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In August 1975, Atlanta tuned in to see an African American deliver the six o’clock news for the first time. Almost forty years later, as she nears retirement, Monica Pearson reflects on the biggest stories of her historic career.
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.'"
As Pearson readied for July 25, her final day on-air at WSB-TV, and prepared to begin a graduate degree in telecommunications at the University of Georgia, the anchor took time to select for us the stories that have had the most impact on her own life.
June 21, 1981
The Arrest of Wayne Williams
From 1979 to 1981, nearly thirty African American children and young adults were murdered throughout the city. In the winter of 1981, with the story making national headlines, Mayor Maynard Jackson ordered a 7 p.m. curfew for the city’s minors. With an intense stare and flanked by a pair of uniformed cops, Jackson posed with a stack of $10,000 in reward cash. The theatrical AJC photo op was picked up by newspapers across the country. Nightly Pearson and Sarginson opened their late newscast with, “It’s eleven o’clock. Do you know where your children are?”
“It was a story that held the entire community in its grips,” Pearson recalls. “Any person who had a son, whether that son was black or white, felt that pain of losing a child. I can still see Maynard sitting there with that mountain of cash.” When twenty-seven-year-old Nathaniel Cater’s body was pulled from the Chattahoochee River on May 24, 1981, and WSB ran graphic footage of the recovery, Pearson and her coworkers balked. “It was gory, insensitive, and thoughtless,” she recalls. “Some in the newsroom thought it was okay for competitive reasons. I just asked, ‘If that was your relative, would you react that way?’ We had crossed the line.”
Action News scooped the competition when suspect Wayne Williams was taken into custody. Williams himself, a freelance photographer whose clients included WSB-TV, had called Action News reporter Marc Pickard to tip him that Atlanta police and the FBI had entered his parents’ northwest Atlanta brick home. “Williams had this crazy idea that he was part of our team, so he called Pickard when the cops showed up,” recalls Sarginson. “The guy had an ego that was just unbelievable. He thought because he knew us that we were his friends. But we weren’t complaining that night because we had the exclusive.” Remembers Pearson, “Of course, we were excited to get the interview, but there was this undertone of ‘If Wayne Williams is guilty, did he do any of this on our time?’”
September 18, 1990
Winning the Olympics, Tokyo, Japan
Sleep-deprived and anxious off-camera, Pearson and crew covered the Atlanta Organizing Committee—including Andrew Young, Billy Payne, Mayor Maynard Jackson, and Governor Joe Frank Harris—on their visit to Japan, until the Atlanta dignitaries clustered into the packed Grand Prince Hotel New Takanawa for the announcement. In oversized plastic-framed glasses and a shoulder pad–enhanced red blazer with brass buttons, Pearson opened her early-morning report with a shot of the sun peeking over the horizon: “In the Land of the Rising Sun, the sun rose on the final day of hope for the Atlanta Organizing Committee . . . ” In his interview with Pearson, Young appeared ready to accept Atlanta’s fate. “We said everything that was in our hearts,” he told Atlantans back home. “I hope that was enough.” It was.
“To [hear IOC president] Juan Antonio Samaranch say the words, [imitating Samaranch’s Spanish accent] ‘The International Olympic Committee has awarded the 1996 Olympic Games to the city of . . . Atlanta!’ was one of the most exciting moments I’ve ever had in this job,” says Pearson. As Samaranch paused a full fifteen seconds, an entire city held its breath, clutching coffee mugs, staring at the early-morning live Channel 2 coverage. Afterward, Jackson rubbed his hands through his hair as if he were still trying to work the information into his brain, while Young clasped his hands prayerfully over his nose and mouth to utter a brief thank-you to the Almighty. After a quick high five with producer Mark Engel, Pearson went to work.
Gender Bias in the Georgia High School Association
One afternoon after soccer practice, Atlanta trial lawyer Charles Huddleston, Pearson’s twelve-year-old daughter Claire’s soccer coach, pulled Pearson aside to discuss the lack of girls college scholarship opportunities due to the antiquated practices of the all-male governing Georgia High School Association. In addition to having no statewide competitions for girls soccer and cheerleading, making it nearly impossible for participants to receive scholarships, the GHSA had never had a woman on its board in its eighty-seven-year history. After her two-part special assignment, “Fair or Foul?,” girls soccer and cheerleading qualified for statewide competition, and two women became GHSA board members.
Recalls Huddleston: “The GHSA was a good old boys club headquartered in Thomasville, Georgia. It was allowed to fly under the radar for years without media scrutiny until Monica showed up down there with her lights and cameras. They were so intimidated, they voted two women onto the board that night while she was in the room with the cameras rolling. Hundreds, if not thousands, of girls in this state have now had shots at scholarships they might not have gotten for another fifteen or twenty years if the GHSA had been allowed to operate on its own timetable.”
“That’s one of the stories I’m proudest of because it changed things in the state for girls,” says Pearson. “While most people think of me only as an anchor, I think of myself as a reporter and writer because that’s how I started at the Louisville Times newspaper. There is nothing like researching a story idea and formulating the questions to get answers you haven’t heard, finding out information that will help the viewer, that in-the-moment reporting.” The story earned Pearson the Women’s Sports Journalism Award for Local Television Reporting from the Women’s Sports Foundation.
