Altadena Son Of The South Hailed By Atlanta

Rosa Parks and John Lewis are the subjects of one of Boyd Lewis' photos. Parks triggered the modern civil rights movement with the 1955 Birmingham Bus Boycot. Lewis was a student activist and is an Atlanta Congressman today. Photo Copyright 2015 Boyd Lewis/Atlanta History Center.

Altadena's Boyd Lewis, who is now 70 years old, spent more than three decades in the news game, starting with editing newspapers in Atlanta at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

Ending his career after moving to Altadena and first becoming a copy editor at the Pasadena Star-News and later a teacher in Sun Valley, Lewis also did a brief stint at CNN in the mid-1990s.

But Lewis was perhaps best known for hosting "Southwind," an "All Things Considered"-style program covering news and featuring interviews on Atlanta Public Radio station WABE.

Even after many years of living in California, Lewis, known to listeners as "The Voice of the South," still speaks with a Southern drawl, and possesses a rebel spirit that is perhaps best reflected in the unconventional way he got started in the news business -- as a white editor and photographer with two of the city's top black-owned newspapers, the Atlanta Voice and the Atlanta Inquirer.

For his role in chronicling the fight for equality 16 months after the killing of King, a native of Atlanta, the Atlanta History Center will put on permanent display some of Lewis' work from that period.

During those years, the 1970s and early '60s, Lewis' photographs depicted the rise of the city's African-American political class with images of campaign events, civic meetings, protest marches, press conferences and staged portrait photography, according to the history center.

The Lewis collection, according to the center's website, includes photos and public radio narratives, featuring images of local business leaders as well as political figures like Julian Bond, Ben Brown, Jimmy Carter, Maynard Jackson, Vernon Jordan, John Lewis and Andrew Young. Also included are vintage pictures of such civil rights icons as Fred Bennett, Tyrone Brooks, Hosea Williams and Jesse Jackson. Some of his work has been showcased at Atlanta City Hall, but this will make his work a continued fixture in the historic city.

"And now I get to wade through thousands of photograph negatives, hundreds of hours of raw and produced radio stories, and boxes of articles, columns, interviews and the script for a science fiction musical comedy to see how 30 years in journalism can be hammered into a coherent narrative across the media," says Lewis.

"This was at the center of my journalism." Lewis continues. "I never knew Dr. King. I never marched with him. But I was always in his presence among his movement colleagues, childhood friends and the associates who would argue over the lunch tab at Paschal's Restaurant," a favorite of King's and considered one of the best soul food restaurants in Atlanta.

Lewis said when he and his wife Deborah left Atlanta and moved to Altadena in 1997. After three years with the Star-News, Lewis quit the local paper and went to work as an English teacher at a middle school in Sun Valley for the next 14 years.

But no matter how far away he gets from his beloved Atlanta, Lewis grew up in the country's southeast -- and those are feelings acquired and lessons learned that have stayed with this old reporter over these many years.

Lewis came from a Louisiana Confederate family, which in the Antebellum South owned a plantation and included members of the KKK and the White Citizens League. But he managed to renounce and bury his racist heritage and went to work as a young man recording the civil rights struggles for two African-American papers.

Although Lewis first arrived in Atlanta about 16 months after King was murdered on April 4, 1968, he says the great man's influence was felt everywhere. Lewis points out that despite the almost corporate effect of King's leadership on business life in the great city, King himself had announced in 1966 that he was a "democratic socialist."

King, Lewis noted, was "planning massive encampments of the poor and the jobless when they offed him. Massive civil disobedience. Nonviolent resistance. Right on."

This was a far cry from how Lewis might have felt while growing up in Louisiana. Like many boys of the time, he belonged to a white gang. Back then, he recalls, "We used to go down a block and throw rocks at black kids. They would come into the white neighborhood and throw rocks at the white kids." One day, he remembers, "I went diddy-boppin' down Taylor Street and turned right on Marengo, right into a gang of black kids with sticks and baseball bats. They proceeded to flail at me. I fell back into some heavy bushes and shrubbery, but it was at that point I started asking myself if racism was really such a good idea."

Talking about his years in Atlanta, Lewis says said he found himself being the caretaker of a derelict 1899 Victorian mansion on Peachtree Street. "I happened to live in apartment one, which was the only unit in three stories that had running water," he recalls. "My new home, as it turned out, was the grim little 650-square-foot apartment where another journalist, Margaret Mitchell, lived and from 1925 to 1932 and wrote 'Gone with the Wind.'"

Lewis was particularly drawn to the front room of the Mitchell home. "It was the only place with natural light. The light streamed in from the west through three magnificent leaded glass windows and reflected in an alcove with three dingy beveled glass mirrors set into the walls of the little inset," he says. "It was here that Peggy, as her newspaper friends called her, had set up a portable typewriter to type the manuscript that would make Atlanta known around the world, and despised among African Americans as the film where the slave maid Prissy whines, 'Oh Miz Scarlett, I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies!'" 

Lewis said that the photos he took of the alcove, the carved lion's head just outside of the apartment, and other architectural details were the only images known to exist of the birthplace of one of America's most acclaimed novelists. The images were used to help rebuild the old ruin into the Margaret Mitchell Home and Museum. Today, the Mitchell home has become the city's second most popular tourist attraction. The most popular: The Martin Luther King Historic District.

Lewis was hired by Atlanta Public Radio while he lived in Mitchell's home. Two of his longest pieces for WABE were twin stories of Atlanta -- one was on King and the other focused on Mitchell.

When a management change wiped out local news at WABE in the mid-1990s, Lewis signed up with Cable News Network (CNN) in Atlanta, where he worked for a couple of years before his wife told him she had just gotten an ideal job in Los Angeles, where they soon moved.

"And so, in May, I will get what so few of my toilers in the ink-smudged craft of journalism ever achieve: a retrospective, a review of my efforts, of boozy, smoky midnights on deadline, souping 8x10 glossy black and white prints in trays of stinky Dektol developer, cutting audio tape with razors to edit, and hammering away on an ancient manual typewriter all in service of telling stories of the haunted Southland to a wondering world."

Says Lewis, "I now know why Atlanta is throwing this retrospective for me. I may be one of the last of the breed."

Lionel Rolfe is a journalist and the author of several books, including "Literary L.A.," "The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather," "Fat Man on the Left" and "The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey," all available on Amazon's Kindlestore. This article just appeared in the Pasadena Weekly.