Covering History as it Broke John N. Popham

“Covering History as it Broke”
John N. Popham
Harry Ashmore

Vol. 6, No. 1, 1984, pp. 17-19

In 1947, when he first stopped in at my office at the Charlotte News, John Popham was the only newspaper correspondent assigned to a beat that stretched from the Potomac to Eagle Pass. His one-man bureau in Chattanooga was the first the New York Times had ever established in the continental United States outside of Washington. To these unique distinctions he added two of his own that I am reasonably certain have not been duplicated by any of his talented young successors: for more than a decade he covered this vast territory without benefit of air transport or strong drink.

Sustained only by black coffee, he managed to more than hold his own in the convivial colloquies that mark any gathering of the working press–but then he often left early, dispatched by his desk in New York to some new outbreak of news in Miami, or Dallas, or Louisville, explaining that he ought to get started since he was driving. Moreover, he always said he avoided the through highways and kept to the back roads so he would have a chance to absorb the wisdom of the ordinary folk he encountered in crossroads stores, smalltown cafes and rustic pool halls.

His explanation for his abstemiousness was that his innards had been ravaged in the course of his wartime service with the Marines in the Pacific, but I found this dubious. To one who had been there, it seemed unlikely that a man with a delicate stomach could survive the cuisine in those backcountry establishments where the overpopulated

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flypaper curled down in strips from the ceiling and a prudent man would limit his order to a hardboiled egg and an orange, and insist on peeling both.

It was only after he had left the secondary roads for a more sedentary assignment as executive managing editor of the Times’ outpost in Chattanooga that Pop joined the rest of us at the bar. On the sad occasion of Ralph McGill’s funeral I first encountered him with a tall glass of bourbon in his hand, and in my astonishment exclaimed, “My God, Pop! It may make you garrulous!” But there was in fact no perceptible change in his delivery, which has been described–by Claude Sitton, I believe–as resembling sorghum fired from a Gatling gun. At his retirement party aboard the Wabash Cannonball in the railyard at Chattanooga the truth was finally divined by Bill Emerson of Newsweek, who had trailed Pop across the South in the years of the Troubles: “The sneaky little devil has been saving up his liver for the golden years.”

Happily, both liver and larynx have remained in fine fettle, and the mellifluous voice of Popham is still heard in the land–on platforms wherever worthy causes command his attention, in seminars where awed academics sit at his feet,

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above all in free-flowing conversation with old friends and young admirers who know where to turn when they seek insight into this New/Old South that continues to baffle all too many of those who write about it.

When he settled in at Chattanooga in 1947 he brought to his new assignment the passion of the native returned from exile. His roots are deep in the Virginia tidewater, but his boyhood was spent trailing his peripatetic father, a distinguished officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. His college was Fordham, he apprenticed on a Brooklyn newspaper before graduating to the Times, and he got his first whiff of politics covering New York’s City Hall.

But when he came back from his own service as a Marine officer in World War II a new boss had taken over the newsroom at the Times, Turner Catledge of the Philadelphia, Mississippi, Catledges. Instinct told Catledge that the post-war South was going to be the next great domestic news arena, and he knew where to find the right man to interpret the impending socio-economic changes for the parochial readers of the nation’s leading newspaper.

So Pop began the odyssey that would make him a witness of the historic confrontations that marked the era of what Ralph McGill called “guerrilla fighting among the ruins of the segregated society.” He was one of the few who had innocent passage ‘across the lines–the trusted confidant of diehard segregationists and embattled black leaders, and, above all, a sympathetic audience for the ordinary citizens of both races who were trying to find somebody who understood what they were talking about.

Those were the days when politicians who professed to speak for the South finally abandoned the fiction that the region’s second-class citizens were a happy, contented lot, and began to talk in terms of the apocalypse. When the Brown decision came down in 1954 John Bartlow Martin toured the Southern statehouses and proclaimed in the Saturday Evening Post: “The South Says Never!” A swarm of hit-and run national correspondents descended upon the region and there would have been an even greater multiplication of the ubiquitous black and white Southern stereotypes had Pop not been available as an omnipresent oracle wherever there was an outbreak of violence.

To those who were willing to listen, and some who weren’t, Pop explained that the facts of Southern life were rarely what they seemed to be, and almost never what the spokesman for an agitated constituency said they were. There was, God knows, plenty of overt brutality, but there was also a reservoir of interracial goodwill that would make it possible to dismantle the old segregated institutions in reasonably orderly fashion.

There are still those who believe the great sea change which has made possible this audience in this hotel was bracketed by the Montgomery bus boycott and the triumphant march from Selma to the Alabama capitol, where Martin Luther King proclaimed, “We are on the move now–no wave of racism can stop us.”

Willie Morris, who once thought he could go north to home, is still bemused by the high drama of those stirring days now that he has again taken root in his native Mississippi. Writing of what he found there upon his return, he dated the recasting of race relations from the day the FBI dug the bodies of three slain civil rights workers out of an earthen dam down in Neshoba County:

“Gradually, almost imperceptibly in the years which followed, something would begin to stir in the soul of the town. A brooding introspection, a stricken pride, a complicated and nearly-indefinable self-irony … would emerge from its dreadful wounds. A long journey lay ahead, marked always by new aggrievements and retreats, yet this mysterious pilgrimage of the spirit would suggest much of the South and the America of our generation.”

Pop could have told him that the instrospection, the pride, and the self-irony have been around since the first slave ship, and the first Popham, landed in the Tidewater. There are the qualities that have marked his tour of duty below the Mason-Dixon Line–the qualities that left their imprint upon the blend of the Old and the New that is John Popham’s South.

And to these he added one more that he demonstrated in remarkable fashion when he was finally unbound from his desk at the Chattanooga Times. Once again he hit the road, this time as a commuter, first to Nashville, then to Atlanta, where he enrolled in law school. I submit that only an abiding commitment to justice could have motivated the seventy-three-year old applicant for admission to the Georgia Bar you welcome tonight as a Life Fellow of the Southern Regional Council.

Remarks by Harry S. Ashmore upon the installation of John Popham as a Life Fellow of the Southern Regional Council; Peachtree Plaza Hotel, Atlanta, November 12, 1983.