July 27, 1996
The Centennial Olympic Park Bombing
After an exhausting day on-air, Pruitt (who had rejoined Pearson at the Action News anchor desk in 1994) was finally climbing into bed well after midnight when his coanchor suddenly reappeared on his bedroom TV. Even before the word “bomb” came out of his colleague’s mouth, Pruitt knew something was wrong. “Monica looked like hell,” recalls Pruitt. “She had no makeup on. I broke a speed record getting back to the station.” Pearson, who lived in Ansley Park at the time, was literally five minutes away from WSB when she got the call to come back.
“It was probably the only time in my career that I went on the air with no makeup,” she says. “It just didn’t matter. We were all watching the Olympics go from a dream to reality to a nightmare, all in one fell swoop. It was heartbreaking.”
Pearson and Pruitt stayed on the air all night, reporting on the casualties. “It was a tough night,” Pruitt says. “It was painful to have to cover that story, a painful episode for the city. I had grown up here, and Monica had spent the better part of her life here. Atlanta was on the world stage and now this terrible thing had happened. In a time like that, when you’re tired and you’re stressed and you’re feeling the story in a way that I guess a good journalist shouldn’t, you need a strong partner. I’m really glad Monica was my partner that night.”
September 11, 2001
On the morning of 9/11, Pearson was at her vacation home in Destin, Florida, when WSB-TV General Manager Greg Stone called to ask if her television was on.
“I remember saying to him, ‘No, I’m on vacation. Why?’ As I was turning on the TV, the second plane hit. I was standing in the kitchen, looking at the TV, and asking, ‘Is that real?’ It looked like a movie.” With the airports closed, Pearson hopped in a car and raced back to Atlanta. “I’m not proud to admit this, but what is normally a six-hour drive took me three hours that day.” When Pearson got to the WSB newsroom, she, Pruitt, and the rest of the Action News team marked time as ABC News went around the clock, with no interval for a local newscast.
“People were calling us, trying to find out more information on their loved ones, so the local angles just came to us,” Pearson recalls. “And then there was the ‘Can it happen here?’ question with all of Georgia’s military bases and the world’s busiest airport. We had a war room set up, for lack of a better phrase, and everybody was working the local ties.”
In a pew at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church the following Sunday, Pearson finally allowed herself to have an emotional response to the tragedy. “I cried because I was allowed to release in a safe place, in a holy place where I could lay that burden at the altar. I no longer had to protect myself so I could do my job the way I was supposed to.”
Andrew Young Africa Special
For years Pearson and Young had discussed chronicling one of his African excursions. When he was invited to Nigeria, Senegal, and South Africa for a summit, he asked her and WSB producer CB Hackworth to accompany him. Preparing for the trip, Pearson at long last traced her mother’s family history. Pearson’s grandparents had never been married, and her mother had told her, “I’ve always known who my heavenly father was but not my earthly father.” Pearson traced her grandmother’s family back to Cameroon.
“To travel with Andy Young all over the continent is like traveling with a rock star,” she recalls. “I saw things I never would have gotten to see without him.”
Hackworth remembers how surreal it was to shoot Pearson’s interview with Young, the former mayor of Atlanta “wearing a Falcons T-shirt and elephants sauntering by.”
Shooting inside the slave house on Gorée Island, a former transshipment point, the story got personal for Pearson as she squeezed into one of the holding cells inside the red clay–hued concrete-and-stucco fort.
She recalls, “When I tried to go into the holding cell where the unruly slaves were kept, a force I had never felt kept pushing me out of the cell as if to protect me. Once I got in, I could feel the spirits of those who did not walk out of that cell but probably died in there. It was the most upsetting position I have ever been in. I said a prayer and walked out, visibly shaken.”
“It was as if ghosts were talking to her,” Hackworth recalls. He kept the cameras rolling. Africa: A Continent of Possibilities won the 2005 Southeast Regional Emmy for Outstanding Achievement: Documentary Program.
August 28, 2008
Democratic National Convention
January 20, 2009
Inauguration of Barack Obama
An estimated 84,000 people crammed into Invesco Field, the home of the Denver Broncos, to witness history, as Senator Barack Obama became the first African American Democratic presidential nominee. As blue cardboard “CHANGE” signs and American flags were hoisted aloft, Obama marked the forty-fifth anniversary of Atlanta son Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Borrowing a passage from King’s text, Obama told supporters, “We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.” Pearson was in a skybox next to King’s sister Christine King Farris as Obama recited the passage. “It was truly magical to be with her at that moment.”
Five months later, on a bone-chilling day on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., surrounded by an estimated 1.5 million attendees, Pearson was seated nearby when Dr. Joseph Lowery gave the benediction at Obama’s swearing-in ceremony.
“Covering the inauguration of the first African American president of the United States, I knew I had to be balanced and focused when I really wanted to shout and scream,” Pearson reflects. “It had nothing to do with his politics. It had everything to do with the fact that a minority had broken that barrier and had become president of the United States.”