David Lauderdale

Hilton Head woman witnessed history, and courage at King's funeral

Pat Branning was well outside her comfort zone at the funeral of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

She was the "women's director" at WSB radio in Atlanta, the clear-channel voice whose call letters stand for Welcome South, Brother.

Branning hosted two morning shows, and like most female journalists at the time, she was expected to "talk about more fluffy events, chat with movie stars or authors, report on the schools, or attend the Rotary Club."

But on that April day in 1968, something else came to mind. Branning says today that it bubbled up from her heart. As the world turned its eyes to Atlanta, where King would be eulogized at Ebenezer Baptist Church, she thought of Rosa Parks and Ralph McGill.

Their courage to challenge the status quo spurred Branning to walk in and ask station general manager Elmo Ellis if she could cover King's funeral. She said Ellis told news director Aubrey Morris to make it happen. After a hurried two-minute demonstration on how to operate the special radio news car, she was off to the Sweet Auburn section of Atlanta that was the cradle of the civil rights movement. She remembers standing in the packed church in a crowd of male journalists from all over the world.

Today, the Hilton Head Island resident wants her small part in that momentous event to remind us of courage. Not her courage, but the courage of those who were willing to put their lives on the line to do what was right.

Parks stood up for her rights by keeping her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus. She was supposed to get up because she was black and a white person wanted the seat.

It made a big impression on Branning, a white woman raised in the Northeast but educated at the University of Georgia.

"It was Rosa Parks who first made me realize the cruelty and humiliation inherent in the laws and customs of segregation," Branning said. "Segregation had been the only way of life my generation had ever known, and no one ever seemed to question it. We simply never knew anything different."

Parks' act of defiance led to the emergence of a 26-year-old preacher named King.

Thirteen years later, he would be dead from an assassin's bullet. And his hometown of Atlanta, which called itself "the city too busy to hate," braced for the riots that erupted in other cities when King was killed in Memphis.

The riots never came. One reason might be the columns and editorials in The Atlanta Constitution by Ralph McGill.

He wrote daily from 1938 until he died in 1969, exposing "separate but equal" as a fraud, telling people that integration was coming. He wrote: "So, somebody, especially those who have a duty so to do, ought to be talking about it calmly, and informatively."

As a result, people did everything from call him "Rastus" to threaten his life.

"For much of his career he was a lone voice in Atlanta journalism," says The New Georgia Encyclopedia, "breaking the white code of polite silence about social and educational segregation and political disenfranchisement -- the so-called situation, or 'sitch.' "

McGill was in a small group of like-minded editors across the South, including Island Packet co-founder Jonathan Daniels, who was editor of The News and Observer in Raleigh, N.C., before retiring to Hilton Head. Other editors with the courage to challenge the system included Harry Ashmore, William C. "Bill" Baggs, Virginius Dabney, Hodding Carter, Mark Ethridge, George Fort Milton, Douglas Southall Freeman, Nell Battle Lewis, Henry Watterson, John Temple Graves and Julian Harris.

McGill varied his topics, trying not to get out ahead of his audience or lose it altogether. Some days he wrote about barbecue, significant individuals, charity or sports. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1959 for editorials on hate crimes by the Ku Klux Klan and the bombing of an Atlanta synagogue.

Oddly enough, Branning met McGill when they both judged a beauty pageant at Emory University. He later appeared on her broadcasts at WSB.

"He strengthened my convictions, and I was forever changed by his gift of clear, moving moral expression," she said.

Branning now writes about food for The Beaufort Tribune website. The "Tricentennial Edition" of her cookbook "Shrimp, Collards and Grits" will be out soon.

But it is the courage of Rosa Parks and Ralph McGill that she wants the nation to remember Monday as it pauses to commemorate King's life.