Georgia Today: Looking back at some of our most memorable stories of 2021
On this special year-end edition of the Georgia Today podcast, we look back at some of our most memorable episodes from 2021. And we remember the lives of three Georgians whose names dominated headlines this year: the late baseball icon Henry "Hank" Aaron, the late Max Cleland, a Democrat and lifelong public servant who held a variety of roles, including that of U.S. senator and head of the Veterans Administration under President Jimmy Carter, and 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery. The trial for the white men convicted of killing Arbery — Travis McMichael, his father Greg McMichael and their neighbor, William "Roddie" Bryan — culminated in November in guilty verdicts for all three defendants.
Steve Fennessy: This year saw a lot of big sports news for Georgia, including this fall when the Atlanta Braves defeated the Houston Astros, winning their first World Series title since 1995.
When the Braves clinched a trip to the series with a win against the Dodgers in the NLCS, Truist Park erupted.
[News tape] Announcer: Here's the 1-0. And on the ground, Swanson, he's got it, to his feet, throwing to first. There it is! The Atlanta Braves are going to the World Series!
Steve Fennessy: The Braves' historic title sparked celebrations among sports fans across Georgia, but the state also lost a hometown baseball legend this year: Hank Aaron.
Aaron died Jan. 22, 2021, at the age of 86. It would be difficult to overstate Hank Aaron's impact on not just baseball, but on the entire country. Aaron is, of course, most well known for breaking Babe Ruth's homerun record in 1974. NPR contributor and ESPN writer Howard Bryant wrote a biography of Aaron called The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron. Bryant says Aaron's journey from Mobile, Ala., to baseball's Hall of Fame was a long and complicated one.
Howard Bryant: I remember one day Henry and I were in Cooperstown, and he had told me, "I don't think I spoke to a white person until I was 18 years old." I was like "What?" And he really said it, "I don't believe." Obviously, there might have been a "yes," "hello," "maybe," "no," something like that. One-word responses. But he said, "I don't think I actually had a full person-to-person conversation with a white person" until he was playing in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. And that gives you an idea of what life in Mobile was like. We've heard these stories so many times about the colored water fountains and the white water fountains and the colored restrooms and all the segregation. Do they still have impact? Do they still mean something, because we've heard about them so many times and time has removed us from it? Can we try to understand what life in Mobile was like in terms of the hope in somebody who is is as ambitious as he was and somebody who had an idea that he was actually really good at something? In fact, a genius level. I remember talking to Ed Scott, the old scout who signed Henry and Henry's mother, Stella, used to get mad at Ed Scott because he kept coming around the house. And she says, you know, "Get away from my son. Why did you keep coming around here?" And Ed walked up to her and said "Mrs. Aaron, I don't think you know what you have over there." And he's trying to say, you've got a child who is a genius at this. He's world-class. Henry, in those years in the late '30s, early '40s, when he would talk about wanting to — to — to use that talent, his father and his brother would tell him, "You're colored."
Henry Aaron: I never — I never played with — with a white player until I got to Eau Claire. And Eau Claire was a farm club of the Milwaukee — was the farm club of the Braves as a Class-C ball club. That was the very first time I ever, ever played with white players. Before then I played in the Negro League and then before that I played in Carver Park, which was all Black, you know. So I — I never had the experience of playing with white players until I got into professional baseball.
Steve Fennessy: What was it about baseball to him? What — what was the appeal?
Howard Bryant: Baseball is — it is the most individual of team sports, if you're self-sufficient, which Henry was — if you're independent, which Henry was — if you're a self-starter, which Henry was. I can't help you in baseball when it's, when — when it's Sandy Koufax on the mound and you're in the, in the batter's box, nobody can help you. It's you versus the pitcher. This is on me. I'm either going to make it or I'm not going to make it. And combined with his ability, with that hand-eye coordination, baseball was a perfect sport for him.
Newscast: On April 15th, 1947, at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, Jackie Robinson makes his first appearance as a Major League Baseball player and shatters a half century of tradition.
Steve Fennessy: Jackie Robinson, of course, integrated Major League Baseball. But as I learned from your book, Henry Aaron integrated the minor league Sally League. What was the Sally League and what was his experience there?
