Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author & Journalist Frederick Allen Is Helping To Change Our World

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There is no limit to the number of things I wish I had known when I was a young man just starting out, but I’ll try to confine the question to race, the subject of my book. I wish I had understood the degree of white supremacy that enveloped our country, our society, at the time I was growing up. I was born six years before Brown v. Board of Education, and I spent my childhood in the cocoon of the Eisenhower years, when our understanding of race was naïve at best and toxic at worst.

As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Frederick Allen.

Frederick “Rick” Allen is a retired reporter and political columnist who served with the Atlanta Constitution (now the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) from 1972 to 1987. Following his newspaper work, Allen joined CNN as chief analyst and commentator covering the 1988 presidential contest. His essays for the program “Inside Politics” earned CNN a Cable Ace Award, and Allen was cited as the best political analyst by the editors of The Hotline. Allen was also a founding panelist on the Georgia Gang, a public affairs show on Atlanta television since 1982. He is the author of four books: His history of the Coca-Cola Company, Secret Formula, was published by HarperCollins in 1994 and has been translated into seven languages. Atlanta Rising, a history of modern Atlanta, was published by Longstreet in 1996 and is taught at several colleges. A Decent, Orderly Lynching, Allen’s account of the vigilantes of Montana, was published in 2004 by University of Oklahoma Press. Reckoning with Race publishes July 2023. Allen’s research into vigilante symbolism has been cited by the Western History Association. Allen graduated from Phillips Academy (Andover) and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He and his wife, Linda, live in Atlanta and Cashiers, North Carolina.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

When I was eleven years old, my father suffered a nervous breakdown and had to be institutionalized. I believe that the trauma of my father’s illness gave me an early taste of enduring an unwarranted stigma. For a White man writing about race, there is no greater challenge than trying to imagine what it must be like to confront racism. We cannot. But I believe White people ought to give it a try if they are ever going to be “right on race.” That’s what my book is about: a lifelong effort to empathize with Black people.

In any case, seeing that I needed a strong male environment, my mother sent me off to boarding school at age thirteen, where the other guys straightened me out — an unpleasant but necessary experience that led to some lifelong friendships. I had an early gift for writing and was drawn to journalism, my major at the University of North Carolina. I was blessed with a curiosity about things in general, so becoming a reporter was natural, and it has led me through a fascinating life. My career in deadline journalism gave way to the satisfactions of scholarly research, and thus to books. It was not deliberate, but my decision to move to Atlanta and work for the Atlanta Constitution in 1972 placed me right smack in the middle of the civil rights movement as it matured from protest to political power — and I got to know some of the major Black figures of our time, much to my benefit.

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?

In 1974, when I was still a cub reporter, I chanced upon an excerpt in the New Yorker taken from Robert A. Caro’s book The Power Broker, about Robert Moses. I was transfixed. It was the first time I had encountered non-fiction written with a novelistic, narrative flair, and I began to dream of writing with the same style. As a newspaperman, later a TV commentator, and in my four books, I have tried to tell stories that engage the reader or viewer and make my subject matter interesting and easy to read. I hope I’ve succeeded. (For years, I’ve kept a small sign over my keyboard: “What happened next?” It’s my reminder that readers appreciate a narrative flow.)

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I can’t honestly say I thought any of my mistakes were funny. On the contrary, they were almost always painful — but highly valuable, as I tried to learn from them. I suppose it was innocent enough, and amusing, when I described the inaugural of Maynard Jackson as Atlanta’s first Black mayor as being “like a church service.” See my essay on how I meant formal, as in the Presbyterian church services of my Yankee youth, as opposed to Black church services in the South, which tend to be admirably exuberant. What did I learn? There are cultural differences between the Black and White communities — obviously — but it took me a long time to figure out which differences were “good,” and which were not.

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

I’d say it’s a bit pretentious for me to think I will have any significant impact at all. But if I do, it would come from my belief that White people of good will who try to understand and ameliorate the burdens that continue to bear on the Black Community are deserving of encouragement, not of being called “racist” if they fall short of the mark. I had two Black friends tell me essentially the same thing — that they took encouragement from the fact that a retired, comfortable White man who has no obligation to think about race at all — that would be me — has instead given considerable time, thought, and effort to the question of improving race relations in our society. Thanks, guys!

Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

I’d have to say the most interesting story in my book is the research I did into the tape-recorded conversations of Lyndon Johnson that I discovered in the archives of the University of Virginia. These tapes allowed me to eavesdrop on the president as he connived to get elected to a term of his own, and to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the most consequential event involving race since the Emancipation Proclamation. Some of what he said has never been reported before.

What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

My “aha moment” didn’t happen in a single moment, but I realized that I had spent a half-century immersed in covering race, starting with the transition from protest to governing, after I went to work at the Constitution in 1972. I witnessed the election of Atlanta’s first Black mayor, the election of a white Georgian, Jimmy Carter, as a “New South” president, and the eclipse of segregationist Lester Maddox’s career — all in the space of my first four years at the newspaper. And I spent the rest of that half-century coming to understand that race was an unending learning experience, not something we could hope to “solve” in a single lifetime.

Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

If I have a regret, it’s that I’m afraid a White author has very little to say that would help a Black person, but I think I’ve had a strong impact on White readers who want to do the right thing. You said not to name names, and I won’t, but an anchor on a cable TV show spent some time one day recently enumerating the roadblocks placed in the way of Black Americans over the decades — Social Security being unavailable for most Black Workers, the GI bill not being available to many Black GIs, redlining, environment racism — and then said, “Why didn’t I know about these things? I went to a good college. I had a good education. Why wasn’t I taught this?” Well, I ask myself the same thing. White folks were slow to recognize the burdens faced by Black folks. I thought I got a full education in college. I did not.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Well, I don’t think my book is going to solve the root problem of racism in America! I could only hope! But three goals: 1. Inform White readers of continuing racism they may not be aware of. 2. Persuade Black readers that there are White people of good will on their side. 3. Try to gauge honestly how far we’ve come and how far we have to go. Politicians and community leaders can do the same thing. I’m afraid the media these days tend to polarize us, when in truth most people reside in the middle. I think most White people would agree that Black people still encounter racism but would argue about the extent and the remedies.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?=

How do I define “Leadership”? That’s a word with a lot of definitions! A Martin Luther King Jr. comes along once in a lifetime, if we are lucky. But here on the level of mere mortals, I think leadership can be as simple as speaking up in the face of unfairness, of prodding friends, family, and associates to do the right thing. I could have spent my life at the bar of a country club, complaining about other people. But I didn’t, and I’m the better for it.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

There is no limit to the number of things I wish I had known when I was a young man just starting out, but I’ll try to confine the question to race, the subject of my book. I wish I had understood the degree of white supremacy that enveloped our country, our society, at the time I was growing up. I was born six years before Brown v. Board of Education, and I spent my childhood in the cocoon of the Eisenhower years, when our understanding of race was naïve at best and toxic at worst. I wish I’d learned more, earlier, about the extent to which Black Americans shaped our culture. I learned about the brutality of racism just as so many Americans did, watching fire hoses and German shepherds on television, but I should have learned more about the invisible hand of racism. I wish my great friend Alexis Scott had said to me, years before she actually did, “Rick, you think about race when it suits you. We think about race every day because we have to.” I will always wish that I had listened more closely and seen more clearly.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Try to see things from the other guy’s side. Simple enough, I guess, but empathy to me remains the key to living life the right way. A comedian friend of mine liked to say, “Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in his shoes. That way, when he gets ticked off, you’ll be a mile away and he won’t have any shoes.” Funny, but what a kernel of truth!

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Well, I’ll give you an easy answer. I sure would like to meet Jesus. Given the unlikelihood, I’d have to choose between Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey, two Black women of uncommon accomplishment, who could tell me a lot about transcending race while being “race women” at the same time. It wouldn’t hurt that they both recommend books to read!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

The website for my book is

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Thank you so much for the opportunity!

Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author & Journalist Frederick Allen Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.