Jim Purks, a retired deacon with the Episcopal Church and a former Associated Press journalist, reads from the Bible at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital’s chapel. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)
ALBANY — Jim Purks has no delusions about his career in journalism, insisting that his tenure as a beat reporter for The Associated Press during the Civil Rights era elevated him no higher than a “faceless, anonymous foot soldier.”
But it was Purks’ heartfelt first-person account of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, a heinous act that left four young black girls dead, that is still considered one of the era’s must-read journalistic pieces.
“I believe my involvement that day was a product of the divine,” Purks, now 77 and a retired deacon of the Episcopal Church, said during a recent conversation. “As I sat down to type, the words just came. There was no objectivity; I wrote a first-person account of what I saw and experienced.
“I knew the words I’d written that day were special. There’s no question that was the best writing under pressure I ever did.”
Purks, who now lives in Albany and makes weekly prayer and healing visits to local health care facilities, maintains the humility that is perhaps his most enduring trait, brushing off an adventure-filled lifetime of service and achievement as “no big deal.”
This from a man who regularly provided front-line coverage of the activities of Martin Luther King Jr. and his fellow soldiers in the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, whose studies took him to Stanford University in California and the University of Chile in Santiago, who worked side-by-side with the founder of Habitat for Humanity, who served four years in the Carter White House, and who has spent the last several years as an ordained official of the Episcopal Church, even in retirement offering weekly prayers and encouragement to the physically and spiritually ill.
“Through my faith, I can say with great certainty that every path I’ve taken in this life, God has followed me,” Purks said. “With each crossroad, I could have gone this way but went that way. That’s the thing about God, he’s going to allow you to bloom wherever you’re planted.”
THE BIG APPLE
Born in Atlanta in 1936, Purks was the only child of a physicist/mathemetician father and a mother who was an educator before becoming a stay-at-home mom after his birth. He remembers the first 13 years of his life in Atlanta as an idyllic time of adventure before asthma left him bedridden for an extended period.
When J. Harris Purks was hired by the Rockefeller Foundation and moved his family to New York City in 1950, 14-year-old Jim endured a period of culture shock after being enrolled in the prestigious Trinity School, an exclusive Episcopal school for boys.
“I was a source of amusement for the upper-class boys,” Purks recalls. “They’d circle around me and get me to talk so they could listen to my Southern accent. It was a big adjustment for me, and it didn’t help that I’d fallen so far behind from the asthma that I had to repeat a grade. But the instruction at Trinity was wonderful, and I ended up finishing 10th in my class.”
J. Harris Purks, who’d received a Ph.D. at Columbia University and was involved in the historic Manhattan Project during his tenure with the Rockefeller Foundation (“I never knew how deeply he was involved,” Jim Purks said), was enticed to move south and serve as provost of the University of North Carolina the year before his son graduated prep school.
Jim Purks stayed in New York with a classmate during his senior year, using his freedom from direct parental supervision to explore his imposing surroundings.
“That was a pretty magical time,” he said. “I saw Joe Dimaggio hit a home run at Yankee Stadium; I watched a healthy Mickey Mantle run to first base; I saw the New York Rangers play ice hockey.”
The younger Purks had notions of attending Dartmouth when he graduated Trinity, but his father told him he had no choice in his pursuit of higher education. He would join the elder Purks in North Carolina.
It was there, though, that Purks’ love for journalism blossomed. He worked as a copy boy for the Raleigh News and Observer and decided that one day he would work for the prestigious New York Times.
But life took Purks south rather than north after he finished requirements for his degree in political science. He landed a job with the Tampa Tribune, working as a cops reporter/features writer. There, he developed a popular column he called “Night Beat,” which recounted some of the experiences he had as the paper’s late-night police reporter.
“I saw my first traffic fatality during that job, saw the aftermath of a murder/suicide,” he said. “One day one of the reporters who was a retired Marine asked me to go with him to the state prison to witness an execution. I told myself that was one of the things I wanted to see as a journalist, but it ended up affecting me profoundly. I can’t be in favor now of a system that condemns a man to death.
“I watched this inmate’s body convulse for 13 minutes in the gas chamber before he was finally declared dead. That was a horrifying experience.”
With his ultimate goal of becoming a Times correspondent always in mind, Purks decided his chances would improve if he became fluent in Spanish, a language he’d shown an affinity for at Trinity and UNC. He applied for and received an Inner-American Press Association scholarship that allowed him to study for a year at the University of Chile at Santiago. Undaunted by a year spent abroad among total strangers, he left for Santiago on March 2, 1960, traveling by freighter from the port of New Orleans, through the Panama Canal to Chile.
“That was a great experience,” he said. “There was a lot of political stuff going on at that time, and in addition to learning Spanish, I got a first-hand look at an important part of that nation’s history.”
It was on foreign soil that Purks said he fell in love for the first time.
“Sadly, it was not meant to be,” he said. “We still pray for each other every night, but that is the extent of our relationship.”
‘PRETTY AWESOME TIME’
Upon his return from Chile, the 24-year-old Purks applied for a language fellowship and was selected to receive a federal grant that allowed him to study for a year at Stanford. He received a master’s degree in Latin American and Luso Brazilian studies and while in Palo Alto went to San Francisco to take The Associated Press’ writing exam.