Howard Bryant: You know, the Sally League is the South Atlantic League. S-A-L, and so they called it the Sally League. And it was the minor leagues. It was that — the Southern minor league affiliates that, you know, the Braves’ minor league affiliate was in Jacksonville and there were all the other towns and cities down in that — in the league. And clearly you're dealing with severe segregation socially and this new experiment of integration, you had these Black players going into these into these cities and in these — these incredibly hostile places.
Henry Aaron: We were seeing little progress in baseball. I know I, in Jacksonville, when I first started in Jacksonville, you know, Blacks and white could not mingle together. And then at the end of the season, they were starting to go together and shake hands and be amiable because it was for one thing, and that’s to try to win a championship.
Howard Bryant: One of the famous moments was when Henry was playing with there's another Black player, a Puerto Rican player, Felix Mantilla. They were there sitting on the bench one day in one of the games and the, the, y’know, the all-white crowd, there's a section of the crowd that is chanting “alligator bait.” And at one point, Mantilla looks and says, “What's 'alligator bait'?” And one of the white players looks at him and says, “You.”
And that gives you the idea of the hostility that these players were facing with no protection and certainly no sympathy.
Steve Fennessy: We talk about Henry Aaron being a young phenomenon. He played in the Negro Leagues and then the Milwaukee Braves bought out his contract for, what? $10,000 dollars, which must have been the bargain of the century.
Newscast: …and went into extra innings the night the Braves won the pennant. Two out in the 11th. Logan on base. Hank Aaron steps in against the third Cardinal pitcher of the game, Billy Moffitt. Here it comes.
And there it goes: Hammerin’ Hank hits a home run and this one is special. The Braves …
Steve Fennessy: 1956, in just his second or third year with the Milwaukee Braves, one of the biggest magazines in the whole country at the time, The Saturday Evening Post, sends out this young writer to profile Henry Aaron. And the writer's name is Furman Bisher, who Atlanta residents will remember him as a sportswriter and columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for decades. And in your book, you called the story that Furman Bisher wrote for The Saturday Evening Post a devastating piece of journalism. So what — what made it devastating?
Howard Bryant: Well, what made it devastating was the common and casual racism that was in it. What really made it devastating wasn't just that it was so horribly racist. It was that that piece became the standard for how people viewed Henry.
Steve Fennessy: And what were the characteristics that — that Furman Bisher portrayed?
Howard Bryant: Well, the characteristics were, obviously, very — the sort of minstrel character as, you know, he shuffled when he walked, and he, you know, he wasn't very bright, but he was sort of this baseball savant who couldn't necessarily spell his name, but, boy, could he hit — and all of those different types of stereotypes and prejudices that were — that were common. And these are the things that Henry, especially once you get to know him or once he became prominent and as his career would continue, you would see the impact of what that — how that would affect someone like Henry who was so proud. And so — he was quiet. Absolutely. But he — he had an unbelievable sense of himself. And to be so caricatured like that, at that time — and not only that, but let's not forget what America was in 1956. You're in the middle of the Montgomery bus boycott.
You're in the civil rights movement, it’s on its way, it's coming. Everything is happening right then and there. To be written about in that way was humiliating and it was also normal. That was the other thing. There was no criticism of that piece. There was no there was no condemnation of Furman Bisher. Furman Bisher was not the anomaly. He was the — he was not the exception, he was the rule.
Newscast: Atlanta, very impressive skyline, supplemented by this magnificent circular stadium, is in a delirium of enthusiasm today to celebrate her attainment to big league city status. The Braves are here and it's Opening Day.
Steve Fennessy: When the Braves franchise moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta, Henry Aaron did not want to go. He did not want to return and live in the South.
Howard Bryant: No, well, he knew what was down there. He knew what it was. And he — and he did not feel, also, that Major League — that baseball back then, organized baseball, was going to protect him and didn't — he didn't want to go back into segregation. He didn't want to go play in a segregated stadium. And so, the negotiations that were taking place were incredible and at an incredibly high level.
I remember sitting there with — with Ambassador Andy Young. And — and Ambassador Young was saying how so many civil rights leaders met with — with Henry and he would tell them how he didn't feel like he was holding up his end and telling him how to keep telling them how he didn't want to go back to Atlanta. And they were assuring him that all of these safeguards are going to be put in place and that something remarkable was happening and that he was going to be in the center of the civil rights movement. And it really is sort of fascinating what happens to the Henry Aaron story if he's not in the middle of the civil rights movement. This being in Atlanta in 1965, ’66 really turned Henry Aaron into the social figure, the bigger-than-baseball figure that he ended up becoming.
