Originally created 06/08/01

Man returns to island to pen novel



SAVANNAH - The first time Junius Griffin visited St. Helena Island, he was a reporter on assignment for the U.S. Marine Corps at Parris Island, S.C., in 1956.

The second time he visited was during a retreat at Penn Center with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the midst of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

And the last time he visited, he decided to stay. In November, Mr. Griffin retired to St. Helena from teaching at Emory & Henry College in Emory, Va., to focus on his new career as an author. The 72-year-old writer is working on his memoirs, a novel and a book called Patriotism Through Dissent: Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass. That is, when he finds time to write.

This week, Mr. Griffin is directing a play reading and coaching participants in the eighth annual Playwrights Conference at The Shed in Port Royal.

Between visits to Beaufort County's rural island, Mr. Griffin established himself as a world-traveling, Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist, human rights activist, Motown Records executive, student and educator.

Mr. Griffin was drawn back to the Lowcountry by its people. As a Marine on St. Helena in 1956, he encountered some of the friendliest people he's ever met. Residents gave the young recruit shrimp, and oysters were only 50 cents a bushel. It's also where Mr. Griffin met his first wife, a teacher at St. Helena High School. They had two daughters and later divorced.

While with the Marine Corps, Mr. Griffin began writing for the Pacific Stars & Stripes newspaper. He also wrote articles about the history of the Lowcountry that were published in the Charleston Post and Courier and The State newspapers. But opportunities were limited for the only black correspondent in the Marines.

"I just couldn't see myself wearing dress blues and standing guard for the rest of my life," Mr. Griffin said.

So, he left the Marine Corps and joined the Air Force in Charleston, S.C. He eventually became a bureau chief in Japan for the military newspaper, learning journalism on the job. In 1962, he left the Air Force and moved to New York, where he was hired as a reporter for The Associated Press.

The civil rights movement, spearheaded by Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was escalating throughout the South. Many of Mr. Griffin's assignments included covering Dr. King's march on Washington and his conventions. He and eight other reporters were candidates for a Pulitzer Prize in 1963 for a 13-part series titled The Deepening Crisis, which addressed the civil rights movement. The series was awarded second place, with the Pulitzer going to articles about the assassination of President Kennedy.

In 1964, Mr. Griffin was recruited as a general assignment reporter for The New York Times.

During a march Mr. Griffin met Dr. King, and his character education began.

"He knew I was a Southerner," Mr. Griffin said. "He told me how guilty I should feel being successful and not going back (to the South)."

Mr. Griffin promised Dr. King he would work for him for two years, expecting to be either broke or shell-shocked by the intensity of the movement by the end of his term. He served as a public relations aide from 1965 to 1967. It was the best decision he ever made, Mr. Griffin said.

As a public relations aide, Mr. Griffin wrote press statements and helped write the Southern Christian Leadership Conference newsletter. He also was one of four or five staff members who wrote Dr. King's speeches.

Mr. Griffin, who became known among many of the Baptists in the movement for dating a lot and having a good time on St. Helena, frequently was the object of Dr. King's playfulness, he said.

"I made a point that everybody knew I was not a Baptist preacher," Mr. Griffin said.

One day while on his way to work, Mr. Griffin stopped to shoot craps with some men on a street. A tap on his shoulder by Dr. King ended the game.

"He said, 'Brother Junius, I think I'll take this money for a donation to the cause,"' Mr. Griffin recalls.

"People forget that Dr. King was a college student like everybody else. He had a good time," said Mr. Griffin, who is the same age Dr. King would be today.