Thursday, September 22, 2022

Some People I have Known -- President Jimmy Carter

In the summer of 1971, I needed to complete an internship at a newspaper as a requirement for my journalism degree at Auburn University. I had no real connections at any newspapers, but I applied to The Atlanta Constitution and somehow got the job. What I had going for me was my election to serve as editor of the Auburn student newspaper for my upcoming senior year. This and some samples of articles I had written got me the job. My salary was $110 per week. I reported to Managing Editor Jim Minter, but pretty much anyone in the newsroom could give me assignments.

On my first day of work I was approached by Duane Riner, a political writer, who asked if I would go on a trip with the governor the next day. It involved riding on the inaugural flight of an Air South commuter flight which would provide twice-daily round-trip flights from Atlanta to Statesboro and Dublin. The airline used Beech 99 aircraft that carry 14 passengers. Governor Jimmy Carter and a few other dignitaries would be taking the first flight. 

Photo courtesy of The Carter Center
I called the governor's press secretary, Jody Powell, and was told to meet at the governor's office the following morning at 9:45. When I arrived, we left in a car with myself, Carter, and two state patrolmen. When we got to the airport, we were met by an airport police car that led us through a gate and out onto the field directly to the plane. I was seated on the flight next to Governor Carter. 

To say I was tongue-tied would be a vast understatement. I knew nothing of the governor or Georgia politics. But he proved to be an engaging conversationalist, and patiently explained the importance of the new service. He also expressed a polite interest in me as a would-be journalist. I had no idea that five years later he would be elected president, but I later learned that he was already thinking about it.

My first published story
in The Atlanta Constitution 
We flew to both towns where we were greeted by crowds excited about the new service and anxious to greet the governor. After a brief ceremony at each airport, we attended a luncheon in Statesboro and flew back to Atlanta. I wrote up a quick story about the new flights, and even though copy editors changed my lead, it was my first story published and my first byline in The Atlanta Constitution. A very big deal for me at the time. (I later spent a week on the copy desk, changing other people's sentences. Turnabout is fair play. Copy editors really just show the value of another set of eyes reviewing everyone's work.)

Duane Riner was one of the friendliest people in the newsroom. He always stopped by whichever desk I had borrowed that day to ask me how things were going. The political editor Bill Schipp was on vacation and Duane was a huge producer for the paper. He often submitted five to seven stories a day from the capital. As a result of his workload, he turned over several assignments to me, many of them interesting. At one point we co-wrote an article and shared a byline. And after work one day he introduced me to the bar where all of the reporters gathered for drinks after work, and where I spent many an evening thereafter. 

A few weeks after the plane trip, Duane asked me to begin covering a series of meetings in the governor's office. Carter was attempting to reorganize the state government to save money, and was personally meeting with group after group of representatives from various departments to discuss their budgets. These meetings lasted virtually all day several days a week.

Carter had nothing on his desk or credenza except a bowl of peanuts, which he offered to everyone who visited. There was not even a phone on his desk but he actually had two phones in different drawers of the credenza, a red phone and a black one. During the breaks between meetings, he never asked me to leave the office but instead would chat and relax or sometimes open a drawer to take a call until the next group came in. We had several good discussions, mostly about personal matters, and I ate a lot of peanuts. The only political comments I ever heard from him were expressing frustration with Lieutenant Governor Lester Maddox and mentioning that he was exploring pursuing higher office on a national level. I enjoyed Carter's company and I felt like I knew him that summer, but it was fleeting, and the time passed quickly.

Carter was obviously extremely intelligent and inquiring about every technical subject that arose. But his reputation for micro-management was on full display. The meetings were dreadfully boring and sometimes hours would be spent debating something like the elimination of a copy machine as a way to reduce costs. In the course of a full day of meetings it was usually difficult for me to discern anything newsworthy that had been discussed or decided. Can you imagine a headline like "Governor decides to eliminate capital third floor copy machine"?

After the first day spent at these meetings, I went back to the office and told Duane that I had nothing to write about. He nodded, and then I realized why the assignment was given to me. The Constitution political writer did not want the paper to miss any news that might develop, but he was not about to spend his days doing what an intern could do. I attended two or three of these meetings a week for a few weeks. There were only a few news stories, and they weren't terribly important. I did continue to develop a personal relationship with Governor Carter. Eventually I was asked to move on to other matters. Either the governor or the paper got tired of the whole process.

Life went on for me after that summer. Carter completed his term as governor in 1975 and was elected president in 1976. I had no contact with him until around 13 years later. In 1984, Dayle Powell, a friend from law school, contacted me where I was working in Birmingham. She asked if I would consider co-hosting a dinner in Birmingham for business leaders where former President Carter would speak. I was happy to help, both because of our friendship and because I was an admirer and acquaintance of President Carter. It was a fund-raising effort for The Carter Center, but I can't really recall details of the event itself.

President Carter told me that he remembered me well from my summer at The Constitution, but I don't know if he really did. He was likely just being a gentleman.

Whatever can be said about Jimmy Carter, his leadership style, or his tendency to manage things like a field commander rather than a president, he is a good and decent man who has worked hard to make a difference in the world. He is the only president I have ever met personally. I am honored to have known him.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Some People I Have Known -- Mrs. Florida Segrest

 As my wife and I have traveled together this summer, I have told her a few stories of people I have known, and she has always said: "You should write these stories down." And so I begin.

During my senior year at Auburn University I was editor of the student newspaper. Because it was a demanding job, requiring about 80 hours a week, I only took one course each quarter of the 1971-72 school year, and then completed college after two more quarters in December of 1972. Planning to go to law school, I needed a job for the nine-month gap until the following September. I was fortunate to be hired by Neil Davis, publisher of the Auburn Bulletin, to work at the small weekly paper he owned in nearby Tuskegee. When I interviewed Mr. Davis for the job I asked what my salary would be and was told I would earn $160 a week. More impressively, I learned that my title would be Managing Editor.

