Where words go to play and sing

B Y - L A U R A - W E X L E R
P H O T O S - B Y - K I M - B A N C R O F T

Each year since 1969, a group of Southern journalists and educators has gathered to recall the struggle for Civil Rights—and how it was covered by the press

Hiya Pop!"

This greeting is first heard Saturday evening at cocktail hour, and it rings out again and again throughout the next 48 hours—at the steak dinner, the post-dinner soiree, the Sunday morning breakfast, and the brunch that make up a Popham Seminar weekend.

"Pop" is John Popham, the dapper 89-year-old around whom these weekends—part reunion, part political debate—have swirled these past 30 years. The first Southern correspondent for The New York Times, Popham arrived in Chattanooga in 1947, in time to record what he calls "the biggest revolution in the South since the Civil War." As he covered the South for the next 30 years, later as managing editor of the Chattanooga Times, Popham became the center of two groups of people—educators and journalists—who were caught up in the struggle for Civil Rights. In the trenches together during the tense days of desegregation, these people looked to Popham for inspiration and guidance, to each other for support and comraderie.

On a weekend in June, these same people—older and grayer, but with no less spirit or spunk—mingle in a room at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education, stopping their conversations, interrupting their reminisces, to clap Popham on the back and say brightly into his good ear, "Hiya Pop!"

The Popham Seminars honor John Popham, the first Southern correspondent for The New York Times and "journalism's point man" in the Civil Rights Movement.

You get drunk and tell lies. That's what someone told me when I asked what you do at these meetings," says Jerry Footlick, a former Newsweek editor, who traveled from New York to be in Athens for this year's Popham Seminar.

Or as Don Eastman, UGA's vice-president for strategic planning, put it in his remarks to the unruly dinner crowd on Saturday evening: "The Popham Seminars are dedicated to the proposition that great journalism and legendary drinking are inextricably intertwined."

It's true: Seminarians love wine and festivity, laughter and wild story-telling. But beyond the bluster and bravado is something serious. As Eastman says after the laughter dies down: "Popham Seminars honor two things: language, the art of articulating the human experience; and the courage and passion of those who wrote and acted for civil liberty at a turning point in our national nightmare of racial intolerance. We come together to hear the stories of that struggle and to honor its heroes."

Among this rowdy group are those who recorded and sought to understand what was happening in the South, who furthered the cause of Civil Rights by publicizing and writing about it. There's Bill Emerson, who headed Newsweek's southern bureau and served as the last editor of the Saturday Evening Post; Bill Minor, a longtime political reporter in Mississippi; Hodding Carter III, descendant of a well-known South Carolina newspaper family who worked in Jimmy Carter's press office and is now president of the Knight Foundation; and John Egerton, author of the seminal work Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation before the Civil Rights Movement in the South. Among the group's now-deceased members are the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the Arkansas Gazette, Harry Ashmore, and Bill Gordon, longtime editor of the African-American Atlanta Daily World, who won a prestigious Nieman Fellowship in 1952.

THE "POPHAM PARADE" (L-R, top of page)

George Tindall, retired, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Tom Teepen, columnist, Cox Newspapers
John Egerton, author-historian
Ray Jenkins (ABJ '51), retired editor, Baltimore Sun
Reita Rivers, retired, Georgia Sea Grant program
Bill Minor, Mississippi political writer
Fred Volkmann, vice chancellor for public affairs, Washington University
John Burness, senior vice president for university relations, Duke University
Hodding Carter III, president, Knight Foundation
Don Eastman, UGA vice president for strategic planning
"I look forward to it every year because, to me, it's both inspirational and frustrating to hear the stories of people who cared so much about what they did, and were able to use newspapers and the media to make a difference," says Robbyn Footlick, an arts and entertainment editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

For the most part, the men and women who attend are not famous. Even Popham isn't a household name, though, as Egerton wrote in a history of the seminars, he perhaps ought to be. "Popham had been journalism's point man in the mid-century theater of war in which the social transformation of the South was played out; in the colleges and universities, he had given voice to a new generation of leaders and provided inspiration for a regionwide educational awakening," wrote Egerton. "Perhaps more than any other person, he symbolized and personified the best of the extended trial and eventual triumph."

What stands out most about Popham is his overwhelming love for the people of the South. "You have to learn how to care for them," says Popham, "and how ugly they can be." It's a contradiction this group appreciates. Southerners all, they, too, are lovers and critics of the South.

With so many writers and thinkers involved in the Popham Seminars—and no one shy about expressing his opinion—it's no surprise there are several theories on how the whole business got started. Some say the journalistic faction started the group; in the late 1940s they'd formed a loose confederacy known as the Southern War Correspondents and Camp Followers. Others say it was like this:

"There were three of us sitting in a bar in the Dulles airport in 1968," says Ed Crawford, who is recognized as the driving force behind the seminar's continued existence. "Our plane to Atlanta was late, and we were sitting around talking about what we could do to honor Popham. We agreed we'd have a meeting, let him run it, and just listen to him talk."