Steve Fennessy: You speak in your book, too, about at least before moving to Atlanta, that he did not want to be considered, quote unquote, “an agitator.” And then you also talk about how he was flipping through the television one night and came upon James Baldwin as a guest on a talk show. There was something about James Baldwin that — that resonated with him, that — that spoke to him. What was that?
Howard Bryant: It was the everything that Henry had been thinking and feeling. Here's James Baldwin on television. I believe it was 1962 or ’63. Civil rights movement is right in the middle of it. You're sitting there and you're saying — and this is the thing, this is the gift of Baldwin. How many of us have read James Baldwin and felt like he was talking to us directly?
James Baldwin: The truth is, Negroes have been fighting for — for these hundred years, to obtain their rights, but in — and the country has ignored it. And the technique of the country has mainly been to accommodate it or to contain it, but never really to change the situation. And what has happened in our time and these last few years is — it is no longer possible to contain it. And the technique of accommodation has broken down. For the first time, really, the situation is out in the open and no American can ignore it.
Howard Bryant: I think Henry had that feeling as well, that here is your situation. Here is the basic questions of fairness. Here are the basic questions of being an American. Here are the things we don't —we're not afforded. And the way that Baldwin could articulate them so clearly and so passionately, that was a crystallizing moment, because these questions are now front and center in the culture. And — and I'm not going to be shy about saying my piece.
Steve Fennessy: Here's Henry Aaron in a 2002 interview on NPR's The Tavis Smiley Show.
Henry Aaron: Well, the year that I was chasing Babe Ruth's record, of course, I received more letters than, say, the president did one single year, and most of them was hate mail. I had a daughter at Fisk University and she was forbidden from going out of a classroom. Y’know she on campus for a year and a half. I had to have Secret Service people traveling with me all year. I used to slip out of the back of baseball parks. I stayed aside from my teammates. My teammates would stay in one hotel; I had to stay in another one. So it was really a year and a half — I would say it was probably one of the toughest things I had to try to break a record. And most of it, most letters that I received was from — from people that was very hateful. It was very vicious.
Steve Fennessy: How important was his philanthropy to him? Because he was very much a prominent figure in philanthropic circles here in Atlanta.
Howard Bryant: Huge. He and I were talking one day about breaking the record and he said one of the things one of the most important things about breaking that record was that now people are going to listen to you. And if they were going to listen to you, then you could use that voice to do things for other people, especially young Black kids that just didn't have that voice. And that was extremely important to him. He was so pleased with the life he had lived. It's hard to articulate, but when you read how bitter people said he was and then what I remember about Henry was the fact that he was always smiling and always laughing and always giving and always conciliatory and always listening. There was no longer a question about where he stood.
RELATED: Hear Steve Fennessy's full interview with Bryant here.
Steve Fennessy: Just before Christmas, Georgia lost longtime Republican United States Sen. Johnny Isakson. But Isakson wasn't the only U.S. senator from Georgia to die this year. In November, Max Cleland died of congestive heart failure at his home in Atlanta. He was 79. Cleveland was a Democrat and lifelong public servant in a variety of roles, including U.S. senator and head of the Veterans Administration under President Jimmy Carter. Jim Galloway, a now-retired Atlanta Journal-Constitution journalist, says Cleland's politics were heavily influenced by his military service. Cleveland lost three limbs in the Vietnam War.
Much of the coverage of his death, of course, is mentioning prominently those attack ads that ran against him when he was running for reelection in 2002 — unsuccessfully, as it turned out. But — I want to talk about that, but first, I'd like our listeners to better understand Max Cleland as someone who withstood almost unimaginable injuries in Vietnam as a young man. What — what exactly happened to him on that day in April 1968?
Jim Galloway: It was just a few days after Martin Luther King had been assassinated on the other side of the world. His team had just disembarked from a helicopter, and he — he saw a grenade on the ground, a live grenade.
[News tape] WSB: After a private had dropped a grenade getting out of a helicopter. Cleland went to grab it to toss it away from other soldiers, but it went off — taking three of his limbs with it.
Jim Galloway: It very nearly killed him right there. His right arm and right leg were — were severed immediately. He soon lost his left leg. A Marine took off his ammunition belt and tied it around his left leg, which kind of saved him from bleeding to death.
