The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

State and Nation

March 23, 2013

Publisher gets personal with Southern history

(Continued)

Proof that Ayers was too hot for home came when he and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a Birmingham native, twice nominated a prominent Alabama native, U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, for the Alabama Academy of Honor. The academy honors 100 living Alabamians for bringing honor to the state. The members chose not to induct Lewis, even though he played a key role in the South's civil rights movement.

Then someone told Ayers perhaps he ought to back off and let another person nominate Lewis in 2011. Former segregationist Gov. John Patterson took the lead. He had been the governor in 1961 when Lewis and other Freedom Riders integrating interstate bus travel got beaten by an angry white mob in Montgomery.

With Patterson behind him, Lewis was approved.

"And it was the closing of a circle that had begun in fury but closed in gentle companionship," Ayers writes.

Ayers said he decided to write the book because of his age and because the election of Barack Obama provided an exclamation point for the South's transition. He describes the transition through personal stories — from his childhood in Anniston, to reporting jobs in North Carolina and Washington, and then back home to take over the family newspaper — because he learned as a reporter that news close to home always grabs readers' attention.

"It's the old newspaper trick in me," he said.

The stories involve everyday people as well as presidents, hooded Ku Klux Klan members, and Southerners who became the faces of change.

Some stories express pride in the South; others, disappointment.

But what comes through in each is that Ayers never lost his passion for Anniston, Alabama or the South — no matter how many times his desire for change ended in defeat.

"You cannot deny your native land," he said. "You can kick it and cuss it, but you can't deny it."

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