It’s hard to recapture what that tragic and sometimes crazy urban psychodrama of the Missing & Murdered Children crisis, recalled recently by a CNN special, was like for a working reporter at the late afternoon Atlanta Journal.
To borrow an overused expression, you had to be there.
I guess some background is in order for newcomers to Atlanta: The Missing & Murdered Children crisis was a 22-month killing spree that left 29 African-Americans dead, all but two of them boys and young men, between July 1979 and May 1981. The victims vanished from Atlanta’s streets, and were usually found asphyxiated or strangled; the age range of the victims increased as the killings continued, from as young as 9 to well into their 20s.
Ten-year-old Darron Glass, last seen leaving a church bus at Glenwood and Second Avenue on a Sunday evening in 1980, disappeared and has never been found.
Two black girls, one 7 years old, the other 12, were also among the slain, but police considered their homicides to be unrelated to the male deaths. As I recall, they investigated a boyfriend of the older girl’s mother as “a person of interest,” to use the current cop term, but no one was ever charged.
In retrospect, it’s easy to forget how completely the killings came to transfix the city for nearly three years , drawing national and international notoriety. And, when bodies started being pulled from the Chattahoochee and South Rivers in April, 1981, cops and the FBI began watching local bridges, a stakeout that resulted in the collar of Wayne Bertram Williams, a 23-year-old self-styled music talent scout.
Ten months later, a Fulton Superior Court jury convicted Williams of murder in the smothering deaths of the last two victims in the string of killings and disappearances; ironically, though the national media usually referred to Atlanta’s ordeal as “the missing and murdered children crisis,” Nathaniel Cater, 27, and Jimmy Ray Payne, 21, whose bodies were pulled from the Chattahoochee, were long past childhood.
Another irony is how authorities, pressed by personnel shortages, were planning to end weeks of fruitless bridge stakeouts within a day when in May, 1981 a cop heard a 3 a.m. splash and spotted a car slowly driving across the Jackson Parkway Bridge over the Chattahoochee..
The driver, pulled over and questioned for more than two hours, was Wayne Williams, the only child born in their middle age to retired school teachers Homer and Faye Williams. Throughout the series of killings, the suspect lived at home with his parents, who considered him a prodigy and defended him to the end.
To this day, Williams, now 52 and serving two consecutive life terms in the murders of Cater and Payne, insists he is innocent, most recently to CNN. But Atlanta police and the FBI linked Williams to their murders through tiny carpet fibers from the Williams’ home in west Atlanta, the defendant’s bedclothes, from the three cars he drove during the killings, bloodstains, dog hairs from his aged German shepherd, and witnesses who spotted him with Cater.
After Williams’ trial, authorities closed the books on 22 other killings, expressing confidence that Wayne Williams had committed them as well. Only five, including the vanished Darron Glass, remain officially open. The closest to a motive that prosecutors offered was that the middle class, pampered and indulged defendant had an extreme contempt for young “street blacks.”
What I recall most from that time, however, and that later arrivals to Atlanta did not experience, were the increasing anxious months before Williams’ arrest, when police had no real suspect, and many folks’imagination went into overdrive.
Some people drew from a bleak period of Southern history for a traditional culprit: the KKK.. No matter that the Klan by the early ’80s was a faded and nearly insignificant remnant of the hooded terrorists of Reconstruction and the 1920s, especially in a large city with a black mayor, city council members and legislators.
To be sure, many from the broadcast and TV networks, and national publications, arriving to cover “the Atlanta story,” examined as part of their assignment whether racial feelings were a factor in the murders.
That theory doesn’t hold together, based on my personal experience.
I recall it was early 1981 when a Journal editor assigned five or six reporters, including yours truly, a handful of victims apiece, with instructions to do background reporting and trace their last movements as well as could be determined.
For obvious reasons, the newspapers’ two or three marked staff cars (all we had then) were restricted to photographers. So here I was, with my pale face, driving my faded, banged-up, light blue Pinto into housing projects and other poor neighborhoods, my every movement watched intently by alert, stony faces.