Steve Fennessy: Now, Sen. Cleland, he thought for years, didn't he, that that grenade had been his, that he had dropped it somehow?
Jim Galloway: This is the thing about Max is, he was not a hero of Vietnam and he never considered himself a hero of Vietnam.
[Tape] Max Cleland: And I didn't want to avoid the war of my generation. I mean, I knew this was going to be big. And as a history major, you know, these defining moments in American history come along every now and then. And if you really want to learn about it, you really hope to be part of America in the future. You better get in there and understand it so you can be a good leader afterward.
Jim Galloway: The Marine who saved his life was the one who told him — I think it was in 1999 — that note it was that the grenade didn't fall off Max's belt. It fell off the belt of the newbie. That was a small comfort.
Steve Fennessy: So he comes home after months of recovery, no? At Walter Reed Hospital outside Washington.
Jim Galloway: Years, yes.
Steve Fennessy: He loses both his legs. He loses his right arm. And then he's back in his parents’ house and he's still just a young man and in his late 20s and he's looking around. And I mean, I saw him in a quote to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution a few years ago saying to himself, “I've got no job offers. I've got no girlfriend, no future, no hope.” What did he do?
Jim Galloway: He was always interested in politics from his college years. I mean, he was, in a way, he was kind of the consummate Southern politician in that he conceived of military service as the way to get there. So he stuck with that plan. He won a seat in the state Senate, and I think at the time he was the youngest member there. He did it on a pair of artificial legs and crutches.
Steve Fennessy: The Republicans in 2002 kind of run the table. I mean, Sonny Perdue defeats the incumbent Roy Barnes to become the first Republican governor of Georgia in over —well over — a century. What is the impact, personally, I guess, emotionally, psychologically, on Max Cleland?
Jim Galloway: And he wrote about this. I mean, he was sent into a tremendous tailspin of depression. This is probably when we started hooking up together a little bit, just as friends. You know, he felt — he felt so wounded. We would often sit down and talk about the, what we called the black dog.
Steve Fennessy: What was the black dog?
Jim Galloway: That was depression. That was the creature that sits on your shoulder and says, “All is lost.”
Steve Fennessy: Where did you fear that that might take him?
Jim Galloway: Oh, I think it's something that you saw that he was working through.
Steve Fennessy: How did he do that?
Jim Galloway: In 2017, Ken Burns had the documentary on Vietnam and the voice you heard on that was that of Max Cleland.
Max Cleland: Victor Frankl, who survived the death camps in World War II, wrote a book called Man's Search for Meaning. You know, to live is to suffer. To survive is to find meaning in suffering. And for those of us who suffered because of Vietnam, that's been our quest ever since.
Jim Galloway: He was very big into philosophy, especially uplifting philosophy. Maybe two years ago, maybe three, we went about the process of replacing Max's bed, and he had cut off the legs so that it would do would match the height of his wheelchair so he could get in and out of it all right. So he asked me to find a way to carve into wood a quote from Patrick Overton. And the quote is: when we walk to the edge of all the light we have and take the step into the darkness of the unknown, we must believe that one of two things will happen. There will be something solid for us to stand on or we will be taught to fly.
I had it carved on a piece of his bed frame for him. I did have one thing added to the back of the piece. And those that — those were the letters “MCSH.” Max Cleland slept here. Max had a great sense of humor. He loved it.
[News tape] PBS NewsHour: Bound to a wheelchair most of his adult life, Cleland was gregarious and upbeat. Known for wearing a Mickey Mouse watch as a reminder, he said…
[News tape]: “Morning, senator!” “Good day to go to work.”
[News tape] PBS NewsHour: …not to take life too seriously.
Steve Fennessy: We're talking about sort of those dark days after his loss in 2002, and I understand that as part of his recovery, he actually attended meetings at Walter Reed with other other people who were going through post-traumatic stress. Did he ever talk about that?
Jim Galloway: Well, he had a group here in Atlanta, too. There was a tight circle of veterans that he would connect with here.
Steve Fennessy: What did that mean to him?
Jim Galloway: I was never in the military, and it was important for him to be around people who did understand that language. And I think the continued camaraderie helped him.
