By Lynn Oldshue
John Archibald is the voice of Alabama. A columnist who covers politics for AL.com, he takes a stand against the status quo, fraud and greed, but he is more than a spotlight shining in corrupt corners. He holds a mirror to the rest of us, too, showing us at our best or revealing our own dark sides.
“Curiosity and indignation are what drive me,” he says. “You rail against things that you may not be able to change but you have to try anyway. I don’t have to be beholden to anyone. I am just telling the truth.”
Archibald went through five majors at the University of Alabama before landing on journalism. “I would have been a geologist but crystallography kicked my ass,” he says. “I also tried business, political science, history, and hospital administration. I was an incinerator operator at a hospital, which was a terrible experience.”
He wrote a few limericks as a kid but writing for the Crimson and White, the college newspaper at Alabama, was where he found himself. “Trying all of those other majors was a good education for a journalist,” he says. “It is not about how much you know, but how adaptable you are.”
Archibald grew up in Alabama and has never lived anywhere else. He writes about his state as someone who knows all of her faults but loves her anyway. He sees the state’s potential and speaks out when the past or politics holds her back. National news outlets from NPR to The New York Times turn to him to help make sense of elections, scandals and opinions in Alabama.
“This is a target-rich environment and provides more than enough for my three weekly columns,” he says. “My job as a columnist is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. We deserve better than what we have.”
As the newspaper industry downsizes and goes digital, no other columnist or reporter in Alabama has a platform like Archibald. Love him or hate him, he is the one many turn to for news. He demands more from politicians and scolds voters for the apathy that allows some of them to be elected.
“What if you threw an election and nobody came?
We did . . .
There are only 100 of these guys in the whole country and this is what Alabamians said. Nothing. Which is a helluva risk. It’s not democracy. It’s a crap shoot.”
“Roy Moore and Sassy: Low Voter Turnout Makes Anything Possible,” Aug. 15, 2017
Archibald is tough on politicians, but some politicians admit he is “tough but fair.” Richard Arrington was the mayor of Birmingham from 1979 to 1999. Archibald called him “King Richard” and often went after him for cronyism and running a political machine.
“I have read John for years,” Arrington says. “He is knowledgeable in his research and analysis and what he reports is factual. He has good sources. Too good. I haven’t always liked what he wrote and he criticized me when I was mayor, but there was also positive analysis. With the government we have, there has to be someone who keeps the public alerted to what is going on. John has a special gift to help us understand.”
Archibald speaks out strongly against injustice. Recently it was about the fines and fees for traffic violations that “screw the poor” and can trap Alabamians in a cycle of debt and incarceration. He says one of the hardest stories he wrote was about Horace Franklin Dunkins, a man with the mind of a 12-year-old, who raped and killed a young mother, stabbing her 66 times. Dunkins was sentenced to Alabama’s electric chair but didn’t die until the second burst. It wasn’t just the botched execution that made Archibald uneasy, but the evidence that made Dunkins appear an unlikely candidate for the murder. Archibald wrote: “Killing the guilty – even cruelly — may not stir us to feel. The risk of killing the innocent however, hurts right down to the soul” (“Outrage Over Botched Executions Misses a Point,” May 4, 2014).
Archibald seems to know when we need inspiration instead of investigation, compassion instead of controversy. With a smooth, rhythmic writing voice that flows from generations of preachers, he reminds us that little guys can win, it is easier to talk about people than race, be thankful for the small things, and the joy in the stands can be more important than the game on the field. In times of crisis, the human spirit is the only thing you can trust.
“My dad was a Methodist preacher and his dad was a Methodist preacher,” Archibald says. “It goes all the way back on both sides of my family. Maybe there is some DNA in there. When I am at my best, I think it comes from that sermon place.”
He once wrote that everything he knows and believes about life is “refracted through the stained glass of the Southern church.” Religion still shapes how he sees the world and he says the religion he learned from his family was not about anger, or exasperation, or judgment. “It had everything to do with people. And fairness. And compassion.”
Stories about his family flow from his heart to his fingers. Memories of shooting spitballs in church or waving a watch at his dad to let him know the sermon had gone too long were told in his “Father’s Day confessions from a notorious preacher’s kid.” His father taught him to leave the world a better place than he found it and that “People can do things you don’t like, but they’re still people. They can have no net worth at all, but they are still worth something.”
