|Al Benn was bureau manager for United Press International and helped in coverage of the historic march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. He has written at least 50,000 Alabama stories over the course of his career, including those on the civil rights movement, Alabama football and the space race.|
Alvin Benn has been reporting on history ... and living it ... for the last 50 years.
There were times Alvin Benn wondered what the h--- he’d gotten himself into.
Such as the time he and a couple of press pals found themselves in a rural Alabama state park in 1965, tires slashed and surrounded by "Kluxers" at a rally held to raise cash for the killers of Viola Liuzzo.
He was just a Jewish kid from Pennsylvania Amish country, after all, a guy who might have grown up to sell furniture if it weren’t for a decision – or lack of one – here or there. He was a guy who thought he’d be happy as a history teacher. But instead, he found himself in rural Alabama.
Watching it. Reporting it. Living it.
Benn, a cub reporter for UPI when he found himself in that state park mess, escaped with only shaken nerves and a hangover. As it happened, KKK Grand Wizard Bob Creel figured the white hoods were under enough scrutiny, so he took off his pointy hat, passed it around and scraped up enough KKK cash for new tires.
"I’m glad it turned out that way, or we wouldn’t be here for this interview right now," Benn said.
But it did, and over the next few hours an uneasy Benn - and two photographers with him - found themselves drinking in a bar with the very three guys charged with killing Liuzzo after the Selma to Montgomery march.
|Al Benn, right, worked for The Decatur Daily in 1967 when he interviewed George Wallace – a year before he campaigned for president as an independent candidate.|
His bosses put out a missing persons alert, and his wife Sharon nearly had a conniption.
"I’m sure she wondered what she had gotten herself into," Benn said.
And it wouldn’t be the last time.
Benn – the James Brown of Alabama journalism for the last 50 years, the Hardest Working Man in the News Business – has been everywhere across this state.
Maybe it was his military precision, for he spent six years in the U.S. Marines before picking up his pen. But through the 1980s and ‘90s, after Benn took a job in the newly created Selma Bureau of the Montgomery Advertiser, he often had five bylines a day. Day after day.
He figures he averaged 1,200-1,500 stories a year through those times, which is astounding even if you didn’t know he was putting 50,000 miles a year on his car. He didn’t cover the Black Belt, he smothered it, sometimes writing stories from Selma, Demopolis, Linden, Camden and God Knows Where, all in the same day.
For decades. Oh, the things he’s seen.
He watched Joe Namath suffer his first knee injury – it gave out on a roll-out to the right with no contact.
He covered the civil rights movement with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gov. George C. Wallace. He covered the space race in Huntsville with Wernher von Braun. He covered Alabama football under Paul "Bear" Bryant.
"You don’t realize what you are doing – you’re just doing your job trying to meet a deadline," he said. "And then all of a sudden years go by and you realize you’ve covered some of the most momentous moments in American history."
He would talk to King one day, and Birmingham Police Commissioner Bull Connor the next. Benn once asked Connor what he thought of King winning the Nobel Prize.
"Boy, they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel," Connor said.
The nuggets he recalls are historical gold. Like when he wrote of a near riot in the Birmingham streets in the ‘60s, and was called out the next day by King’s aide Hosea Williams.
"That wasn’t a riot," Williams said. "The riot is gonna be tonight."
It was exciting, and dangerous, and different every day.
Benn was picked out and picked on by thugs who blamed the press for societal change in the ‘60s, and he has been saved by cops who simply left doors open so he could slip into a safe place. He is still saddened by the killing of Willie Brewster in Anniston, a man shot for no other reason than his skin color.
He talked to Brewster before he died, and still recalls the pain of his widow, Lestine, crying, "Don’t leave me Brewster" into an open casket.
Benn covered Alabama for decades, in the process writing the history of some of the nation’s biggest events. See what he says about that history now.
So many stories, so many days. So much running, driving. All for the deadline, all to beat the other guys to the story.
On the day of the Selma to Montgomery March, Benn was in Birmingham. Kluxers there hoped to distract attention from the march by leaving lockers full of explosives in black neighborhoods.
Benn was there, running through the streets of the neighborhood called Dynamite Hill, racing an AP writer to the nearest pay phone. He tripped and fell, losing both his scoop and his dignity. When a homeowner walked out with a shotgun, all Benn could do was throw up his hands and yell, "I’m a reporter."
Benn, now 75 and still writing columns for the Advertiser and AFC Cooperative Farming News, thinks now about decisions, those made and those unmade, that make us who we are. It is rarely where you think you’ll be.
"We just don’t know what’s going to happen," he says.
But he feels as if angels have hovered over both his shoulders all this time. When he met his wife. When he served six years in the Marines between Korea and Vietnam. When he did not get into a teacher’s college.
If he had gotten exactly all he wanted, he would have spent life standing in front of a chalkboard talking about history. Instead of living it. Instead of seeing it. Instead of writing it.
And you know what he’d be saying then.
What the h--- did I get myself into?