Napper and Holley got tired of Barrett, for they told him they would remove the barricade at Washington Street and MLK Drive long enough for him to get the hell away. Barrett then announced, climbing into his truck. “If Jesus Christ can enter Jerusalem on a donkey, Richard Barrett can ride down Marietta Street in a Chevy pickup.”
No, I am not making this up.
Remembering Scott’s instruction, I hopped in the shotgun seat. Barrett was clearly puzzled. “My bosses don’t want you out of my sight, Richard,” I said. “Let’s hit it.”
The rest of the media pack took notice, and started shouting questions along the lines of “what the f— are you doing?” and “who is that nut?”, as a cop shouted to Barrett “Now!”
Barrett drove, the wrong way and slowly, toward MLK Drive, past screaming kids with signs proclaiming them from the Revolutionary Communist Party and the like, shaking their fists, signs, and middle fingers at us. Barrett drove like a snail. I waved.
Barrett took a hard left on MLK Drive and asked me directions to the “free speech” zone. We parked about a block away, and he jumped from the pickup, hollering incessantly, “Go, go, go!” When I caught up to him, he was already arguing with more than a half dozen gay rights activists from an outfit called ACT-UP, known at the time for public displays of outrage and guerrilla theater.
One of them suddenly shouted “Some of us have AIDS,” clearly for Barrett’s ears. “Let’s spit on him — maybe he’ll get it!” (Historical note: This was in the early period of the epidemic, before the development of life prolonging medicines.) Barrett turned as white as one of the Klan’s sheets (robes, actually — at least that’s what the members call them). The cops showed up moments later, and as they led Barrett away in custody, his pale blue shirt looked as if someone had thrown a pitcher of water at him.
Whatever malady Richard Barrett had, he survived not only another 22 years, he returned six months later to give Atlanta another headache, and a fiscally expensive one. Vowing that, by gum, he would complete a march from the Capitol up Marietta Street no matter what. He purposely picked a date as close as he could get to Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday.
The following January. as I recall, following a court order, Barrett and seven — count ’em, seven! — followers plus an underpaid reporter, shielded on both sides for every step by 1,000 National Guard troops, 700 cops from Atlanta and various state agencies, including the GBI. trod through the Downtown business district ducking a barrage of rocks. bricks and broken bottles from counter-demonstrators along the route.
As I recall, about a dozen people were treated for minor injuries; most of them were cops and guardsmen.
I guess there’s a free speech principle involved here that needed to be followed. And it was. As for Barrett, what a waste of 67 years. If there is anything positive about his bizarre career, he never managed to recruit more than a handful of followers. Still, all the effort and resources Atlanta mustered to deal with him seems in hindsight like dropping an anvil on a cockroach.