Opinion

Fitting tribute to a Georgia scribe

“When he wrote a column, you went to the paper and you read Bill Shipp first. If you were going to be the victim of the day, you might as well go out and find out what he was going to say about you. But if you were not the victim of the day, you could relish in seeing some other politician being skewered by that pen.”

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. (2009)

Monday night, on the eve of an election that would almost surely send Sen. Isakson back to Washington for another term, the focus of one event in Athens was not on politics or politicians, but on a veteran Georgia journalist who chronicled both for more than half a century.

Bill Shipp, 83, the longtime Atlanta Constitution reporter, editor, columnist and political gadfly whose columns graced these pages for years before his 2009 retirement (the occasion for Isakson’s wry tribute), was inducted Monday into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.

Shipp’s career of locking horns with the high and mighty was launched before he was even out of school.

He began college at Emory University, but transferred to the University of Georgia when Emory dropped its journalism major in 1952, according to his Hall of Fame biography.

The very next year, as Red and Black co-editor with Walter Lundy, Shipp editorially challenged the segregationist policies and politics of the university, the Board of Regents and Gov. Herman Talmadge. The backlash included threats of official censorship, funding cuts and staff firings. Shipp, Lundy and two other editors resigned, and — again, according to the HofF bio — Shipp was “told by faculty and administrators that everybody would be more comfortable if he left the university,” at which point he quit UGA and joined the Army.

But his courage in Athens had caught the attention, and public support, of legendary Atlanta editor Ralph McGill. Shipp was hired at the Constitution after his military service, and was state news editor by 1959.

Among the historic news Shipp would cover in the coming decades as investigative reporter, editor, editorial writer and/or columnist were some of the most important stories of the 20th century — the Birmingham church bombings, desegregation of Southern universities, and the 1964 Klan murder of Lemuel Penn, a black World War II veteran on his way from Fort Benning to Washington. He exposed crime and corruption in the Atlanta Police Department. And it was Bill Shipp who first reported that a Georgia peanut farmer from Plains had decided to run for president.

He worked independently after 1987 producing Bill Shipp’s Georgia, published by papers, including this one, across the state

Shipp’s Hall of Fame bio quotes this tribute from former Constitution colleague Jim Minter:

“The adversary relationship between newspapers and government is one of the cornerstones of democracy, although often an irritant to subjects of news coverage. Shipp has been a textbook example of how the relationship results in both better government and better newspapers.”

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