Steve Fennessy: Jimmy, you knew Max Cleland for many, many years. As we reflect on him and his life now, what's sort of the the most prevailing memory or thought that you have about him that will stick with you forever?
Jim Galloway: It's the image of a fellow who would never give up. I mean, after he lost the Senate, he went to work for the Export — Import Export Bank. He was — he was head of the Battlefield Memorial Association. He wanted to go out on a high note. His hope was that Hillary Clinton would be elected president in 2016, which would allow him to preside over the 75th anniversary of D-Day at Normandy. That didn't happen. But he kept on going. You know, he was the kind of fellow who lost a lot in 1968 and decided he was going to lose much more. He was gonna live it out. The physical image of Max Cleland that I'm going to have in, in my head, the rest of my life is that of a 75-year-old man with one arm hauling himself into his own Cadillac and out of it again. It was an everyday thing. And I just don't think that people realize the heroism that was in that.
RELATED: Hear Steve Fennessy's full interview with Galloway here.
Steve Fennessy: This year also saw the dramatic trial of three white men for the 2020 killing of Ahmaud Arbery who was Black. In this episode, we revisit our conversation with a journalist who has reported on the killing of Arbery and the killing's aftermath longer than anyone else: Brunswick News reporter Larry Hobbs. Larry has covered every twist and turn of the Arbery investigation and the highly anticipated trial, which culminated in November in guilty verdicts for all three defendants, Travis McMichael, his father Greg McMichael and their neighbor, William "Roddie" Bryan. The men were accused of chasing and fatally shooting 25-year-old Arbery in February 2020 as he jogged in a neighborhood just outside Brunswick, Georgia. Hobbs tells us that Arbery's death and the trial have taken a major emotional toll on Brunswick and Glynn County.
Larry Hobbs: The biggest example of how much this touched the community was our clerk of court — Ron Adams, clerk of Superior Court, sent out a thousand jury summonses and literally it was a two-and-a-half-week ordeal to pick a jury. And everybody knew about this. Everybody had an opinion.
Steve Fennessy: And so, as the trial kicked off, as the jury was finally impaneled early November and opening arguments began, what was it like?
Larry Hobbs: This was a very graphic, very grueling trial. There was a video screen up throughout most of the trial showing evidence, and a lot of it was graphic. Ghastly.
Steve Fennessy: The video that — that Roddie Bryan shot the day that the killing occurred.
Larry Hobbs: You know, that's just one of them. The police body cam footage immediately after was shown, and I don't know how many people have seen that. I know I saw it. It's pretty tough to watch, too. And of course, when the Georgia Bureau Investigations coroner — lead coroner came in, he showed the pictures of Ahmaud’s body during the autopsy. And that was — words escape me. It was tough, and I know it had to be tough on the Arberys. Marcus Aubrey got up and left, went out into the lobby when the coroner was there.
Steve Fennessy: Marcus Arbery being Ahmaud's father.
Larry Hobbs: And Wanda Cooper Jones, his mom, stayed in, but she just kept her eyes covered.
Steve Fennessy: Eleven of the 12 jurors were white, and this is in a county that's roughly 26% black. So as you sat there towards the beginning of the trial for opening arguments, what impact did you think that that particular jury makeup might have in terms of an eventual verdict?
Larry Hobbs: You got to think here in the deep South and Southern gothic: Here we go again. And the judge said, you know, he was certain that the — the defense finagled it to get that jury.
[News tape] News4Jax: Attorneys are going back and forth on the potential jurors, which the state has complained to the court were struck by the defense from the final panel because solely of their race: 11 Black jurors were struck from what would have been the final pool.
Larry Hobbs: And the judge said “it is what it is. We start trial tomorrow.”
Steve Fennessy: And Linda Dunikoski was the Cobb County prosecutor who was brought in to actually prosecute this case because of all the issues with prosecutorial conflicts of interest in Glynn County.
Larry Hobbs: Yes, sir.
[News tape] MSNBC: Greg McMichael, the father of Travis McMichael, who was in that first pickup truck, is a former investigator for the DA's office here in Brunswick County. He's also a former police officer. The first — the DA here in Brunswick County, recuses themselves. Then the case went to Waycross Circuit District Court, and the attorney there recused himself, but not before he writes a letter that says the actions were perfectly quote, “perfectly legal.” It was at that point that the case went to a 17-year veteran of the Cobb County DA's office, Linda Dunikoski. That's how she ended up taking the case.
