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Southern Spaces
A journal about real and imagined spaces and places of the US South and their global connections

"Possum on Terrace": A Typed Manuscript from John Egerton on Journalist Johnny Popham

Emory University
Published October 9, 2012
John Egerton, Possum on Terrace, 1987.
John Egerton, PDF of "Possum on Terrace," 1987.

In 1985, "The Southern War Correspondents and Camp Followers Association" and "The Popham Seminar" held a joint meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, to celebrate journalist Johnny Popham's seventy-fifth birthday. John Egerton, a journalist and scholar who has written about southern race relations, education, and food wrote this unpublished manuscript in 1987 detailing the 1985 conference and Popham's biography.

A Virginia native, Popham was sent by the New York Times to cover the US South in the mid-twentieth century. In 1958, after twenty-five years on the road, he became the editor of The Chattanooga Times. There, he established himself as at the center of a network of southern journalists, education leaders, and politicians engaged in the civil rights movement. Popham also became known for his signature oratorical storytelling style, described by Claude Sitton in this piece as "dollops of sorghum syrup spat from a Gatling gun" (35).

John Egerton, Possum on Terrace with Handwritten Notes, 1987.
John Egerton, "Possum on Terrace" with handwritten notes, 1987.

Popham became a leader of a group of who called themselves the War Correspondents, white men who made their careers covering civil rights and desegregation era racial politics for southern newspapers. These men along with a group of higher education specialists also started informal conferences, which they called Popham Seminars, beginning in 1969. Most of the text of this essay is culled from Popham's speech at the 1985 conference and from interviews with other War Correspondents, making this a valuable document for inquiry into civil rights movement history and journalism. Popham, Egerton, and their colleagues continually use the language of war to describe the milieu of race relations reporting, but they do so with an ironic joviality that highlights the bond that formed between men bound by politics and circumstance.

Southern Spaces presents Egerton's tribute to Johnny Popham, "Possum on Terrace: The Southern Life and Times of Johnny Popham and a Few of His Friends," as an unedited manuscript in the spirit of archiving papers of southern figures in twentieth-century journalism.