He aced the test and after returning to his parents’ home, now in Birmingham, he awaited a beat assignment from the AP. Ironically, the news gathering service wanted him to cover the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama.
“That was a pretty awesome time,” he said. “Being there during that era, experiencing first-hand the incredible rallies in the black churches, witnessing the eloquence of Dr. King and the sharp humor of Fred Shuttlesworth, was unforgettable. I was moved by King’s simple eloquence and by the music of the movement. I also saw up-close the faces of hatred in the klansmen, and there were times when I felt my life was in danger when I used a lighted telephone booth to call in my reports at night.”
In addition to his renowned coverage of the 16th Street Church bombing, Purks would realize another bit of notoriety — “My 15 minutes of fame” — from his time covering the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham. In 2006, journalists Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff wrote a book about the press coverage of the movement. The photograph used as cover art for the pair’s book “The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation” shows a 29-year-old Purks, surrounded by King, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy and Shuttlesworth, scribbling notes on his reporter’s pad.
And while Purks would never realize his dream of writing for the Times, a story about his “footnote” to history did appear in the seminal newspaper on Nov. 6, 2006.
Wanting a change of venue and pace, Purks asked the AP for an assignment covering government. He was reassigned to Tallahassee, Fla., where he covered the state Senate. It was there that his career path shifted to the political and his spiritual path evolved. While working at the Florida state capital, Purks was confirmed at St. John’s Episcopal Church.
CHANGE OF CAREER
Then-Florida Secretary of State Richard Stone lured Purks away from the AP to become his press secretary, and when Stone resigned his office to run for the U.S. Senate, Purks came along for the ride. The former newsman learned one of the first harsh realities of politics when, after Stone won the election, he chose someone else to accompany him to Washington, leaving Purks behind to serve at his office in Tallahassee.
But Purks’ work with Stone did not go unnoticed. He was approached by supporters of the then-little known former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, who was looking for someone to run his presidential press campaign in the pivotal Sunshine State. Purks made the leap, and when Carter carried Florida on his way to the White House, he brought Purks with him to Washington to serve as one of four press secretaries.
“That was such an incredible experience,” Purks said. “You’d work 28 hours a day for very little money, and the intensity was always so high. You’d see people at their best and worst, but it was so much fun.”
Purks served as a media liaison in the Carter White House, and while the stay was short-lived, he recalls that time fondly.
“There were so many little joys revolving around that time in history,” Purks said. “I remember the thrill of riding in the Marine 1 helicopter, taking photos of visits by Anwar Sadat and the Shah of Iran. That was the first time I got to experience tear gas up close and personal from police attempts to break up demonstrations outside the White House.
“One thing that I’m so fed up with, though, is people saying Carter’s was a ‘failed presidency’ or he was the ‘worst president ever.’ He was a human rights advocate — he truly cared about the poor — and he was a man of his word. He was way ahead of the curve on the energy crisis. A lot of the problem was that the elite media were more comfortable dealing with people who rode in limousines and wore fur coats in the White House.”
When Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan, Purks suddenly found himself unemployed. He gave the corporate world a try, worked for a number of high-profile companies and found none to his liking. Finally he found a job that he loved — with United Way — in a city that he loved — Chicago — but in a climate that he couldn’t bear.
HABITAT FOR HUMANITY
Looking south toward the land of his roots, he applied for a position with Habitat for Humanity in Americus. There he worked for 12 years, collaborating with Habitat founder Millard Fuller on two books.
While in Americus, Purks began studies necessary to become a deacon of the Episcopal Church. Four years later, with an interruption in 1996 for open-heart surgery, he was ordained. He served as a deacon with the Rev. Reginald Gunn at Calvary Episcopal Church in Americus for nine years, during that time earning induction into the Order of St. Luke, a healing order of the church.
After the deadly tornado that ripped through Americus on March 1, 2007 destroyed Purks’ cabin there, he was assigned as deacon at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Albany. He was reassigned to the Good Life City’s St. Patrick’s Church for a short period before moving back to St. Paul’s. He retired as an active deacon there in 2013.
“There were indeed some exciting moments in my career, but I believe one of the times I was most alive was when I worked with AIDS patients while a deacon at Calvary,” Purks said. “I experienced the bias, prejudice and bigotry that were a part of these people’s everyday lives, and it was an honor to help provide them a place where they could come and not be judged.”
Purks still spends much of his time in service to others, independently visiting and praying with patients at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital and serving as an accredited member of Mended Hearts, which ministers to heart patients. In his uniquely humble way, he still touches people’s hearts.
While talking about his time in the White House, Purks mentions perhaps the low point of the Carter administration, the failed attempt to rescue American hostages taken in Iran. In telling the story, Purks reveals perhaps as much about himself and his character as he does Carter’s.
“We set up this press conference where the president informed the world that the rescue attempt had failed,” Purks said, the memory still painful. “President Carter stood before the press corps and said, ‘The mission has failed. … I take full responsibility.’ It was such a painful moment.
“Then I said the words that signalled the end of the press conference: ‘Lights, please.’ And that was that. I did my job.”