Beth Alston: 40 years go by quickly …..
Published 1:45 pm Monday, July 10, 2017
It’s difficult to comprehend that 40 years have passed since my “baptism by fire” in journalism. I hadn’t thought about the events of 1977 for some time and probably wouldn’t have if it were not for all the birthday wishes on Facebook for my sweet cousin, Asher. You see, Asher was born on July 2, 1977. His cousin Beth, a radio journalist, was busy trying to stay sane that night.
The event had been planned as a “rock concert” by the advance people who came to Sumter County a couple of months earlier. They obtained the permit required to hold the gathering which was held in an empty space they rented near the water tower in the city of Plains, perhaps the most famous small town in America at the time being that it was the hometown of the 39th President of the United States. I suppose that’s why the location was chosen what with the national and international media in town almost all the time. All kinds of crazy things happened in Plains back then. You could be strolling down the street and run in a celebrity or two. Wild.
I was news director at WDEC and fresh out of college, green as grass in the world of news. This would be the event that would earn my stripes and make my name known in the realm of broadcast journalism, even from a little town like Americus.
The week before the “music concert and patriotic display” was to occur, the front men finally admitted it was to be a rally … by the Ku Klux Klan. I was not even aware that this organization was still active. I could remember watching movies which portrayed the unimaginable actions of this hate group. I didn’t want to cover the rally but I knew I would have to.
That day, a Saturday, I had been visiting my parents at their home in Parrott and when I started to leave to return to Americus, my father asked why I was in such a hurry. I told him I had to work that night and of course, he wanted to know why. “I’m covering a Klan rally,” I said sheepishly. “You’re WHAT? Well, your brother is going with you!” he said emphatically. Brother Dennis was not happy at this turn of events, but I promised him cold beers after it was over. I was certain we would be home by 9 p.m. at the latest. Little did I know that this would be the longest night of my life so far.
Yep, there were Klansmen everywhere, wearing their robes and hoods. There were men and women and even some children wearing Klan drag. It was disturbing, but I couldn’t look away. I found it surreal and frightening. There were also a lot of “regular” folks, curious to find out what was going on in the President’s hometown. Just another wacky weekend in Plains, Georgia.
It was when the Klan’s “Imperial Wizard,” Bill Wilkinson took the podium that I first heard the low growl of a car engine. Some redneck, I thought. I heard it another time or two. Wilkerson was critical of President Jimmy Carter and said, “he will have to answer for his actions.” That’s when a very loud engine roar approached from the back of the podium, exploding through it and plowing through the crowds of Klansmen, national, state and local media, and curious bystanders. I must admit that I flinched when the car struck the podium, closing my eyes. My next awareness was my brother grabbing my arm and sagging down to the ground, repeating, “I’m having heart attack” over and over. I helped him up and told him to make sure he was uninjured I had to get my recorder from the stage area. He said the car was so close to him he felt the wind of it speeding by. It was then we heard what we thought was a gunshot (we later learned it was the Jaguar backfiring) and he dragged me across Highway 19 where we ducked behind some cars. After a couple of minutes, we went back and recovered my recorder. That’s when I remembered my friend from an Albany radio station and he was nowhere to be seen. I ran around searching for him. It was that frightened young woman’s face (mine) that the TV cameras caught and broadcast on the major networks. There were people crying, some screaming, some bloodied, some lying still on the ground, others being ministered to. There were 29 injured that day, some critically. None were Klansmen, who had all been asked to move to one side of the podium by the Imperial Wizard just before the crash.
The man who had driven his Jaguar through the speaker’s podium was identified as a 30-year-old tractor mechanic from Americus. I won’t name him here because he has served his time and hopefully is leading a “normal” life now. He was intoxicated at the time of the event and told then Sumter County Sheriff Randy Howard that he was against the Klan and was trying to interrupt the rally. He had succeeded.
Ambulances and law enforcement from all over started arriving. The injured were taken to the hospital in Americus where a press conference was scheduled for late that night. After finding the friend I’d been separated from, we went to the payphones in downtown Plains (long before cellphones) to feed our tape to our own stations and whoever else was interested. I called my parents, fearful they would see the news on TV. Then we went to work to piece together the story.
Most people who lived here then recall that the suspect was arrested and in October where was convicted of eight counts of aggravated assault and sentenced to serve 12 years in jail. Around Christmas that year, he escaped from jail in an attempt to visit his children but was recaptured within 17 hours.
So, what did I learn from this experience? Many lessons. Wilkinson had requested a copy of the rally tape. The week after I mailed it to him, I received the tape back with a short note, requesting a “clean” recording. I had not turned the mike off in the studio and a conversation between myself and two other radio staffers could be heard over the rally tape. It was our own theories on what had occurred. I felt as if I had a giant bull’s-eye on my back for a long time after that.
It was perhaps 20 years later than Randy Howard contacted me to tell me that Wilkinson was rumored to have been an FBI informant who had infiltrated the Klan. That made me feel a little bit better. I had been summoned to his motel room right before the mechanic’s trial to interview Wilkinson and was so afraid I asked someone to go with me. An AP stringer agreed to go. When I had to excuse myself to visit the bathroom, Wilkinson’s Klan robe was hanging on the shower rod. I broke out into a cold sweat and thought I might faint from fear. I didn’t. I finished that interview and got the heck out of Dodge.
Early the next year, I was invited to send an entry on the rally, the trial, etc. for a Peabody award. While I did not take home an award, I gained something far more valuable: experience in the world of journalism and the understanding that anything can happen anywhere at any time.
Beth Alston is editor and publisher, Americus Times-Recorder. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 229-924-2751.