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Bill Shipp

Newsman Bill Shipp started out as a college editor taking on Georgia segregationists, then went on to have two successful careers  writing about state politics and government. As an Atlanta Constitution writer for three decades and then as the independent publisher of Bill Shipp’s Georgia, Shipp covered the ins and outs of Georgia politics for a half-century.

William “Bill” Shipp was born on August 16, 1933, in Marietta, Georgia, to Grace and Ralph Shipp. A student journalist at Marietta High School, in college Shipp became managing editor of Emory University’s student paper, The Emory Wheel. When Emory discontinued its journalism major in 1952, Shipp transferred to the University of Georgia. At UGA Shipp joined the staff of The Red and Black where, after a summer internship at the Atlanta Constitution in 1953, he was appointed managing editor -- as it turned out, a crucial turning point in how Shipp would define his career.

That fall, Shipp and fellow Red and Black editor Walter Lundy wrote articles criticizing the segregationist actions of the University, the state's Board of Regents, and Georgia Governor Herman Talmadge in opposing the admission to UGA's law school of black applicant Horace Ward. Politicians and administrators threatened to cut the paper's funding, censor its stories and fire Shipp and Lundy, leading the two to resign from The Red and Black, and two other editors followed their lead before the public controversy was stilled. Told by faculty and administrators that everybody would be more comfortable if he left the university, Shipp quit school and joined the Army.

After his military service Shipp went to work for the Atlanta Constitution where, during the Red and Black controversy of 1953, editor Ralph McGill had been the lone newspaperman in Georgia to publicly support Shipp and Lundy. Shipp started out writing for the Constitution’s city and state news desks, and in 1959 he became the paper's state news editor. Responsible for breaking stories throughout the state and region, Shipp covered the historic Mercury space orbit, reported on civil rights demonstrations and racial terror in Southwest Georgia, and investigated how Georgia crowded juvenile offenders into adult jails and warehoused women prisoners in the state mental hospital. He covered Georgia's groundbreaking 1962 gubernatorial campaign after the outlawing of the county-unit electoral system, and he researched and wrote one of the earliest series on the state’s water pollution problems. As southern civil rights protests gathered steam, Shipp traveled to Missisippi and Alabama to cover desegregation of those states’ universities, and in 1963 he reported on the aftermath of the Birmingham, Alabama, church bombings.

In 1965, after being promoted to be the Constitution’s investigative reporter, Shipp analyzed state prisoner rehabilitation services, reported on Voting Rights Act clashes in Sumter County, and wrote an award-winning series on racketeering and corruption in the Atlanta police force. The next year he examined the potential effects of a court case challenging Georgia’s racially discriminatory jury-selection procedure, and he covered two headline murder cases: The sensational Miami trial of Georgia-born socialite “Candy” Mossler,  and the federal conspiracy prosecution of three Athens, Georgia, Ku Klux Klansmen  for the 1964 shotgun slaying of a black Army officer. In 1981 he would write a nonfiction book about the murder, Murder at Broad River Bridge: The Slaying of Lemuel Penn by Members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Shipp briefly left the Constitution in 1966 and joined the New York-based daily Newsday as a reporter, then in 1967 he moved to the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration and organized the agency’s southeastern public information office. In 1969, he returned to the Constitution to start the paper’s “Action Line” column, and not long afterward was named the paper's state political editor. After directing the Constitution’s coverage of a number of major stories, such as Jimmy Carter’s election as governor in 1970 and court-ordered busing to integrate Georgia schools, Shipp became executive city editor in 1971, overseeing all the paper's local and regional news coverage.

As one of the paper's editors Shipp routinely wrote subjective news analyses and commentary about political personalities, but he remained a reporter as well, developing his own sources and leads for news. As a result, in 1974 when speculations were rife about the political aspirations of Georgia's lame-duck governor Jimmy Carter, Shipp was able to break the national story confirming that the Democrat from Plains had decided to run for U.S. president.

