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Retired Journalist Speaks to Kiwanis Club of Dougherty about the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s

Original Publish Date: 
June 18, 2015

By David Shivers, Guest Contributing Metro Writer

ALBANY, GA - Albany’s Jim Purks has worn a lot of hats during his working life, but probably none as adventurous as his stint as an Associated Press reporter during the Civil Rights Movement of the early to mid-1960s.

Purks, now an ordained Episcopal deacon, spoke of some of those adventures and how journalism has changed during a program for the Kiwanis Club of Dougherty County Mon., June 15.

At the beginning of his tenure with the AP, Purks was assigned to Birmingham, Ala., and “I arrived shortly after the fire hoses and (police chief) Bull Connor and the dogs.”

An event Purks said he will never forget is the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church on Sunday morning, Sept. 15, 1963. The bomb was planted underneath a stairwell, and when it exploded it killed four young African-American girls – Denise McNair, 11; and Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, all 14 – and injured 22 other people.

Purks described that as “the most moving event in my life. (It was) transforming. My instructions were, ‘Go out there, Jim, and write about what you see. Write what you see.’ So I went there. I saw debris, I saw bricks everywhere, papers everywhere. To this day I remember stepping on a piece of glass with blood on it, and to this day anytime something crunches underneath my feet, I remember it well.

“But the memory of those four girls – I kind of dedicate myself and my servant-hood to them.”

On another occasion, he remembered, “I encountered a very muscular member of the Ku Klux Klan who wanted to know, ‘What are you doing here?’ That was the first time I really saw the face of hate. I don’t know whether you’ve seen the face of hate. You’ve seen anger, bad tempers, but my experience with hate was complete calm in the face, complete calm. Looking at you and making you feel like you were nothing.”

Purks contrasted the differences in journalism between then and now. For one thing, there were no cellphones back then.

“Ever heard of a telephone booth? Sometimes I had to run to it to beat the UPI reporter, the competition.” Also, if “a crew was assigned to cover a demonstration in my time, there would have to be three of them – a sound man carrying heavy sound equipment, another carrying the most monstrous camera you ever saw, also heavy, and of course the ‘star’ would be in front of the camera, like Sam Donaldson and so many others now famous.”

Being in a phone booth could be an uncomfortable situation, Purks recalled. “Try and picture a phone booth. Picture one in a small town late at night. There has been a demonstration, mass arrests, people been hurt. Angry citizens, angry deputies, angry demonstrators. Here I am with my notepad and I need to phone in my story or at least the notes I took. Well, those who remember a telephone booth well know that you open the door, and when you close it the lights come on. So here you are (illuminated) with everything around you dark and you feel the hostility, ‘What’s that reporter doing? Let’s get him out of here!’ It was scary.”

One thing that has remained a constant, for Purks at least, is striving for the full truth. “You’ve got to be accurate, fair, try to get both sides or all three or four sides of a story. Those never change, or at least it shouldn’t change. I’m afraid, in my opinion, that things have become a little too editorial these days, with so many people putting in their own perspectives. As an Associated Press writer, my orders were to get all sides of a story, don’t get yourself into it, just be objective, be fair. I tried to hold to that.”

Purks stressed, “I always say I was just a foot soldier who played a very small role in that (the Movement). I want to make sure everyone understands that. I was young, I was a rookie, I was not a superstar. I covered events and phoned it in to other people who became superstars. That was my job, a foot soldier.”

In a sense, Purks’ work has been preserved for posterity. A Pulitzer Prize-winning 2006 book titled The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, contains a cover photo of him interviewing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

After leaving Birmingham, Purks went to Tallahassee where things were much calmer. He left the AP and went to work for Florida’s Secretary of State as press secretary, then as a campaign aide for candidate-then-U.S. Senator Richard Stone, “who only went one term, mostly because he supported President Carter’s initiative on the Panama Canal.” Purks also served as a White House deputy press secretary during the Carter Administration.

Purks was scheduled to go to San Francisco on June 18 to accept the Walter L. Cronkite Congressional Award from the National Congress of Chi Phi Fraternity, a lifetime achievement honor and the highest recognition Chi Phi awards to an alumnus. He was a Chi Phi member at the University of North Carolina. Here in Albany Purks has previously been awarded the 2011 Martin Luther King, Jr. Dream Award.

In his clergy career, Purks was ordained as an Episcopal deacon in 1999, and though now officially retired, he has continued to serve as chaplain and in ministry support roles at St. Paul’s and St. Patrick’s Episcopal churches in Albany. He originally came to South Georgia as a media writer for Habitat for Humanity in Americus.

Speaking to the Kiwanians, he concluded, “Journalism has been part of my life for a long time and I’m grateful for the experiences, but above all, I just love serving The Lord as a deacon. I’m not big on the head table speaking, things like that. My basic slogan, which is not original to me, is ‘Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.”

PHOTO CAPTIONS: Deacon Jim Purks recalls events during his seven-year stint as an Associated Press reporter for Kiwanis Club of Dougherty County members. (Photos by David Shivers)