DG MARTIN COLUMN: Telling it true in 1964 and today

“Tell It True” is a book that takes you back in time to 1964 during the election season in Georgia. Think Lester Maddox.

D.G. Martin

The story opens as Jarvis Pendry, a Black World War II veteran and Army reserve lieutenant colonel is returning to his home in Baltimore where he is a successful businessman after his annual active duty stint at Fort Benning in Georgia.

He was driving home alone to Baltimore. It was dark and he was planning to stop and spend the night with his uncle who lived in deep rural Georgia. When he stopped at a country store to ask directions, he was greeted rudely by the racist owner, “You ain’t one of them agitators, are you? Comin’ down here to stir up trouble?”

Another man in the store spoke up, “Shee-t. I bet he’s one of those agitators. I bet LBJ sent him down here to test that damn new law. Maybe we ought to whip his Black ass.”

Pendry got the message and withdrew. “I can see I’m not welcome here. I’ll be going now.”

In his car, stopping again to check his map, “a bright light blinded him — a strong flashlight beam directed right in his face. Pendry raised his arm to shade his eyes as the first blast from a shotgun shattered his car window. His raised forearm was shredded by the tiny missiles of buckshot and glass, some of which also found his chest and neck. He screamed in pain and surprise an instant before the second blast took away his face and penetrated his brain.”

The search for Pendry’s murderers and their trial is one of the main storylines of the novel.

Another important storyline begins immediately as Gil Matthews, a news reporter and photographer for the main Atlanta television station, is called to cover a July 4th segregation rally at a major sport complex against the new landmark Civil Rights Act.

His camera captured the frenzied crowd as it reacted to four Black college students who marched into the rally carrying signs that read “Freedom Now.”

“White toughs surrounded the students, engulfing them, pushing them up against a chain-link fence that separated the football field from the spectator area.”

Gil captured the mayhem and the bloody wounds suffered by the Black students and, as he was knocked unconscious, he realized that his camera contained the film that would “shock its viewers and make him a hero in its trade.”

The stories of other important characters in the novel show how difficult it is sometimes for good people to do the right thing when the larger community disagrees.

For instance: White journalists are pressured by liberals to push for progress and at the same time are told by their employers and readers that they are moving too fast.

A Black church leader who has worked for fair treatment for minorities is upstaged by impatient Black college students who view their elders as enemies.

White establishment business leaders who want Atlanta to be seen as a city of progress, but do not want to incite the racist majority by moving forward too quickly.

Small town sheriffs who have an obligation to enforce the law, but do not, in order to avoid upsetting the racists whose votes they need to keep their jobs.

Television station owners who want their stations to be seen as supporting community progress, but not at the expense of losing viewership or profits.

The author, John Pruitt, is a Davidson graduate and retired anchor at WSB, Atlanta’s premier television station.

Weaving his fine story into the challenges of the 1960s gives his readers a time-travel experience that vividly shows the challenges of another time and can help us deal with those of today.

D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.”