Monica Kaufman had just turned off the I-85 South exit for Newnan when the blue lights flashed in her rearview mirror. It was the fall of 1975, and the twenty-seven-year-old University of Louisville graduate was just months into her new position at WSB-TV. She had beat out a couple of women named Jane Pauley and Oprah Winfrey for the job. Riding shotgun was future NBC producer Patrice Fletcher, consulting a AAA map book on her lap. The two Georgia newcomers were on their way to a church speaking engagement.
As the tall Georgia State Patrol officer approached, Kaufman—seated low in her baby-blue Porsche 914 convertible—was eye level with his service revolver and the hand positioned deliberately upon it. He ordered her out of the vehicle. "He looked like something straight out of Smokey and the Bandit," she recalls thirty-seven years later. "He saw a black woman and a white woman in a Porsche, and the black woman was driving. You could almost hear him thinking, 'What are they doing here? Is that Porsche even hers?'"
For a woman who had attended integrated schools in Louisville since the third grade, it was one of the scariest moments of her life. As Kaufman fumbled for her license and registration, she saw her passenger fuming. Kaufman shot Fletcher a look that said, "We are not in Chicago or Philadelphia right now. Hold it." After the trooper discovered he had just pulled over the brand-new six o’clock news anchor, he let the ladies off with a warning to "slow down." Kaufman, who had been clocked doing 52 in a 55, complied.
As Monica Jones Kaufman Pearson (the anchor changed her professional name following her 2005 marriage to police officer John Pearson Sr.), sixty-four, exits the WSB-TV airwaves this month—thirty-seven years, thirty Emmys, and more than 15,000 hours of television later—she is the city’s most recognizable media figure. "There is no king in Atlanta TV news," says longtime coanchor Wes Sarginson. "Only a queen. And our queen is Monica." Pearson’s debut on the six o’clock Action News in 1975 literally changed the face of Atlanta television. She has interviewed presidents and witnessed history, but Pearson’s biggest story remains her own.
In the summer of '75, when the South’s largest TV station called Pearson at WHAS-TV in Louisville to ask if she would consider coming for a job interview, Pearson had no idea that Channel 2 was seeking a minority hire for its prime newscast. WSB-TV station manager Don Elliot Heald was a white, progressive Southern transplant from Concord, Massachusetts, who was determined that WSB reflect the city it served. He had hired Lo Jelks as the station’s first African American reporter in the late 1960s. In 1973 he put Jocelyn Dorsey on air at noon as the station’s first African American female anchor. One of her initial reporting assignments was to cover white supremacist J.B. Stoner announcing his run for lieutenant governor at the Biltmore hotel. "When I walked in, the first thing I heard was 'Kill the nigger!'" Dorsey recalls. Dorsey knew she wasn’t in the running for the six o’clock job. "I was pretty rowdy and militant back then," she says. "I was too busy fighting with management about my afro."
"I didn’t know it, but I was the next step," says Pearson. "In 1975 there were no women and no people of color on the six o’clock. Don Elliot Heald was a Southern gentleman, but he was also a steel magnolia. WSB management stuck it out when they could have cut their losses. I put a lot of pressure on myself. I knew if I failed, it would be a long time before another woman of color had a shot at this."
Photograph Courtesy of WSB-TV: Wood Grain: Istockphoto
Southern Christian Leadership Conference cofounder and fellow Atlantan Dr. Joseph Lowery recalls seeing Pearson on his TV for the first time in 1975. "Monica was coming into the living rooms of white folks every night at a time when most white folks only encountered us as their waiters and maids," Lowery says. "And she was coming into their living rooms as an equal. More than an equal. She was a star. And they had to pay attention to her too, because she was telling them the news of the day. It was a tremendous turning point."
Not all white viewers welcomed Pearson into their living rooms. When she signed off the air, her phone routinely rang with viewer feedback like "Nigger, get off the air," and "Put a bone in your nose and go back to Africa." Pearson also caught hell from African American viewers. "I wasn’t black enough for them," she says. "They wanted me in an Angela Davis afro and a dashiki."
On set, luck landed Pearson next to John Pruitt, who had launched his career covering the civil rights movement, sometimes doing his own camera work. In an era when white male Ron Burgundys roamed the nation’s newsrooms, Pruitt welcomed diversity. "If Monica succeeded, we all succeeded," he says.
In 1978 Pruitt was lured away to WXIA-TV 11Alive. Ironically, Pearson says, it was one of the best things that ever happened to her career. "I was so in awe of John, I was trying to be him on-air," she says. "Suddenly John left, I was the senior anchor, and I needed to find me." WSB sent Pearson to news consultant Dick Mallory, who asked her to read a news story first, then just tell him the same story. "I didn’t know he was taping me," she says. "He played [both versions] back and asked me, 'Which reporter do you trust? Trust yourself. Let your personality come through. Viewers don’t like a phony. Stop trying to be John Pruitt.'" Pearson took Mallory’s advice and introduced a more conversational tone, casual asides, and even a few chuckles into the buttoned-up, Walter Cronkite–era news desk. Dorsey says, "I remember standing there with my jaw hanging open, thinking, 'Oh Lord, what is she doing?' But Monica knew exactly what she was doing."
Pearson met her next coanchor, Sarginson, in 1978. With the slickness of a polyester leisure suit, WSB-TV’s new hire from Detroit greeted Pearson early on by sticking out his hand and saying, "Hi, I’m Wes Sarginson. Wanna see my d--k?" Without missing a beat, Pearson shook Sarginson’s hand, smiled, and replied, "No thanks. I’m not interested in small parts." Thirty-four years later, Pearson laughs at the incident. "Most women would be shocked," she explains. "I’m not most women. I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, in Smoketown. My grandmother sold beer and wine on Sundays. Her name was Bow Leg Rose, and she could fight like a man. I had an aunt who killed a man. I don’t exactly come from good stock. Strong women, but not good stock. My mother is the first sane one. When you grow up in a neighborhood full of rough boys and you’re a tomboy, nothing bothers you. Wes and I became friends immediately."
"Monica’s response stopped me from ever saying that again," Sarginson recalls laughing. "Newsrooms in those days were pretty graphic and gross."
In 1987 Action News reporter Bill Nigut went out to cover a civil rights march in Forsyth County led by then Atlanta city councilman Hosea Williams. An estimated 20,000 racially mixed marchers faced down members of the Ku Klux Klan. Spotting Nigut’s WSB-TV microphone, one of the robed Klansmen excitedly ran up to him with a message for one of Nigut’s coworkers: "Tell Monica I love her! Tell her I said hello!" "I stood there stunned," Nigut recalls.
"When Bill came back and told me that story, I realized I had truly made it," Pearson says. "It’s like my mother has always told me, 'When people get to know you, they don’t fear you.'"