It was a hot and muggy summer day in 1964 in a small Georgia town outside of Atlanta.
The 1964-65 editor for The Auburn Plainsman was covering a standoff between civil rights demonstrators and a crowd of white townspeople for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Don Phillips was originally an engineering major, but decided to change his major to journalism because he said he wanted to graduate quicker.
After graduating, Phillips went on to work for the United Press International wire service and became Atlanta bureau manager in 1969. In 1970, he moved to Washington, D.C. and covered Congress. In 1985, Phillips moved to The Washington Post and covered transportation. Phillips retired from journalism in 2006 after working at The International Herald Tribune, now known as the International New York Times.
On that summer day in 1964, however, Phillips was just a young reporter, trying to not be discovered by an angry mob as he later described in the March 10, 1965, issue of The Plainsman.
“The crowd was drunk, and some were showing off brass knuckles, knives and even guns,” Phillips wrote in his column, “How do reporters feel covering a race story?” in The Plainsman. “I smiled as though I was talking to my girlfriend. I didn’t know what they would do to me if they discovered who I was, but I wasn’t about to find out.”
Today, Phillips recalls those days as “heady times.”
Harold Franklin was the first African-American student to enroll at Auburn on Jan. 4, 1964.
“There were lots of people working then to make sure we weren’t another George Wallace in the schoolhouse door type thing, like the University of Alabama,” Phillips said.
On Franklin’s first day, police sealed off campus and only allowed faculty, students and members of the press onto Auburn’s campus.
The Plainsman published several editorials criticizing the University administration for moving too slow with integration.
“For, I guess, four of the five years leading up to and, I guess, including me, the editors were extremely liberal,” Phillips said. “So people had just gotten used to (The Plainsman’s editorials). I tried to be a little bit more responsible in what I said, but there was no question where I was coming from.”
However, some in the University’s administration wanted to shut down the production of The Plainsman, according to Phillips.
“The day before the board meeting where this was supposedly going to happen, there was an editorial in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that just gave them hell for even considering something like that,” Phillips said. “So they had to back off.”
Phillips said the student population was generally conservative, but he did not get the impression that anyone was angry with what The Plainsman wrote.
“Most of the student leadership were either liberal or thought it was stupid to not get this integration thing past us,” Phillips said. “So there was a lot of sympathy for what (The Plainsman) did, even among the student leaders who didn’t agree with us.”
Phillips was in Selma for the events leading up to and following the Bloody Sunday march, but was in Auburn the day the civil rights march happened.
Phillips said the safest place to be was near the Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“The people outside the police lines around that place could be nutcases,” Phillips said. “They were bad news. The so-called good people weren’t taking part in those days. They were just saying, ‘tisk, tisk,’ and doing nothing, which let it go on.”
President Lyndon Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard to protect the marchers on their third attempt to go to Montgomery after a federal court ruled Alabama was violating the marchers’ First Amendment rights.
On March 24, 1965, Phillips was at the marchers’ campsite outside of Montgomery, where Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, Sammy Davis Jr., Dick Gregory and Peter, Paul and Mary held a concert.
Phillips wrote about Selma and the lines that divided the people of the South in his editorial, “We must not continue to hide from the truth,” in the March 31, 1965, issue of The Plainsman.
“When the demonstrators leave (and they will) and emotion subsides, calm reason must prevail,” Phillips wrote. “We can no longer afford to slip back into the comfort of our myths and hide our eyes from the truth. We must all make a superhuman effort to understand.”