Popham: "Avoiding the Hit and Run Press"

By Eleanor Mccallie Cooper

Vol. 6, No. 1, 1984, pp. 19-22

"Just call it as you see it, John, anything that you can see in the South, the enormous changes that are about to take place. We don't know, nobody knows how it's going to be this time. We know it's a different world, and we intend to report it in depth."

The voice was that of Turner Catledge, the assistant managing editor of the New York Times and a Mississippian himself. The year was 1947. He was sending out a young reporter from the Times, John N. Popham, to be the first regional correspondent in the Southeast, to cover the South from DC to the Delta, fifteen states that made up what John later termed "a hundred Souths."

Leaving behind New York's multi cultural diversity, the young reporter found himself with a new beat of well over fifty-thousand miles a year, covering such divergent regions as the Mountain South, the Piedmont, the Delta, the Black Belt and the coasts. With Chattanooga as its headquarters, he made it home only five days a month for the next eleven years.

The reasoning behind this assignment, Popham explains, was that the New York Times was going to try to "stamp the country on a regional basis." As the largest news


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enterprise in the nation, its managers decided to tap the news from across the land: "'Let's put a man in Boston who will take all the New England states; put a man in Detroit to take the heavy industry, automobile and steel; put two men in Chicago to take the great wheat world and mid-America; put a man in L.A. to take Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, and a man in San Francisco to take Northern California, Oregon and Washington, because they go together.' And then I got the whole South."

The Southeast bureau was stationed in Chattanooga, because of the family connection between the Chattanooga Times and the New York Times. Adolph S. Ochs, a native of Tennessee, had owned and operated the Chattanooga Times twenty years prior to acquiring the New York Times in 1896. Because both papers had remained in the Ochs family, Chattanooga was the natural choice for Popham's headquarters.

When Popham became managing editor of the Chattanooga Times in 1958, the Southeast bureau moved to Atlanta. But in those early days, Popham said, "It didn't make any difference where it was. The South had not grown that much, and Atlanta wasn't much different than Chattanooga at that particular time. No sir, not a whole lot different, just a couple of hotels downtown and the governor's office."

A Tidewater Virginian himself, John was no greenhorn to the South. The Popham family had been in Virginia since the colony was founded, and his father, like other military officers from Virginia, had bought a house in Fredericksburg, close to his native Culpepper. Young John grew up well rooted in the life of the small town South, the history of the area, and the heritage of his great-grandfather who was publisher and editor of the Richmond newspaper, the Southern Intelligencer, and later of tine' Washington Intelligencer. His sense of history and his understanding of small town politics served as assets in his new assignment, as did his forever undimished Tidewater accent.

After finishing college at Fordham, he had landed in New York in 1930 as a reporter for the Brooklyn Standard Union, covering all the beats, the courts, the police, the criminal world: "Here I was with this family background and schooling from a small town in Virginia, and then suddenly, I end up in New York, thrown into the midst of the greatest multi-cultural city on the face of the earth. And it's my job to report it, with all the cultures."

He learned that world so well that when he returned from service in the Marine Corps at the end of World War II, he was asked by three successive New York mayors to be the director of public relations. Having spent the war in the Pacific, and many summers of his youth traveling with his father to Latin America and Asia, intercultural exchange was nothing new to young "Pop": "I was in a position to make judgments, to see things as I would never have seen them if I had stayed in the South all of my life, or if I had come from the North only. I was able to bridge that gap a little better than the average person would have thought of."

But he never accepted the offers of Mayors O'Dwyer, Walker or LaGuardia. Instead, he stayed in the old world of newspaper reporting where he accumulated no credits, few by-lines and not much salary to speak of.

Popham describes the state of the South as he found it in the late 1940's:

In the face of efforts which were under way to broaden the scope of civil rights for blacks in this country, Southern political leaders were making their usual response: "We'll handle that, "and "We have our way of life, "and "We will not adjust or change except on our terms. " That had been the winning hand for generations and there wasn't any reason for anybody in high office at that time to see that there would be anything different.

The thinking was that the South was going to be more industrial, that it had an opportunity to have a larger slice of the economic pie of the country. Air conditioning had come. It was pleasant and comfortable.

The war had brought literally millions of people into the South--military people and their families. Many stayed here; some married Southerners.

Our universities were getting larger; they were going from thirty-five hundred students in the state university to ten-thousand, and young people from the rest of the country were coming here to attend classes.

There was an excitement, a feeling that the South would overcome its poverty. It had lived right through the war as the poorest section of America. Now there was an excitement that the South could become a much more viable part of the country."

In tapping the stories of fifteen states on the verge of economic and social upheaval, Johnny Popham was helped by his background, by his personal drive and by the enormous empathy which made him trust and be trusted. In conversations lasting long after an event had been covered and a story had been written, he came to know Southerner's thoughts, feelings, fears and ambitions. He based his stories on these insights rather than on the latest opinion polls.

If, for instance, he were assigned to a conference in New Orleans, he would get the story then stay around to make contacts:

I would stay the whole week that it lasted, sitting up way into the nights talking to scores and scores of these people from the small towns and cities of the South. After that, I would go out of my way on an assignment, or stop at a town and look that person up and talk to them, recall that friendship, or maybe find there was a story in that town, what they were trying to do to make the community a better place to live. And I might do a little Sunday piece about some particular effort, get them some local and national attention for their efforts. I built up a large network like that, and consequently, I always had an opportunity to know where something was going to take place.

