Bill Shipp, longtime chronicler of Georgia politics, dead at 89

Jul 10, 2023, 10:42 AM

Georgia journalist Bill Shipp poses for a photo with friend Sara Fountain on Aug. 16, 2020, at Ship...

Georgia journalist Bill Shipp poses for a photo with friend Sara Fountain on Aug. 16, 2020, at Shipp's home in Acworth, Ga. Shipp died on Saturday, July 8, 2023, at age 89. (Maria Saporta/ via AP)

(Maria Saporta/ via AP)

ATLANTA (AP) — William “Bill” Shipp, a journalist whose passion for scoops and sometimes-scorching criticism of politicians fueled his coverage of Georgia for more than 50 years, died Saturday at age 89.

No cause of death was released.

Shipp, born in Marietta in 1933, first gained public notice in 1953 as an editor of the University of Georgia’s student newspaper, The Red and Black, writing articles criticizing then-Gov. Herman Talmadge and the university system regents, including Augusta political kingpin Roy Harris, for blocking the admission of Black applicant Horace Ward to the university’s law school.

Politicians and administrators sought to cut the paper’s funding, censor its stories and fire Shipp and fellow editor Walker Lundy. Both resigned, with Shipp entering the U.S. Army.

“They suggested I probably needed to quit The Red and Black,” Shipp said in a videotaped interview with the Atlanta Press Club, which he helped found.

Ward later became a state legislator and the first Black federal judge named to the bench in northern Georgia.

Shipp went to work for The Atlanta Constitution in 1956, saying he wanted to work for legendary editor Ralph McGill. He stayed with the Constitution, and later The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through 1987.

During that time, Shipp covered the Civil Rights Movement, became state editor managing a network of 100 correspondents and became one of the state’s premier political reporters and opinion writers.

“What Bill Shipp had to say about you mattered, and you always wanted to be in his good graces,” said friend and fellow journalist Maria Saporta, noting Shipp was a voice of racial moderation in the South.

It was Shipp, for example, who first reported that Jimmy Carter planned to run for president, news that was initially met with disbelief, even in Georgia. Shipp called Carter “a brilliant politician” in a 2013 oral history interview with the University of Georgia, although he suggested that Carter’s stances against incumbent Carl Sanders in the 1970s governor’s race may have been hypocritical — with Carter pretending to be a populist and less liberal on race.

Charlie Hayslett a former reporter and political operative, said Shipp’s weekly column had unmatched influence.

“He set the state agenda with that column,” Hayslett said. “To a great extent, nobody could ignore it.”

Shipp resigned from the newspaper in 1987 to start a political newsletter, eventually transitioning “Bill Shipp’s Georgia” into a pioneering online news outlet. Shipp continued to write twice-weekly columns after selling the newsletter and also appeared as a panelist on WAGA-TV’s The Georgia Gang, a weekly program that discusses state political affairs.

Shipp wrote two books. The first, in 1981, was “Murder at Broad River Bridge: The Slaying of Lemuel Penn by Members of the Ku Klux Klan,” an account of Penn’s 1964 death. Shipp also published a 1997 collection of his work “The Ape-Slayer and Other Snapshots.”

Shipp had a tumultuous relationship with many of the state’s top politicians. Gov. Zell Miller once videotaped a message for the Atlanta Press Club that said “I hate Bill Shipp” in a loud voice. Then Miller whispered quietly: “I love Bill Shipp.”

Sonny Perdue, Georgia’s first modern-day Republican governor, was more straightforward, ordering his staff not to speak to Shipp when Perdue took office in 2003.

Many warmed to Shipp in retirement, though, with four former governors — Miller, Carl Sanders, Joe Frank Harris and Roy Barnes — appearing at an 80th birthday party for Shipp in 2013, along with former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens and former University of Georgia football coach Vince Dooley.

“Do you think all these people would have shown up if I were still writing my column?” Saporta said Shipp whispered in her ear that day.

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Bill Shipp, longtime chronicler of Georgia politics, dead at 89