Named associate editor in 1975, Shipp was elevated to the Constitution’s editorial board and joined the ranks of its featured pundits. For the next thirty-five years, in the Constitution and beyond, Georgians would read Bill Shipp’s column two or more times a week. With Shipp often focusing their attention, Georgians followed Jimmy Carter’s rise and the shift of the state’s voting strength to the suburbs, the collapse of the Talmadge dynasty and the political arcs of civil rights heroes Julian Bond, Andrew Young, and John Lewis, and nearly every other item of state political news interest up to and including the decade between 1994 and 2004, when for the first time since Reconstruction Republicans replaced Democrats in control of Georgia’s delegation to the U.S. House, the governor’s chair, and both seats in the U.S. Senate.

By the time he left the Constitution in May 1987, Shipp was arguably the state’s most recognizable political gadfly. An aggressive interviewer with deep knowledge and extensive sources, he moderated political election debates and became a regular panelist on The Georgia Gang, a weekly public affairs TV show. As an interviewer as well as a columnist,  Shipp was known for his hard-nosed skepticism that routinely targeted Georgia politicians, government agencies, and the state’s university system.

Shipp’s newpaper colleague Jim Minter said of him,

The adversary relationship between newspapers and government is one of the cornerstones of democracy, although often an irritant to subjects of news coverage. Shipp has been a textbook example of how the relationship results in both better government and better newspapers. Shipp looks an adversary in the eye, never hides behind a typewriter in the safety of an office. I would describe him as tough as the leather in his old-fashioned wing-tip shoes, but not without compassion. He worked to get news into the paper, not to keep news out of the paper.[1]

In August 1987 Shipp launched his own publishing  company, whose flagship project was Bill Shipp’s Georgia, a weekly newsletter on Georgia politics and economic developments. For the next 18 years Bill Shipp’s Georgia, a mixture of Shipp’s own commentary and news features, was an essential source for the state's press and politicians. After experimenting in 1995-1996 with an Internet base on AT&T Interchange, one of the early online services, Shipp in 1997 launched the “World Wide Web Edition” of Bill Shipp’s Georgia, providing Shipp’s usual commentary with breaking news coverage of the state legislature.

Shipp had also joined the staff of the monthly Atlanta magazine in 1987 as a contributing editor, writing columns and profiles of political figures. In 1991 he left Atlanta for the business-centered Georgia Trend magazine, where he was an associate editor and wrote a regular monthly column on government and politics until 2003. Shipp sold Word Merchants in 2000, but continued to publish Bill Shipp’s Georgia up until 2005. He remained an active syndicated columnist until 2009, with columns in more than sixty Georgia newspapers  at the time of his retirement.

In 1997 Shipp published The Ape-Slayer and Other Snapshots, a collection of columns chiefly from the decade after he had left the Constitution

Shipp has been the recipient of several news and commentary awards over his career, from agencies such as the Associated Press, United Press International, the Georgia Press Association, the Georgia Magazine Association, and the state chapter of professional journalists, Sigma Delta Chi. In 1998 the Atlanta Press Club presented its prestigious Whittier Award for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism to Shipp, and in 2013 the club inducted him into its Georgia journalists’ hall of fame.

On the occasion of Shipp's retirment in 2009, U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson honored him in the Senate chamber:  “When he wrote a column, you went to the paper and you read Bill Shipp first. If you were going to be the victim of the day, you might as well go out and find out what he was going to say about you. But if you were not the victim of the day, you could relish in seeing some other politician being skewered by that pen.”[2]

[1] “Shipp made the paper and the government better,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 7, 1987

[2] Congressional Record, May 21, 2009.

Bill Shipp photo, Athens Banner Herald collection, Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

Bibliography

The following books by Bill Shipp are held by the Hargrett Library:

The Ape-Slayer and Other Snapshots. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1997.

Bill Shipp's Georgia. Atlanta, Ga.: Word Merchants, 1987-2004.

Murder at Broad River Bridge. Atlanta, Ga.: Peachtree Publishers, c1981.

Additional Links

New Georgia Encyclopedia.

Manuscript Holdings

Shipp's papers, consisting of columns, newsletters, and magazines that he wrote and edited from 1980-2009, are held at the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies at the University of Georgia.

Bill Shipp
INDUCTEE: 2016

Born: August 16, 1933
Marietta, Georgia

University of Georgia Libraries | Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library