In the airport bar that day along with Crawford, who was the public affairs officer for the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges, were Robert Anderson, UGA's vice-president for research from 1965-84, and Horace Renegar, public relations officer at Tulane. Each admired Popham, who was a self-proclaimed supporter of higher education; as they say in the trade, he was prone to giving higher education quite a bit of "ink."

The three men mailed invitations, informed Popham that he was the guest of honor, and held the first Popham Seminar at an Atlanta hotel in 1969. For the past five years, the group has met at UGA's Georgia Center for Continuing Education—a big step up, everyone agrees, from the early days.

They called it a meeting even then, but it was really a weekend when those in higher education in the South and those reporting on the South could get together and let off some steam. It was all men back then—hard-scrabble, hard-drinking journalists who came of age once-upon-a-time before Political Correctness. The group grudgingly agreed to allow women to participate back in the late 1970s, and a few women attend these days. But it's very much a men's club—and an old men's club at that. If you're in your 50s, you're a whippersnapper.

Lee Anderson, who continues to attend though her husband, Bob, died in 1987, remembers her first Popham Seminar. "I'd never been around such a wild group," she says. "There's a photograph of me taken at that meeting and I'm kind of peeking over the bar, watching all these men, looking like a little girl. They're wild raconteurs."

"For a while, I was the only young woman there, and I tended to stay in the background making them cocktails in the hospitality suite," says Robbyn Footlick. "Now I'm a little less busy because that doesn't go on as long as it used to. But this is a situation where I don't mind being called honey. It's worth it."

The frivolity, the way Popham flirts with women even in his ninth decade—mostly it's just story-telling, what these men do best.

"If there is one thing that typifies the Popham Seminarians, it's that they're just about as good in an verbal state as written," says Egerton. "It was talk—that's what it was about."

At this year's meeting, Minor talked about covering the Emmet Till lynching trial on a steamy day in 1955 in the Mississippi Delta. "Seventy reporters showed up in this little bitty town," he says. "The town hated us all. But among those covering the trial was John Popham. The damn local rotary club invited him to speak!"

Popham spoke in his rich Virginia accent about driving 70,000 miles a year in his prime, visiting politicians and preachers, trying to penetrate a South that was, he says, "locked up." Each seminarian stood and spoke. More often than not, it approached the poetic.

As Tom Teepen, an Atlanta-based columnist for the Cox Newspapers put it: "I come here like the dry earth looking for Spring rain. This is where the English language goes when it wants to play and sing."

While the Saturday night activities are largely devoted to remembering times and people past, the Sunday session is for discussing the present and future. It is these discussions that have been videotaped over the years and placed in the Archives of the South at UNC-Chapel Hill.

In his prime, reporter John Popham drove 70,000 miles a year, visiting politicians and preachers, trying to penetrate a South that was "locked up."

Flanked by historian-journalist John Egerton, the 89-year-old Popham takes time to sweet-talk the ladies.

This year's session, intended to concern the millenium, instead gets caught up on a matter clearly more urgent to the Seminarians: the staggering rate of incarceration of young black men. For an hour or so, they nurse coffee and nibble on pastries while bantering back and forth, one speaker riffing off the remarks of the previous like great jazz musicians.

"We have well over one-quarter of black men in the country in the criminal justice system," says Teepen. "I think the social consequences of this are beginning to shine through."

"DEA statistics show there's a vastly higher proportion of whites who do drugs than blacks," says Carter. "But in the face of that, there's a nine-to-one ratio—black-to-white—of who goes into prison."

"I find the situation very ominous," says Ray Jenkins (ABJ '51), former editor of the Baltimore Sun. "I'm afraid the black community's problems are based upon the tendency to dwell upon the past, to dwell upon grievances."

"Nobody's really working on an agenda," says Teepen. "Who's trying to set an agenda that has any kind of transcendence?"

"Everybody is so afraid to get to the core of a discussion about race, because it gets so angry so fast," says John Burness, senior vice-president of university relations at Duke University.

And the conversation goes on and on, meandering from one mind to another and back again. At the end, nothing's resolved. No matter weighty enough to be discussed here can be tied up quickly, but the Popham Seminarians have tossed their opinions into the vortex only to have them spun around and spit out with more insight. That's the beauty of good conversation, which is also the beauty of the Popham Seminars.

"We haven't solved all the world's problems," quips Burness as the meeting draws to a close, and Popham dons his straw hat and grabs his cane. "We'll do that next year."

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