H. Brandt Ayers
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The death of H. Brandt “Brandy” Ayers, coming at a historic crisis in American journalism, is a moment to reflect on the values and purpose of newspapering at its greatest. He was one of a heroic band of southern newspaper proprietors who risked their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to throw in with the civil rights movement. Ayers, for decades publisher of the Anniston, Alabama, Star, was one of the archetypes.
We met Ayers during our senior year at Harvard, where he was a Nieman Fellow. We had already accepted a job at Time magazine, at a dizzying salary of $200 a week, when Ayers suggested that we instead come to Anniston to work for the Star at $105 a week. We were so torn that we flew to New York to seek the advice of Time’s chief of correspondents, Richard Clurman, who received us in his elegant office in the Time Life building.
Clurman could see right away that Ayers’ offer was the better of the two. So he said that if we went to work for the Star, he’d make us Time’s Alabama stringer, as well. We were out the door in a flash and on our way to get a piece of the story of the battle for the soul of America. And to do so at what Rick Bragg, among the Star’s greatest veterans (he went on to fame at the Times), calls “one of the best teaching newspapers that has ever been.”
Our first lesson was in how to take notes. Our beat included the federal integration lawsuit against Calhoun County’s school system, a competitor of the Anniston city school system. One day we came in with a scoop — that the county school superintendent, Charles Boozer, had said that if the court ordered him to integrate the schools, he’d obey it. Ayers was floored that he’d say such a thing, given that Calhoun was one of Alabama’s violent counties.
When we handed in our story, Ayers cocked an eyebrow. “If we print this,” he said, “we could get Boozer killed.” So Ayers called a meeting with Boozer, the newspaper’s lawyer (who was also the county’s lawyer), and us. The meeting took place in Ayers’ conference room, where the four of us pored over the galley proof of the story. At the paragraph about how Boozer said he’d obey a court order, the lawyer stopped.
Boozer himself sat silent. We have it in our notes, we said. “Well,” the lawyer replied, “if he said it . . .” His voice trailed off. So Ayers printed the story. No violence ensued. Next day, though, Boozer called us to deny he’d said what we’d reported. Checking our notes, we were horrified to discover that Boozer was right. It was the city superintendent who’d said it. Since then, we’ve always written in our notes the name of the speaker immediately next to the quote.
What we particularly remember was the way Ayers handled the story — his recognition of the peril, his insistence on getting everyone together, his willingness to go with his reporter and forbearance when the reporter blundered. Ayers gave us free rein to roam Alabama, interviewing such figures as the ex-governor, George Wallace, the ex-Birmingham police commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor, and the towering federal judge Frank Johnson.
One of the lessons we learned was the upside of starting at a local paper. The biggest story of the year — 1968 — was the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Had we taken a job at Time, which we loved, we’d have been pulling telex tape from the stars in Chicago. Ayers sent us to Chicago, to cover the battle between the faction of George Wallace, then running as an independent, and the Democrats loyal to Hubert Humphrey.
Eventually, we got drafted and, after the war, moved on to the Wall Street Journal. When we were based in Brussels, Ayers and his wife, Josie (whose southern accent was so thick she pronounced the word “scoop” with three syllables), came through the European capital on their way back to Alabama from a visit to Moscow. We hosted them for a series of meals, and Ayers asked if he could meet some members of the European Commission.
So coffee was arranged with the equivalent of five members of the American cabinet. Ayers wore a linen suit and talked in his southern drawl. Eventually, one of the commissioners leaned over to us and whispered, “Who is this guy? What are we doing here?” Trust us, we said, he owns a monopoly newspaper in a county in Alabama – huge. Soon one of the commissioners turned to Ayers and asked about the ballpoint pen he was using. It was not of a brand seen in Brussels.
“Well,” Ayers replied. “I was in Moscow the other day and President Gromyko, he heard I was in town and asked me over to lunch at the Kremlin. We had a nice lunch, and he gave me this pen.” Suddenly, the commissioners were all ears. One suggested Ayers stay for dinner. Ayers replied that he’d love to, but couldn’t. He had, he said, to get back to Alabama where he was hosting a dinner for all the living former American presidents.
Or something close to it.
Politically, Ayers was a Robert Kennedy Democrat. As life would have it, we ended up to the right of him politically. Yet we had an abiding admiration for him and his conduct of the paper that had been published by his father. When, in 2013, the Supreme Court, in Shelby County v. Holder, struck down two provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we called Ayers. We were startled to find him sympathetic to Shelby County’s plea to run its own elections.
Ayers wrote a column about it for the Sun. In our editorial we noted how remarkable it was for a newspaper proprietor who had given over his whole life to the struggle for racial equality in America. While Ayers hated racism, he felt it was time to “let local mayors and district attorneys and newspaper editors see if they can’t keep justice alive all by themselves.” Only then, he understood, would the victories for which he’d stood his whole life be truly secure.
Photo of H. Brandt Ayers courtsey of the Anniston Star.