It didn’t help matters any that the rumored description of the “child killer’s” car varied week to week: from light brown, light blue, beige, tan, light green, whatever. As it turned out, Wayne Williams had access to three different cars during the murders.
And while I don’t have any direct confirmation, it’s only logical that as more children and teenagers vanished, to turn up dead in isolated spots, any lone male journalist of whatever hue attracted wary to hostile looks as they traveled in their own or a rental car through affected neighborhoods.
As the crisis continued without a break, an element of pure wackiness seeped into the story. I recall some obscure political faction (a cult, really) , with utter seriousness, accused the Centers for Disease Control of being at the root of “the child murders.” They passed out press releases claiming that the CDC sought evidence that a substance in the penises of prepubescent black males could produce a cancer cure.
As the disappearances, followed by the discovery of strangled bodies, continued and occurred more often, a boiler exploded in a nursery at the Bowen Homes housing project and the public train of sanity almost went off the tracks.
And one of Atlanta’s most colorful and controversial politicians had what I think was his finest hour.
I was dispatched to Bowen Homes that October morning, and found crowds staring at a jagged pile of rubble from an explosion that killed four children and a teacher, and leveled a pile of concrete blocks but left unscratched a dental hygiene poster of a smiling white child brushing his teeth.
“It had to be a bomb,” I heard people saying. “What else would do that?”
Maynard Jackson, who many in Bowen Homes had helped elect mayor, pleaded with them. “There’s no evidence it was anything but an accident.” he said. The crowd booed him. A biracial couple from the Revolutionary Communist Party started shouting Marxist polemics. I left to find a pay phone and file. This was before cell phones, of course.
At a community meeting of about 300 that night in a nearby church, Public Safety Commissioner Lee Brown repeated the official pleas for calm, speaking in notes suited for a classroom. “We know the explosion took place in the furnace, but there are no indications of foul play…no fragment, no smell, of any explosive device.”
But the crowd was having none of it.”If a boiler exploded, why wasn’t there any steam?”
A guy claiming to be a veteran shouted, “It ain’t no furnace gonna do this, man! You got your experts? I ain’t got no degree, but let me investigate some of those bricks!”
People sitting near him clapped and cheered him on. Others who disagreed joined the shouting match, and before long the veteran and a woman offended by his swearing in church began screaming at each other. Everyone else joined in, it sounded like.
Sitting near me at the front of the church was Hosea Williams — even that long ago you could have tagged him with that over-used term “civil rights icon.” A contemporary of Martin Luther King Jr., former chemist (yes, he was!) rabble rouser, Atlanta councilman, Georgia legislator, a riveting rhetorician, a delightful guy to cover, and a demon driver whose trouble with cars and cops could fill a book. A large one.
The crowd noise lowered to a small roar as he suddenly stood. “I’d like the press to please leave,” Hosea said.
It was like flipping a light switch. Everyone started chanting, “Press leave! Press leave! Press leave!” I said, “Hosea, let me stay.” He replied quietly, “Please leave. I know where I’m going.”
I left, with the radio crews and TV crews. There really was little choice. Also ejected were the couple from their party newspaper, the Revolutionary Worker. As the pair were firmly lifted from their seats and ushered out, the guy yelled: “You’re doing this because I’m white!”
So much for Proletarian Brotherhood.
Outside in the church lobby I found Eldrin Bell, then a mere APD major, who shut the heavy doors to the sanctuary to keep out late arrivals.. I could hear Hosea addressing the crowd, but couldn’t make out what he was saying, so I went back to Marietta Street and wrote something for the Journal early before I went home.
I learned the following day Hosea, when he finished speaking, handled the crowd with his time tested remedy for crisis, a protest march form the church to Atlanta City Hall, a good 12 miles or so.
He told me sometime later, with a grin: “I marched their asses off!”
Who knows how that horrible day at Bowen Homes would have ended without Hosea Williams’ unique presence. Maybe quietly, maybe catastrophically. I’m just glad he was there.
As for his driving, well. I suspect you have wings where you are at now, Hosea. Please use them.