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Atlanta, My Atlanta flashes back to 1970s race relations

Former Atlanta journalist Boyd Lewis describes social change at 7 Stages

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From 1969 to 1997, Boyd Lewis worked in nearly every possible form of journalism in Atlanta, from photographer to WABE radio broadcaster to Creative Loafing columnist. For his one-man show Atlanta, My Atlanta, Lewis focuses on his first decade in Atlanta, when he worked as the only white reporter for the African-American newspaper The Atlanta Voice. Currently a middle school English teacher in Los Angeles, Lewis returns to Atlanta on Aug. 4 for an "audio-illustrated memoir" featuring examples of his photography and radio work as he describes a transitional decade in the City Too Busy to Hate.

What does the 7 Stages show encompass?

I think the best capsule is "Race and journalism in Martin King's hometown." I call it that because "Martin Luther King Jr." is a trademarked name, and they'll send lawyers after you if you use it. I moved here in 1969, when Atlanta was just getting over the shock of his death. MLK was absent, but there was a wind that blew through the city. Atlantans of all persuasions followed in the example of our hometown hero. People proudly crossed the color line to elect the best candidates. It was an amazing decade. Atlanta theaters just exploded in the 1970s. I worked for the black press for six years and nobody said "Boo." It lasted until 1979 and the missing and murdered children case, when white people and black people went back to their separate corners.

As a white journalist, did you have difficulty gaining the trust of African-American sources?

Initially there was suspicion, as there should have been. At the time, the FBI was infiltrating activist groups through the program COINTELPRO. Sometimes black people had the suspicion that I was another person spying on them. I'd say to them, "I'm here because I'm dedicated to social justice" and tell them to read what's under my byline. I was barred from an all-black meeting about political strategy before the 1972 election, and from an information booth the Black Panthers had on Ashby Street — but those were the only times. Mostly I was a tool for getting the word out to the black community of Atlanta.

What aspects of Atlanta history do you emphasize?

The show goes through my career in journalism but focuses on stories that I always had questions about. One of them is the Wayne Williams case and the Atlanta child murders, when it seemed that once a week, sometimes twice a week, a child was found dead. The city was in a state of panic. I got a plum assignment to cover the case and read all the evidence. All of the evidence against Williams was circumstantial, using fiber evidence that's never been used in a conviction since them. I think that he was framed. Partly it's about the tarnished legacy of Martin Luther King. We hear "I have a dream" all the time, but no references to MLK's work on social justice. In his hometown, nobody talks about MLK, except how his rascally children are cashing in on his legacy. And I talk about how I was the last person to live in Margaret Mitchell's apartment, in 1977. I was writing my radio scripts the same way Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone With the Wind. I set up a portable table and typed by the gas stove with all the burners on to keep warm.

How much of the show is storytelling, and how much does it involve audiovisual aids?

Part is going to be like a Spalding Gray monologue, only with snapshots and a tape recorder for some of my radio broadcasts. I like to show pictures of the incredible, unappreciated, unknown Atlanta, including Atlanta's poverty. I have pictures from the early gay rights scene in Atlanta, including the first public gay rights march in 1972.

What do you think of Atlanta now?

I'm amazed at how many beautiful neighborhoods continue to exist. Cabbagetown, which used to be a hellhole of white gangs, is now gentrification personified. But they're chopping all the trees down. The city's being denuded of trees, and I hear it's running out of water, and the traffic is hideous.

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