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One of the proudest moments of Jim Bullington’s life was when a former governor of Alabama publicly insulted him during a graduation reception at the U.S. Army War College.
The year was 1979, and Bullington was a U.S. Foreign Service Officer wrapping up some additional training at the college in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
It is customary for the school to invite a handful of distinguished citizens to each graduation ceremony, and when the list of that year’s attendees began circulating among the students, Bullington was shocked to see Gov. John Patterson’s name on the list.
The two men had come into indirect conflict with one another nearly two decades earlier, and when he spotted Patterson at the reception Bullington could not resist the urge to go introduce himself.
“I saw him across the room and I made my way over and said ‘Governor, you probably don’t remember me but when you were governor I was the editor of [the student newspaper] at Auburn,’” Bullington said. “And he drew back and pointed a finger at me and said ‘So you’re the son-of-a-bitch who wrote that editorial.’”
The editorial was a scathing condemnation of segregation Bullington penned that garnered national attention in the late spring of 1961.
Bullington, who retired to Williamsburg in 2006 and currently resides at Patriot’s Colony, enjoys reflecting on the events of that exciting spring. As schools and organizations around the Historic Triangle observe Black History Month, he has been working on a memoir that will share the story of his small role as an ally in the Civil Rights Movement and the lessons he took away from his stand against racial injustice.
When Bullington enrolled at Auburn University in 1957, he had no interest in weighing in on the civil rights issues that would rock the Deep South for most of the following decade. He says he had barely given a thought to concepts like racial equality up to that point in his life.
“Race was not much discussed or thought about- segregation was a given, the way things were,” Bullington said.
Shortly after starting at Auburn, Bullington joined the school newspaper, The Plainsman, as a sports reporter. Before long he was promoted to sports editor, and then in spring of 1961 he was elected to the position of editor-in-chief.
Around the same time as his election, Bullington had become absorbed in the media coverage of the Freedom Rides taking place in nearby Montgomery and throughout the Deep South. Black and white Freedom Riders were riding interstate buses into the South to challenge the illegal segregation of the public buses and bus stops, and they were met with hostility and violence at many stops.
The controversy surrounding the Freedom Rides was like a wake-up call to Bullington, who found himself seriously considering the issue of segregation for the first time in his life.
“That was the epiphany. I saw what was being done to the Freedom Riders and particularly the fact that the mobs [that attacked them] were not only being tolerated but encouraged by the state authorities,” Bullington said. “I just decided it was wrong.”
Outraged at this injustice and newly empowered as editor of The Plainsman, Bullington decided to write an editorial for the paper calling for the end of segregation at Auburn and condemning the racist actions and attitudes of local and state officials.
“I went down to the office of the school newspaper with a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon [beer] one night and wrote the editorial,” Bullington said.
Though he was well-aware his position on integration would be a controversial one, Bullington was unprepared for the immediacy and vehemence of the overwhelmingly negative response he would receive.
Fellow students heckled and cursed Bullington as he walked around campus the day the editorial came out. One group went so far as to build a bonfire of the papers and burn Bullington in effigy.
Reaction was not limited to campus. Shortly after the editorial came out the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan burned a 7-foot-tall cross on the lawn of the fraternity house where Bullington lived, and numerous threatening letters were sent to both him and his parents.
“You are a shame and disgrace to our city,” reads one such letter that Bullington has held onto. “As a former student of Auburn, I suggest you go down on 9th Street or [to] the NAACP and try to enroll at one of their colleges.”
Though the actions against him and his family were clearly threatening, Bullington does not recall feeling afraid for his safety.
“Mostly I was [mad] at the people who were giving me such trouble,” Bullington said, laughing. “I should have been scared but I wasn’t. When you’re 20 years old, you have the notion that you’re invulnerable. I don’t recall having any fear for my personal safety.”
The backlash against Bullington’s editorial was so great that it caught the attention of the Associated Press, which picked up the story and ran it throughout the state as well as in national publications such as The Washington Post and The New York Times.
School administrators and local political leaders – Gov. Patterson among them – were enraged by the editorial and the national attention it was garnering, and quickly took action to try to quell the story.
With university funds and appropriations being threatened by politicians who were upset about the editorial, both Auburn’s president and dean of student affairs demanded Bullington submit all future editorials to them for approval.
Though the local response was almost entirely negative, Bullington did have some supporters at the national level. He received a supportive telegram from Ralph McGill, a renowned anti-segregation journalist, and also had the backing of the American Association of University Professors and other major organizations concerned with issues of integration and freedom of the press.
Bullington credits those high-profile supporters for him not losing his job as editor or being expelled from the school.
“I think the people in the administration realized that firing or expelling me would be more trouble than it’s worth and they just decided to tolerate me,” Bullington said.
The entire scandal played out over the course of just a few weeks and had largely died down by the time Bullington returned to school in the fall. Though he continued to write pro-integration stories and refused to submit them to the university for censorship, nothing caught fire the way the first story did.
“It was quite a maturing experience for a 20-year-old to be under that sort of pressure and the focal point of so much tension,” Bullington said. “It showed me a lot about operating under very intense pressure and standing up for what you believe in, doing what you think is right in spite of the overwhelming opposition.”
Bullington was ultimately on the right side of history, and two years after he graduated Auburn began the process of integration.
“Today, going back to Auburn, it’s so dramatic to see the difference,” Bullington said. “Just as segregation was the norm – the way things are – today it’s just the opposite. I’m hopeful that my contribution was perhaps significant.”
Inspired by both his love of adventure and desire to serve, Bullington went on to join the Foreign Service. It was while on that career track that he gained an interesting coda to his story of youthful rebellion, as he finally came face-to-face with the man who had publicly denounced him 20 years earlier.
“I was so proud to say to [Patterson], ‘Yes indeed, I’m the S.O.B. who wrote that editorial,’” Bullington said. “And I was so glad it had bothered him enough to remember all those years.”