If it was evident from the way things were taking place that there was going to be a confrontation in a certain city, most of the newspaper men would respond like a bucket brigade--they'd come in when the trouble began to break. But I would always call someone, for example, the governor in that state, and say, "Well, Governor, this is Popham. Who's a friend of yours in that town? Who do you know?" With politics it was going to be a feed merchant or a druggist or somebody down there that handled the patronage for the governor, and he'd say, "I'll call him, Pop, and tell him you 're coming in. " I'd go in two or three days in advance; this man would take me out to the country club for dinner or introduce me to people on the main street. Consequently, I always knew just about where to stand, where to be, what place to go to, and later when the press might be the target of bitterness and anger, I would be excused


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for several days. People would say, "Oh, that is Mr. Jones' buddy, he's all right--until they read the New York Times `and then decided that I had to go too. But it took them a long time to get the Times in there.

In a car with little, or no, air conditioning, over roads with little, or no, pavement, usually alone and often at night, Popham covered fifty, sixty, seventy thousand miles a year. His salvation was, as he said. "I don't bore myself." In fact, the long hours on the road served to his advantage in a way that jet age telecommunications do not allow:

If I had to come back to Chattanooga from New Orleans or from Jacksonville or Dallas, I'd drive three or four days, stopping off at different places. What I wanted to write would be filtering though my mind. I'd be pretty well prepared to sit down and knock out the Sunday piece or the interpretive piece that this event called for a few days later. I think that some of the success that I had in that period resulted from the fact that I could contemplate what I wanted to do and put it in a good frame. I didn't think about that at the time, but as I look back, I think it helped a lot.

The first task for Popham was to find the sages, the vital and vibrant figures who had some wisdom about what was happening around them, the people who "could envision the future and worked behind the scenes to solve a great many problems." Once he found them, he cultivated them, respected them, and took time to build trust.

These people were all over the South. He found them as governors, workers, newsmen, lawyers, sociologists and teachers. People such as Ralph McGill, Hodding Carter, Howard Odum, Rupert Vance, Charles Johnson. A. T. Walden, Gerald Johnson, George Mitchell, Harold Fleming, Virginius Dabney, and Alf Minders became his sources of knowledge and wisdom. But more than just the leaders, he found endless numbers of people throughout the South who cared and worked quietly:

They were all over the South. There were many wonderful people who had been silenced in many ways, and they accepted that, but they didn't stop working! There was an enormous number of people that were doing good things in the South, but if you came from outside, they were not going to show their hand.

If you just came pouring in from out of the region and stuck a mike in somebody's face and said, "Well, how do you feel about desegregation?" the first thing that was on his mind was his family and his job, and he'd say, "Well, I can 't see it. " He was protecting himself. You might find if you sat down and talked to him about yourself that he felt there was a trustworthiness and he's begin to open up too. But he was not about to disclose that world to an outsider who asked in a manner dangerous to him at that time.

This Southerner that Popham's late night divulgences uncovered was not the Southerner publicized across the


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country. As Popham says, "We lived so long with our own myths. There were hundreds and hundreds of Southerners who didn't think that way but who were trapped at the moment." Later, they were able to "come out and declare themselves." Today, Popham observes, "there's no such thing as a serious candidate running for statewide office in the entire South on a racial ticket. It's gone."

The other Southerner that the "hit and run" press missed was the black leader, often quiet, also trapped by circumstances, but just as silently laying the foundations. Popham sought out these leaders and found them in the black universities and churches.

If a black university, for example, invited a speaker, the local press would arrive, cover the speech and leave. However, Popham stayed on, lingered around the punch bowl long after the microphones and cameras had left and learned a great deal more:

You'd have a story about what the man said; he had come to the South to bring a message and you'd write that story. And yet there were scores of things that were going to take place, and all of the leads were available that evening at the party; going to somebody's house afterwards, a group of professors would come and maybe one or two bright students and sit and talk until midnight. By ten o'clock at night, he'd open up his heart about what he really thought and felt. That makes for better reporting. Then I'd go back to my motel. I could always call on him afterward.

In 1948, John married Frances Evans of Nashville who settled in Chattanooga and raised John IV and Hillary while John traveled in the family's only car. After a decade on the road, John, in 1958, chose to stay closer to his family and accepted the position of managing editor of the Chattanooga Times. John's third career in the newspaper world came to a close nineteen years later. Only in looking back over the entire spectrum could he see the preparation he had had and the role that he had played in the South.

You have to leave the South to see it. If you stay here, you think it is this way everywhere. I owe so much to those trips overseas with my father, to my years as a Marine--you can 't underestimate the influence of military experience upon the South--and to the multicultural experience of New York. Those were golden years of print, before television, when all of these critics went through the press. We were prepared to respond to eruptions, to converse with people and to cover many, many issues. Other people did it better than I in New York; I was a junior reporter. But it prepared me for my role in the South. Only later could I see what I had done.

Eleanor McCallie Cooper lives in Chattanooga, Tenn. Thanks to the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Bicentennial Library for permission to excerpt the interview with John Popham conducted on August24, 1983, by Norman Bradley for the Chattanooga Oral History Project.