The Banality of Evil 

A youthful encounter with J.B. Stoner

After I finished undergrad in the '70s, I spent five years working for weekly newspapers in rural Georgia. The second of these was the Oconee Enterprise in Watkinsville, outside Athens. I fell into the job quite by accident. After a year at the Elberton Star, I fled to Athens, planning to get a master's degree in comparative literature at the University of Georgia.

I visited the Enterprise, looking for part-time work. It was not a typical rural paper. It had been on the verge of folding when a group of local people bought it and hired UGA journalism professor Pete Sasser to run it in his spare time. The afternoon I visited, Pete and his wife, Connie, were making up the front page, an unusually newsy one since a fuel truck had blown up on Main Street. "This has knocked the 4-H Club clean off the front page," Pete joked.

I asked if they could use any help reporting and Connie said, "No, but you can be editor." So I ditched my educational plans to become Georgia's youngest editor and publisher - a title that didn't begin to describe the breadth of my duties, which at times included reporting, photography, typesetting and page make-up, as well as accounting and advertising sales. Another of my weekly duties, until we were able to triple the staff by adding two other people, was delivering the pages to the printer.

Our printer was the Walton Tribune in Monroe. I drove the 25 miles early in the morning, once colliding with two buzzards picking over a dead dog on the decorously named "Hog Mountain Road." When I got to the Tribune, I reviewed each page with the printer. One morning, after I completed this process, someone tapped my shoulder and asked if I would give him some help.

The man was one of the most peculiar looking men I'd ever seen. Pudgy with pasty white skin, he had cheeks so red they appeared rouged. He wore a bow tie. With his short, buzzed hair, he looked like an oversized infant, delicate and vain. But he was pleasant enough and asked me if I'd mind checking over the pages of his newspaper.

I told him I'd be glad to help. I didn't realize, until I saw the iconic thunderbolt on page one, that I was in the company of notorious white supremacist and anti-Semite J.B. Stoner, reviewing the latest edition of his hateful newspaper, The Thunderbolt. Stoner died last week at 81 in a nursing home in northwest Georgia. Unlike George Wallace, who eventually apologized for his racist politics, Stoner remained unrepentant to the end of his life.

At the time I met him, Stoner had not yet been indicted for the 1958 Alabama church bombing for which he eventually went to jail for three years. He was then still a perennial candidate for state offices. Despicable, outrageous statements rolled off the eventually disbarred lawyer's tongue and, indeed, many think it was his own language read aloud at his trial that convicted him.

Stoner invited me to have breakfast after we'd put his pages to bed, which I reviewed stuporously. At 22, having been active in radical politics on campus, I was outraged but clueless about how to behave when confronted at such close distance by an incarnation of evil. I would come to have this experience many times in those years. Insufferably corrupt politicians, usually racist and often criminal, slapped me on the back and invited me to coffee. They were often hilarious storytellers. They threw their feet up on the desk and I joined their conspiracy, not asking questions about rumored drug trafficking, vote buying and, in one case that obsessed me for years, the murder of a man who once did me a favor. Years later, I undertook investigating that story for two magazines, a picture of the corpse of the man pinned to my wall for months. I received several death threats.I remember practically nothing of my breakfast with J.B. Stoner. I do remember playing the dumb kid in the company of a famous politico. I remember that he made me laugh and I remember artfully avoiding any discussion of race and religion. He seemed anything but a coarse monster. He was overly polite and solicitous, but then I was a blue-eyed Christian. He bought my breakfast and promised to visit me during his next election campaign. I shook his pudgy, cold hand - as cold as his heart - and wondered how a monster could appear so meek. "Never fail to tell the truth," he told me.

His face and the faces of others like him from those years have haunted me all my life. They give concrete expression to the "banality of evil" Hannah Arendt encountered in Nazi Adolf Eichmann. I often wonder, reading the unquestioning journalism that characterizes most media today, if reporters have come face to face with the seductive quality evil exerts through the ordinary. I'm lucky I learned that so young, even though it exacted the high price of my idealism.

Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology.


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