CB Hackworth: We, as Americans, need to own our past and defend our present

"America is not where it should be 60 years after the Civil Rights Act, although Atlanta gives us hope for what can be done right."

CB Hackworth
Civil rights marchers in Cumming, Forsyth County, on January 24, 1987

Photograph by John Blanding/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

This essay is part of a series—we asked 17 Atlantans to tell us how the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has impacted their lives in honor of its 60th anniversary. Read all of the essays here.

The other day, while poring through archival material for a documentary I’m producing with Andrew Young, I happened across unedited news footage from a Kiwanis Club luncheon held in 1963. The speaker, a longtime Atlanta Journal columnist who was retiring, told an anecdote about his annual listing of the city’s 10 best-dressed men, and an insurance executive whose name always appeared. The well-attired businessman sometimes passed down his old suits to an African American “manservant,” who—in the story, at least—declared they both should be named at the top of the list. The audience, which included former mayor William B. Hartsfield, laughed and applauded. Quite conversationally, the speaker referred to the valet using what we now refer to as the “N-word.” I dislike having to use that euphemism, which doesn’t do justice to the vulgarity it conceals—a blunt, ugly noun that was ubiquitous when I was growing up in segregated Atlanta.

In the 1980s, upon landing my first reporting job at a daily newspaper in Northeast Georgia, I quickly learned plenty of White folks—including some law enforcement and court officials—still loved that word. I also learned our coverage area included a county where Black people were not allowed after sundown. My editors, good and decent people, knew they’d hired a troublemaker when I argued that enforced segregation in Forsyth County should be reported as a news story. It was, as folks up there say, simply “common knowledge.”

It was not common knowledge in Atlanta, and I was determined to write the story when I moved back. The article was published as a cover story in Creative Loafing, and it touched off a chain of events that culminated with Hosea Williams leading an ill-fated “Brotherhood March.” By then, I was working at WSB-TV and had pleaded for an extra photographer that Saturday, which paid off for us. Rocks, bottles, and the N-word were thrown freely, and the small group of demonstrators barely escaped with only minor injuries. One week later, tens of thousands of people descended on Forsyth County for what became the largest civil rights demonstration since the 1960s.

Oprah Winfrey brought her new syndicated television show to town for an unforgettable live broadcast at a local restaurant. “We know all of you aren’t bad,” a friendly White woman told Oprah.

Matters involving race have influenced the trajectory of my life and career. It’s been an extraordinary privilege to work for nearly two decades with Andrew Young, the civil rights leader and politician, who often points out the great amount of change that has been achieved, especially here. As years pass, the N-word is used less and less—in public—although, truthfully, many White people continue to use it when they are comfortably alone with other White people. That’s startling, but it’s a symptom. America is not where it should be 60 years after the Civil Rights Act, although Atlanta gives us hope for what can be done right. We need to own our past and defend our present.

CB Hackworth has won over 30 Emmy Awards for his work at WSB-TV and WXIA-TV, and as producer of the long-running syndicated documentary series Andrew Young Presents. He was an editor and columnist for Creative Loafing, and his byline has appeared in numerous publications, including Time, USA Today, and Atlanta magazine.

This article appears in our June 2024 issue.