H. Brandt Ayers, former publisher of The Anniston Star, resigned his role as chairman of the board of directors of the company that owns the newspaper Thursday, after a series of allegations against him.
“It is of utmost importance to me that this newspaper continue to serve its role of reporting on matters of concern to the Anniston community and that nothing stand in the way of preserving the newspaper as an independently owned publication serving this community,” Ayers wrote. “I feel my resignation at this time is in the best interests of the paper and its mission.”
Ayers, known nationwide as one of the few Southern newspapermen who openly supported racial integration in the 1960s, fell from public grace this week after a former reporter, Veronica Pike Kennedy, accused him of spanking her, against her will, in The Star’s newsroom in the 1970s. Other women, who have asked that their names not be used, told The Star similar stories of spankings.
Kennedy’s account first appeared on the website Alabama Political Reporter a week ago, written by her husband and former Star staffer Joey Kennedy. Kennedy’s husband had written about the allegations before, beginning in November, but named Ayers for the first time Dec. 28.
Ayers in a Tuesday interview with The Star acknowledged a separate incident occurring in 1973 or 1974.
Ayers, son and grandson of former owners of The Star, owns part of the newspaper’s parent company, Consolidated Publishing, and sat on the board of directors of that company. His resignation letter said he would no longer be a director, chairman or employee of the company, effective immediately.
Ayers’ letter said his wife, Josephine Ayers, will replace him as chairman. She had served as the board’s vice chairman.
Board members gathered at The Star’s offices Thursday afternoon to formally accept the resignation.
Ayers’ departure marks the end of a celebrated career in journalism.
In an email to The Star, Diane McWhorter, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning civil rights history “Carry Me Home,” described Ayers as “the publisher of (easily) one of Alabama’s most enlightened newspapers” and a “voice of integrity and reason in political seasons even darker than our most recent.”
For McWhorter, news of Ayers’ resignation and the allegations behind it brought a mix of feelings.
“I consider Brandy and Josie my friends, and so it pains me that he’s part of such an unseemly news story,” McWhorter wrote. “As a once-young, female reporter, I also feel angry on behalf of his targets; no one should have to put up with that, ever.”
A male reporter who worked for Ayers in the early 1970s shared that sentiment.
“It’s sad, for somebody who has been so important to Anniston and to Alabama, to have this overshadow his accomplishments,” said Frank Denton, a former Star reporter who is now editor-at-large at the Jacksonville Times-Union in Florida. “He was a hero of freedom of the press and civil rights all those years, when it wasn’t easy to do in Alabama.”
Denton worked for Ayers as a reporter from 1970 to 1972. He said he never observed the type of harassment reported by Ayers’ accusers, though he said he didn’t dispute their accounts.
Denton remembered Ayers as an employer with a high tolerance for bold, hellraising reporters. In his first months at The Star, Denton filed criminal charges against a local hospital’s board of directors for violating the state’s open meetings law. Ayers called Denton into his office and told him that wasn’t the way to challenge a closed meeting.
“A lot of people would have just fired my ass for that,” he said.
Ayers was never shy about civil court challenges to what the paper saw as government secrecy. Stone v. Consolidated, a 1981 suit by The Star to open the records of a nonprofit affiliated with Jacksonville State University, became an oft-cited decision on the state’s open records laws.
Ayers has also been also a supporter of journalism education in Alabama, according to Felicia Mason, executive director of the Alabama Press Association.
“He was instrumental in creating the Alabama Press Association Journalism Foundation in the 1960s, a foundation whose primary goal is to advance journalism education in the state.”
Today the foundation awards grants to colleges in the state in support of their journalism programs and workshops for high school journalists, helps newspapers pay college interns who work in their newsrooms, and awards scholarships to college students studying journalism. Ayers was one of a group of newspaper leaders who helped establish the foundation, Mason said.
“It is still a vital part of the role of the press association,” she said.
Ayers helped establish a program in partnership with the University of Alabama in 2006 to award a master’s degree in community journalism. Graduate students in a one-year program split time between classrooms in Tuscaloosa and The Star’s newsroom.
As part of the arrangement with UA, Ayers and family members connected to The Star created a foundation that will eventually take ownership of Consolidated’s newspapers.
“We want papers run by local citizens, our family members or their chosen representatives,” he wrote in The Star in 2003, explaining the arrangement to readers. “Such management will guarantee that our papers will respond to community needs and criticism — not distant corporate headquarters.”
Mason said Ayers, as The Star’s publisher for years, was among others who saw their newspapers as having a role in solving problems.
“I think Brandy is part of a group of publishers throughout Alabama that have shown courage over the years in addressing difficult situations, social, economic, and political,” she said. “And I believe our newspapers continue to do that every day.”
Tim Lockette and Ben Cunningham contributed reporting.