Steve Fennessy: So the central argument of the defense, Larry, was Georgia’s citizen arrest law, which really is a vestige from slavery days that effectively allowed citizens — in practice, we're talking about white people, here — to deputize themselves, to capture escaped enslaved people. So in the wake of Arbery's killing, the state lawmakers vetoed the law. But because it was still in effect at the time of the killing, the McMichaels and Bryan were allowed to invoke it in their defense. We have three white men chasing down a — a Black jogger, Ahmaud Arbery, and attempting — or saying they're attempting to detain him because they suspect him of breaking into houses. So you would think — or at least I did, I mean — that race, because it was such a central part of the discussion around this killing would be a central part of the prosecution's case. But it really wasn't mentioned by the prosecutor, Linda Dunikoski, really, until closing arguments. Did that surprise you? It surprised me.
Larry Hobbs: It did a little bit. I think she thought, though, that she could win this case, Just win a, you know, the verdict from the jury, just from the interpretation of the law. The law said, you had to be aware that a felony was going on. We have Greg McMichael and Travis McMichael on a body cam being told by Glynn County Police officer Robert Rasch. “No, he has not stolen anything.” The times he had — there were four times at that point — had gone in and been detected on this camera at 220 Satilla Shores, where this all begins. Greg McMichael told police, “You know, I don't know what he was doing, but he sure seemed like he was doing something. He was hauling a** past this house and running so fast that he must have done something wrong.”
Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski questioning law enforcement officer: "What is the next question that you asked Greg McMichael?" "Did this guy break into a house today?" "And what did Greg McMichael say in response, from line eight to line 13?" "Well, that's just it. I don't know."
Larry Hobbs: They had no proof that he had committed a crime.
Steve Fennessy: Here's Linda Dunikoski cross-examining Travis McMichael.
Linda Dunikoski: "And at this point in time, when you first see him on Burford, he's not reaching into his pockets."
Travis McMichael: "No, ma'am. Not — no, ma'am."
Linda Dunikoski: "And he never yelled at you guys?"
Travis McMichael: "No, ma'am."
Linda Dunikoski: "Never threatened you at all?"
Travis McMichael: "No, ma'am."
Linda Dunikoski: "Never brandished any weapons?"
Travis McMichael: "Yeah, he did not threaten me verbally, no ma'am."
Linda Dunikoski: "All right. Didn't pull out any guns?"
Travis McMichael: "No, ma'am."
Linda Dunikoski: "Didn't pull out any knife?"
Travis McMichael: "No, ma'am."
Linda Dunikoski: "Never reached for anything, did he?"
Travis McMichael: "No."
Linda Dunikoski: “He just ran?"
Travis McMichael: "Yes, he was just running."
Larry Hobbs: It was there in the testimony. And I think Ms. Dunikoski said we don't have to bring up that this was a racial issue, that they simply did not meet the criteria even of the citizen's arrest law.
Steve Fennessy: And the house that we're talking about, 220 Satilla Shores, was a house that was under renovation. It was vacant, but it was kind of open because of the work going on in there. And Ahmaud Arbery was captured on a security cam several times walking through that house.
Larry Hobbs: And they show him, and that is all he does. He just — walking around, he's looking, you know. I know his uncle told me one time that in addition to working with his dad's landscaping company, he did a little construction work. So maybe he was just checking things out. We don't know what he's doing. We do know that he didn't steal anything. He didn't harm anything. He just walked around and left.
Steve Fennessy: There were a lot of dramatic moments, Larry. In this trial, we had Travis McMichael taking the stand in his own defense. And one of the most shocking — to me, anyway — was in closing arguments when a defense attorney, made some really startling comments about Ahmaud Arbery referencing his dirty toenails. And I remember seeing that and hearing an audible gasp in the courtroom.
Attorney Laura Hogue: Turning Ahmaud Arbery into a victim after the choices that he made does not reflect the reality of what brought Ahmaud Arbery to Satilla Shores, in his khaki shorts with no socks to cover his long, dirty toenails.
Steve Fennessy: What were some of the moments that stuck out to you?
Larry Hobbs: The long, dirty toenails comment. Everybody just went, “Wow, really? She said that.” The going story was that she was trying to make a reference to that he was not a jogger, that he was in there for nefarious reasons because he had long, dirty toenails.