His columns are written from first person but in the beginning it was hard to share the personal sides. “All of the stories I thought I would never tell a soul, I have told to thousands of people,” he says. “The things I tried to hide for half my life, I told in print. There are no more skeletons out there and it is freeing.”
Sometimes he just wants to restore his faith by telling the stories of everyday people. Two years ago he took a road trip across Alabama. Thirty-one stories in 31 places in 31 days. Stories about Jim Bird, an 88-year old farmer who built a 32-foot-high tin man and caterpillars, spiders and a tank made out of hay bales in his field for his wife Elizabeth. Or 89-year-old Pearl Brown, who goes to work as a dishwasher four days a week at Al & Mick’s barbecue restaurant in Blount County.
“From the homeless to the governor, there is not much difference between people. Some just get different breaks,” he says. “It is not about who is big or successful and who is not; it is about what situation a person is in and why. We are losing the art of listening. We get swept up to into our little boxes and forget how to communicate.”
Archibald communicates with sharp headlines, piercing endings and simple words in flowing sentences. He explains what is lurking beneath the tip of the iceberg in ways that we can understand, even if we are reading his stories through our “little boxes.”
“No matter the subject, John can put the hay down where the goats can get it and in Alabama, our goats need a smorgasbord of truth,” says AL.com cartoonist J.D. Crowe. “Some days the truth is wicked. Some days it’s wickedly funny. John brings it with tough love and he is like Alabama’s conscience. Sometimes I think he has his own set of super words. He uses the same words we all use, but his words always make more sense.
“I’m just glad he can’t draw.”
Archibald says there is no plan when he starts a column. “I think through my fingers,” he says. “I get a spark and know there is something there. Every line is a step forward. When I get to the end, I just try to make it fit with the top and sum up the point. It often works.”
He misses the limits of writing 580 words every other day for his column that was along the left rail of the Metro section in the Birmingham News. “That was my best writing because strict limits made me think about every word,” he says. “It makes you think and rethink and rethink. I still try to write to that length for discipline.”
The Birmingham News became a part of AL.com and the newsroom is much smaller than it used to be, putting more demands on the ones who are left. Archibald says there is never enough time to cover all of the stories. “I often hit deadlines and wish I had more time or included something else. I feel that every story could have been better if I had more time. You do the best you can with what you have.”
Archibald has been called a “bleeding-heart liberal” and a “soldier of the alt-left” and the best compliment he can get is that someone disagrees with almost everything he says, but reads his stories anyway. “I don’t expect people to agree with everything I say,” he says. “I look back and I don’t agree with everything I say. I just want to make people think. It doesn’t have to be all party line.”
“I think John is very important to the state,” says Pulitzer-prize winner Rick Bragg, who worked with Archibald at the Birmingham News. “It’s a complicated thing, Alabama. I think once you get people saying, ‘Hey, did you see what Archibald wrote?’ you’ve done something. I hear it all the time. It is hard enough in this life to write well, to tell a good story. To do it time after time about things that are important to us, in the news and in our hearts, is something more. John does it time after time, with wit and heart. A lot people have one but not the other.”
Archibald worked with Bragg when he first started out and says he tried to write like Bragg and failed. “Rick can turn a phrase better than anyone I have ever met,” he says. “It finally dawned on me that I will never be able to write like Rick Bragg. I had to figure out how to write like me and that changed everything. The key to being able to write well is to express how you see the world.”
Archibald has won awards for expressing how he sees the world, but the award that made him the happiest was a local award named after a hooker, Lou Wooster, who saved Birmingham during a cholera epidemic in the late 1800s when all of the respectable people left town. “They drove me to pick that award up in a horse-drawn hearse.”
After writing for newspapers for 31 years, Archibald doesn’t know how many stories he has written but he wants to write more. He is also branching out into children’s stories and stand-up storytelling and wants to “write a book while they still have them.”
“Reporting is still fun,” he says. “You don’t know where you are going but sometimes there is a moment when you are talking to someone and a feeling creeps up the back of your neck and you know you have a story. There is no better feeling and every step is part of the tapestry you are weaving. When you see it come together it is the most beautiful feeling.”
Archibald says we are in the “wild west” in the media and we have to realize the value of the truth. “The truth will always be the story and I love it,” he says. “Thank God for failures in crystallography.”