The Tuskegee News had a small office in Tuskegee with a part-time employee who had office hours to accept advertising and payments locally. "Managing Editor" meant I was the only full-time employee of the paper. There was no one to manage and nothing to edit. I had to write every story, sell some of the advertising, edit my own work, paste up the pages every Wednesday, watch the paper get printed in Auburn usually very late Wednesday night or in the wee hours of Thursday morning, and deliver the papers to machines and stores in Tuskegee early Thursday morning.

A young Mrs. Florida Segrest
One of my regular duties was to attend and report on every meeting of the Macon County Commission, which I believe met twice each month. It was there that I first encountered Mrs. Florida Segrest, chair of the County Commission. We got along famously. I believe she first took an interest in me because of my family name and because I worked for her friend Neil Davis, while I was curious about her given name and how she continued to be the only white elected official in a county with an 85% black population.

At the first meeting I covered, I sat right next to Mrs. Segrest as she presided and chain-smoked throughout the meeting. She had a peculiar habit of alternating between smoking one regular cigarette and one menthol cigarette all day long. She liked to keep her two packs even, so every time she put out one cigarette she would wait a minute or two and then count the cigarettes in each pack to determine what to smoke next. As it would work, if she counted 11 menthol cigarettes and ten regular, it was clear that she would smoke a menthol next. But every other time she counted, the two packs had an equal number left, leaving her baffled. When that happened, after counting them both she would set the two packs down and stare at them for a minute or two before just finally taking one or the other and lighting up. All of this went on while she was presiding over the meeting, and I understood right away that keeping up with her smoking was likely the most dramatic thing I would witness at each County Commission meeting. My meeting notes were always filled with notations of which kind of smoke she was having at what time, like "11:17 -- menthol". Her choice of what to smoke next was correct about half of the time. She could have turned to me at any time to ask "what's next?", but we never discussed her smoking habits.

The answer to my first question, about her name, came immediately after that first meeting, but the answer to the question about race only became clear over time. When I asked how she got the name "Florida", she said that she was born while her father was running for office in Florida and he chose to name her Florida as something of a campaign stunt. It turns out that her father was Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, as in "Broward County", governor of Florida from 1905 until 1909. Florida was born in 1904 during his successful campaign.

As I spent those nine months in Tuskegee, I got to know Mrs. Segrest

well. She and her husband had me to dinner one night at their rambling old home where they had installed a hospital bed in the living room for his use, as he could no longer climb the stairs. The house was dusty and drafty and the dinner was interesting, but the Segrests were great hosts and they went out of their way to make me welcome. Mrs. Segrest was a fountain of knowledge about the history of the Macon County area. Her stories lasted well into the evening. And she spent an equal amount of time inquiring about me, my family history, and my plans for the future. 

Tuskegee had been a center of the civil rights movement. After the first Civil Rights Act was enacted in 1957, progress was gradually being made to register more black voters in the city. Blacks outnumbered whites in the city by four to one and some whites were worried about losing control. So local white politicians lobbied the state legislature to change the boundaries of the city. (Without "local rule", such changes had to be made by special acts of the state legislature.) When the legislature acted, the new city limits had 28 sides, ran down alleys and between homes, and included every white voter while excluding nearly all black voters. The political effect of this maneuver was to join the forces of black residents with the interests of an elite group of well-educated black professors and staff at Tuskegee Institute and at a large veterans hospital there.

The result was a lawsuit named Gomillion vs. Lightfoot. With numerous parties on each side, the namimg of lawsuits is often pretty random, but Lightfoot was the mayor of Tuskegee while Dr. Gomillion was a Tuskegee Institute professor. I interviewed Dr. Gomillion while I was in Tuskegee and wrote a feature article in the paper about his life and the case. 

The case was dismissed by the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, and the decision was upheld by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Fred Gray, a Tuskegee attorney, along with Robert L. Carter, lead counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), argued the case before the United States Supreme Court. 

At the time of the Supreme Court hearing of the case, journalist Bernard Taper wrote:  “The state's redrawing of the city's boundaries had the unintended effect of uniting Tuskegee Institute's Black intellectuals with the less educated Blacks living outside the sphere of the school. Some members of the school's faculty realized that possessing advanced degrees ultimately provided them no different status among the city's white establishment."  

Gomillion v. Lightfoot, 364 U.S. 339 (1960), was the landmark decision that found an electoral district with boundaries created to disenfranchise Blacks violated the Fifteenth Amendment. When I got to know him, Fred Gray was quick to point out to me that Florida Segrest was the only white leader and her husband the only white attorney in the county to support the civil rights movement and the efforts to overturn the gerrymandering of the City limits.

Dr. Gomillion's hope for a bi-racial government in Tuskegee ultimately lost out to white flight. As a result, at the time I worked in Tuskegee, the mayor, every member of the City Council, the sheriff, and every member of the County Commission except Mrs. Segrest was black, and the number of white voters had shrunk significantly in both the city and the county. Mrs. Segrest was chair of the County Commission because her bold stand for civil rights in the late 1950's and 1960's gained her a permanent position of respect and leadership in the community for as long as she lived.

As for history, Florida Segrest is featured in a place of honor at the Tuskegee History Center, a museum established by Fred Gray. For a discussion of the huge role of Tuskegee in African-American history (including the birth of Lionel Richie and The Commodores) see this article, written by Mrs. Segrest's grandson. Her obituary can be seen here. Boxes of her historical documents were donated to the archives at both Auburn and Samford Universities. I am honored to have known her.