Attorney Laura Hogue: He was a recurring nighttime intruder, and that is frightening and unsettling.
Steve Fennessy: Let's turn to the verdict. The closing arguments were delivered on the Monday before Thanksgiving, and the jury was instructed by the judge to go start deliberations, and they didn't take maybe as long as some thought. What was your reaction to how soon they came back with a verdict and describe that scene?
Larry Hobbs: I had in my mind that there didn't seem to be a lot to deliberate. I actually think more than 10 hours was almost a little too long.
Steve Fennessy: When you say there wasn't a lot to deliberate, what do you mean?
Larry Hobbs: Linda Dunikoski made a fine job of presenting her case. I think the best thing the defense tried was putting Travis McMichael up on the stand with some well-rehearsed thoughts about law enforcement training that didn't hold up on cross-examination from Linda Dunikoski. I think she proved that Greg and Travis McMichael had no reason to believe that Ahmaud Arbery had committed a crime. Travis McMichael left his 5-year-old son in the living room of their house to grab a shotgun. Greg McMichael grabs a .357. They jump in a pickup truck and chase this man. They said, “We want to talk to you.” They've got guns in their hands. Linda Dunikoski says, “This is America. Nobody has to talk to somebody if they don't want to. He was not obliged to do that.”
Linda Dunikoski: "I mean, common sense tells you — you pull up in a truck on somebody who's like a pedestrian who's out for a jog, I mean, I don't know, are any of you runners? You ever had a strange truck pull up and have some people start yelling at you? All three of these defendants did everything they did based on assumptions. Not on facts, not on evidence — on assumptions that took a young man's life, and that is why we are here."
Larry Hobbs: This was the most emotionally draining thing I've ever done as a journalist. And let me preface by saying that I would say that they are — the parents, Mr. Marcus Arbery and Mrs. Wanda Cooper-Jones, were the faces of courage. I say this was emotionally draining for me. To see these images of their son over and over again and to hear what the defense said about their son, it was just a anguish and grief. This was a grueling episode for them.
Marcus Arbery: "When you see your baby kid going down like that, you just never imagine nothing like that will happen in this little town like this here. I just want everybody to know Ahmaud was a good young man, never was disrespectful. And all those men had to do was talk to him. But you don't go talking to no kid telling him you're going to blow his head off. They got nothing to say. Ahmaud was a young kid — 25 years old. He ain't even begin to live his life and they robbed him of his life."
Larry Hobbs: You know, this was six weeks of a trial. I saw the video when it came out. I took a couple of more looks at it. It is a stark — the killing, that's what it is, the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, regardless what the jury would have found, Travis McMichael killed Ahmaud Arbery with a shotgun loaded with buckshot. That video was played a dozen times, two dozen. It's etched in my mind. But seeing it over and over again didn't make it any easier to watch. This is a man getting killed right before your eyes.
Steve Fennessy: Where were you, Larry, when the verdict came in? Were you in the courtroom itself or were you in this holding area where other people were observing the trial?
Larry Hobbs: I was in the jury assembly room. I mean, this thing holds a couple of hundred people, and it was almost completely full.
Chatham County Superior Court Judge Timothy R. Walmlsley: In the Superior Court of Glynn County, state of Georgia. The State of Georgia vs. Travis McMichael, case number C.R. 000433.
Larry Hobbs: And it erupted in cheers when the malice murder was announced for Travis McMichael.
Crowd: Oh, Woo!
Timothy R. Walmlsley: I'm going to ask that whoever just made an outburst be removed from the court, please. If you feel like you need to make a comment or otherwise demonstrate with respect to the verdict, I do ask that you step out of the courtroom now.
Larry Hobbs: Judge Walmsley restored order. Everybody remained quiet for the remainder of the ratings.
Timothy R. Walmlsley: Count 2, felony murder: We, the jury, find the defendant, Travis McMichael, guilty. Count 3, felony murder: We, the jury, find the defendant, Travis McMichael, guilty. Count 4, felony murder: We the jury .... (fades)
Steve Fennessy: I'm curious; kind of what you were looking for as those verdicts were read. Where was your attention?
