Life lessons on race
Rick Allen holds up a copy of his book: "Reckoning with Race: An Unfinished Journey" during a recent visit. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

It takes a brave soul to open up about his reflections, vulnerabilities and revelations about race.

Retired Atlanta journalist and author Frederick “Rick” Allen does just that in his thought-provoking book: “Reckoning with Race: An Unfinished Journey,” released Aug. 1.

The book spans the 50 years of his journey — starting with his move to Atlanta in 1972, his 15-year-long career at the Atlanta Constitution and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, his tenure at CNN as well as the writing three historical nonfiction books.

Rick Allen is a former colleague and longtime friend who reached out to me to talk about his fourth book — “Reckoning with Race” — and the journey he’s been on to reconcile all the complex and multi-layered thoughts he has wrestled with over the past half-century. (And because he’s a friend, it’s easier to refer to him as Rick rather than Allen in this column.)

Rick and I got together on Aug. 16 for coffee to talk about his book and his most personal journey as a writer.

‘It was 51 years ago that I moved to Atlanta,” Rick said. “I had a sense at first that I had arrived too late — that the civil rights movement was over. But I had arrived in time to witness the fruits of the civil rights movement with the advent of Black political power.”

One of his first assignments was covering the inauguration of Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, the city’s first Black mayor. He marveled at the arc of history: “Fifty years on, here’s Fani Willis — a Black woman — who stands in a position to possibly convict and incarcerate a former president.”

Many of the stories Rick shares are painful. He remembers being part of a scathing newspaper series, “City in Crisis,” in 1975 that challenged Mayor Jackson’s leadership. It was a series that made Alexis Scott, who had just joined the newspaper, question her choice of employer.

“The Atlanta Constitution of the 1970s was very much a white institution,” Rick told me. “It laid out a case against Maynard Jackson. It was one-sided, unfair and unsettling for a lot of people. I was deeply shaken by that.”

The book is a compilation of 18 essays. They tackle racial issues from a variety of viewpoints — often Rick’s first-hand experiences.

“It’s what I learned having a front-row seat during dramatic social change,” Rick said. “I come from a liberal Northern upbringing. I was a 60s liberal, and I thought I was right on race. It was quite a revelation to me that there was so much I didn’t know.”

Rick’s humility adds to the book’s credibility. He does not claim to know the answers, and he likes to leave the reader with questions so they can join his journey.

Case in point is his chapter about Joel Chandler Harris, who wrote about Uncle Remus, Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox in 1880 and onward.

“The question is: Did Joel Chandler Harris misappropriate slave folklore for his own purposes, or did he preserve it for future generations?” Rick asked. “If you are Black, and you are uncomfortable with a white person writing about Black dialect, I can see why it’s an issue.”

As I read the book, I often felt that two contradictory thoughts could both be true. 

And I totally could relate when Rick told me: “I find my thinking on race is still evolving.”

Rick, who will turn 75 on Sept. 5, has been surprised by some of the reactions.

“Where I have run into trouble with this book has been generational, not racial,” said Rick, adding that older readers can relate to his journey while younger readers, not so much. “Some of my younger readers feel I should have gone further in my thinking on race than I have. It’s not a “woke” journey for me. It’s an unfinished journey.”

John Lewis’ handwritten note to Rick Allen, “who single-handedly got me elected to Congress in 1986.” As Rick texted me: that was “proof that John Lewis had a sense of humor.” (Special.)

To the dismay of some, Rick said he can be forgiving of white Southerners who, because of the public school curriculum of the day, were “taught a bunch of lies.” He also has an aversion to those who believe all whites are racist. “If I have a sermon, it’s this: You are never going to get to higher ground on race without white people being involved.”

But Rick is the first to criticize himself. When he interviewed two self-avowed racists — Georgia Gov. Marvin Griffin and Lt. Gov. Roy Harris — he felt he left them off the hook by not challenging their views.

Rather than atoning for his sins, Rick is trying to help people of differing beliefs to discuss what divides us in a civil way.

“My purpose in this book is to dial down the loud voices,” Rick said. “I am fully aware that for much of our history, Black men and women have had to shout to be heard — have had to march, protest, suffer and too often die to be heard.”

Our mutual friend Jeff Dickerson observed that if Rick, who is comfortably retired, “chooses to dig deeply into the questions of race that continue to confront us, that’s a good thing.”

One eye-opening story for me was why he resigned in 1988 from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in protest of how the paper was negatively depicting then-Mayor Andrew Young based on “unfounded accusations.” Rick’s sources gave him information that exonerated the mayor, but editors declined to change the narrative, so Rick resigned – only to join CNN the next day to cover the presidential race.

I wish Rick had delved more into what was happening at the AJC in 1988 and the turmoil that led to his departure as well as that of fellow political columnist Bill Shipp, who died earlier this year.

It’s not surprising that Young wrote the foreword in “Reckoning with Race.”

As Young wrote, “Rick has done a lot more here than discover the obvious. His digging into some issues — redlining, environmental racism, white privilege, reparations — is painful to read about at times but also enlightening.”

But Young then referred to his own optimistic take on Atlanta. “As a student of the “Atlanta Way,” the longtime coalition of white business executives and Black political leaders that helped make Atlanta the capital of the New South — and brought us the Olympics — Rick appreciates the need for people of diverse backgrounds and interests to talk with one another, even if it’s difficult because that is the only way out of no way.”

A selfie of Rick Allen and Maria. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

Rick did write about the tension in Atlanta during the “Missing and Murdered Children” period in the early 1980s. On Oct. 13, 1980, a boiler exploded in the daycare center of the Bowen Homes housing project – killing four toddlers and one teacher. I found myself wanting to add a footnote to that history. Immediately after the explosion, Dan Sweat, president of Central Atlanta Progress, convened a meeting in his “War Room” with local builders Herman Russell and Larry Gellerstedt, who immediately sent crews out to rebuild the center.

The most poignant essay for me was about Rebecca Logan, who worked for Rick’s family as a housekeeper and part-time cook. When his father was institutionalized because of mental illness and his mother also was in and out of the hospital, Rebecca was there to take care of him.

“In many ways, the anchor of our family became Rebecca. The kindnesses she lavished on me were endless,” Rick wrote. “An awful unfairness dictated Rebecca’s place in the world, but she was a free woman at heart, and she made certain I knew it.”

Reading the book, it was clear to me. Rick’s journey is our journey. He just brings us along for the ride.

Maria Saporta, executive editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state. From 2008 to 2020, she wrote weekly columns...

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.