For much of long and adventurous life, my chosen profession as a newspaper reporter and photographer has been an incredible way to make a living.
The sad existence of bigotry and racism are defining reasons.
As a youngster going to school in racially-divided Farmville, Virginia, I turned to words and photos to expose what I saw in a county where the Ku Klux Klan dominated local government and hate ruled the day.
When Ben Bowers, then city editor of The Farmville Herald, saw my photo of a Klan meeting, taken while laying in the grass at the edge of a clearing less than five miles from the Prince Edward County seat, he not only printed it but saw that it made the Associated Press wire.
It cemented my desire to become a newspaperman.
I thought about that time while reading an email this morning from a reader who asked: “Why do you do what you do? It makes a lot of people hate you.”
Yes, perhaps it does. I got the crap beat out of me by classmates in Farmville because of that photo and for other things I said and wrote about the deplorable conditions created by the racist decision of the Prince Edward County School Board and Board of Supervisors to close public schools to prevent integration and replace local education with an all-white “private school.”
I get hate e-mail and threats almost daily. Nearly all come from anonymous sources, so I — of course — consider the source and trash them.
Thankfully, our family got out of Farmville, moving in 1961 to Floyd County, the birthplace of my mother and stepfather. It also gave me a chance to meet Pete Hallman, owner of The Floyd Press. He looked at my photos and stories and hired me at age 17 to report and shoot pictures for the paper, where I worked while attending the then-new Floyd County High School.
That start gave me a chance to become a full-time daily newspaper reporter for The Roanoke Times in 1965, followed by a dozen years at The Telegraph in Alton, Illinois, and then freelancing and working for wire services and magazines in Washington, DC, after an ill-advised “sabbatical” as a political operative.
At the Times, I covered rallies of the Klan in Franklin and Patrick Counties, covered protests after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and the early days of Roanoke’s Total Action Against Poverty program.
Alton was the birthplace of James Earl Ray, the convicted assassin of Dr. King, and the location of a pro-slavery mob that killed Elijah Lovejoy, the newspaper publisher, who is recognized a martyr for Freedom of the Press. I covered racial issues there and during my 23 years in Washington.
Yes, we had racism in Floyd County but the schools were integrated My maternal grandfather despised blacks and would scream obscenities at the TV screen when Dr. Martin Luther King appeared. If I argued against his rants, he would order me to leave his home.
We don’t see as much of that today, at least in Floyd, but traces still exist.
I saw it surface during the two-terms of Barack Obama. It lingered, like a demon in the shadows, with some members of the local tea party. It was on display by an area author who promoted a book endorsing slavery at the annual craft fair. We still too often see it on bumper stickers or hear the dispicable “n-word” in conversations.
We saw it with some who embraced the movement to change consideration of the Confederate battle flag from what I, and many others, believe should always be a symbol of shame, racism and a treasonous war against our country.
Amy, my wife, refused to do business with a local company after one of their employees said he had to “work like a n—-r.” Fortunately, both the employee and his company, are gone.
Readers and friends know that even a hint of racism is a hot button for me. I can’t understand or support bigotry. I loathe intolerance. When confronted with what I see as despicable behavior towards those of differing beliefs, lifestyles or philosophies I respond.
Racism, I feel, is born out of bigotry. We see bigotry around us now in those who publicly deride Muslims, gays, transgenders and others of differing beliefs, faiths or religions.
As long as it exists, I fear that America can never truly proclaim itself as the “home of the brave and land of the free.”