Larry Hobbs: On the judge; I was looking around at the people around me and, basically, I was lookin’ at the front of my computer. Had my laptop there with me. I was focused, and “Guilty, guilty, guilty” was my lead. And that's what I wrote: that Linda Dunikoski had made her case. So I hit “Send;” I basically called my editor, said, “The story's there,” and then I went out into the lobby, where the first person I saw, Mr. Arbery, was already out there, Mr. Marcus Arbery. He was just crying with — it was certainly a moment of redemption for him.
Supporters after the trial: "Yeah, go on, Marcus, go on!"
Marcus Arbery: "Number one, I want to give all glory to God. Because that's who made all this possible. I want to thank all y'all people and all the support y'all gave us. We conquered that lynch mob!"
Larry Hobbs: It was just too much going on. A cacophony of people celebrating the verdict. There were hundreds, a thousand people out front.
Steve Fennessy: What was their reaction?
Larry Hobbs: Cheers. Tears. Prayers. And jubilation.
Wanda Cooper-Jones: "To tell you the truth, I never saw this day back in 2020. I never thought this day would come. But God is good. I want to tell everybody thank you. Thank you. For those who marched, those who prayed — most of all the ones who prayed. Thank you, God, thank you. And now — you know him as Ahmaud; I know him as Quez — he will now rest in peace. Thank you."
Larry Hobbs: I get to my car and an old buddy of mine, Charles Baldwin, he's a Black guy. We've — been friends for a long time, but just to run across him at that moment was was kind of wild. He just happened to be standing outside my car. He was driving by. He runs a landscaping company himself and he was driving by and decided to get out. And he'd just heard about it, and wanted to, you know, join whatever was going on over there. And it was just cool seeing him. We hugged each other and I said, “It's good to see you, Charles.” He's a Brunswick native, grew up around here, started out on the shrimp boats, down on the — on the East River in Brunswick. That was just a cool moment just to see Charles there.
Steve Fennessy: And what did he have to say about the verdict?
Larry Hobbs: “I knew they would get the verdict right.” He always calls me brother. He said “I knew they'd get the verdict right, brother. I knew this is what we were going to have.”
Steve Fennessy: Where does the community of Brunswick and Glynn County at large kind of go from here? What — do you see sort of tangible changes as a result of all this?
Larry Hobbs: We've always thought of ourselves as a pretty progressive community, and we are. A lot of us took a second look and wondered if we've done enough. I think we're taking some of that to heart. I hope we're a better community. I hope this is — if nothing else, this tragedy, has brought us closer together.
Steve Fennessy: Well, you know that — that brings up a great question. This is one case, right? This trial happened during the Kyle Rittenhouse trial when he was acquitted, and so we have this conviction. And so what does this mean for race relations in the South? What does it mean politically or culturally for where we go from here?
Larry Hobbs: I sure hope it means we — we move forward and that this is the 21st century and that we're not carrying as much of that baggage with us into this, this next century. It's about time. I'm a Southerner all my life and proud of being a Southerner. I love this place. It's — it's exotic, it's strange and it's beautiful. And in times of reckoning, we've always come up short, it seems, especially my demographic. So many times — so many times — the South says one thing but does another. This time, we did pretty much what everybody's saying we wanted to do and what was supposed to be the right thing. Mayor Cornell Harvey, the Brunswick mayor — Brunswick's first Black mayor — he's finishing up his second term. He's like one of the first people I saw, and I went and shook hands with him. And he said, “Larry, we proved to America that you can get justice in a small Southern town.” And he said, “We proved justice is colorblind.”
[News tape] Mayor of Brunswick Cornell Harvey, ABC News: "Now, we are angry. Yes, we are angry. We are hurting. Yes, we are hurting because something bad has happened here. However, you know, we still have to look for the greater good. We have to also show that we trust justice will be — will be served. We trust the fact that the laws in America are not tainted against anyone. Together, we can do things better and I really believe that, and I believe the people in Brunswick are really trying to say that, too."
Larry Hobbs: I'll tell you what I did say to Mayor Harvey. I said, “Mayor, my people finally didn't let your people down.” And he said, “It's OK, man,” because I was getting a little emotional. And he said, “It's OK, man, I know, I know." And I hope we've learned something from this that will stick with us.
Steve Fennessy: Thanks for listening to Georgia Today this year. The podcast is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Jess Mador is our producer. Our engineers are Jesse Nighswonger and Jake Cook. You can keep up with Georgia Today by subscribing to the show at GPB.org or anywhere you get podcasts. Thanks for listening. We'll be back next week.