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Covering racial issues sometimes was hazardous

POSTED: August 25, 2013 1:00 a.m.

Journalists realize risks come with the territory in their profession because they sometimes are the bearers of information readers, listeners or viewers don’t want to see or hear.

Like it or not, violence is news because it isn’t the norm, or isn’t supposed to be.

Northeast Georgia fortunately escaped a lot of turbulence during civil rights struggles of the past few decades, but it was the bull’s-eye for some incidents that produced international headlines.

The big one, of course, was the Forsyth County marches in January 1987. Times reporters and photographers who covered the first march were a bit apprehensive, but not scared when black activist Hosea Williams brought his relatively small group to protest racial discrimination in the mostly white county. Few expected such a large counter protest, however, as hundreds of whites gathered to jeer the civil rights marchers.

Bottles and rocks began flying toward the marchers, one missile apparently inadvertently striking Bryan Stiles, a Times photographer at the time. He hadn’t been afraid at that first march, but it turned out to be “a rough one. Things got crazy with rocks and bottles being thrown,” he said.

That got Stiles’ attention enough that he borrowed a bulletproof vest for the second Forsyth County march. Still, he was nervous. Thousands of civil rights marchers invaded the county, but state and local law enforcement officers numbered in the hundreds, and there were no serious incidents.

Stiles covered other racial events, including Ku Klux Klan rallies. He remembers one particularly tense KKK rally in Gainesville’s black community.

One of the most serious incidents in Gainesville happened in 1972 after a fight broke out between whites and blacks in a Gainesville-Johnson high school football game at City Park. A disturbance followed the game with car windows broken and other acts of vandalism. More than 30 arrests were made, and the city imposed a curfew to curb the violence.

Jackie Sosby was a Times reporter at the time and stayed up all night covering sporadic incidents. She recalls being escorted by law enforcement to vandalized areas the next day and having rocks thrown their way. Nevertheless, Sosby said she never felt threatened.

The late Mayor Joe Stargel called meetings of whites and blacks to defuse the situation, and Sosby recalled during one such session, somebody came in and said the former all-black E.E. Butler High School was burning. That turned out to be in error, but another building on the southside did burn.

Tom Reed, who recently retired as a Times photographer, remembers going to Atlanta to cover marches by white supremacists, and he, too, had a bottle target his head.

A couple of times, Klan leaders threatened to burn crosses in the yards of the newspaper’s editors.

During those times, the newspaper took pains to cover civil rights protests accurately, exercising care not to use inflammatory language in stories and to be sure all sides had their say. Once, Sosby remembered, the press had to be stopped to correct an inappropriate headline.

School board meetings, especially in the 1960s, were tense as local officials tried to carry out desegregation orders. There was considerable uproar when the Gainesville school board decided to close all-black E.E. Butler High School and send black students to all-white Gainesville High School, but few incidents followed.

Gov. Jimmy Carter praised the city’s overall response to desegregation efforts.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times, and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle, NE, Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays in The Times and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.


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