BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Alvin Benn, whose storied career in journalism carried him to some of the biggest stories in Alabama history, died Tuesday night after several years in bad health. He was 83.
Benn, whose death was confirmed Wednesday by his son, Eric, first started his career at United Press International in 1964, where he landed in Birmingham after finishing up six years in the Marine Corps.
“When I first began my journalism career, I was asked where I wanted to go. “I told them, ‘Where the action is,’” Benn told the Luverne Rotary Club in April 2006. They sent me to Birmingham right in the middle of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, so I got what I asked for.”
From 1964 to 1966, Benn served as the Birmingham correspondent for UPI. It was during this time that he just happened to hear a Birmingham radio program about singer John Lennon’s comments about the Beatles being “more popular than Jesus.” On the program, hosted by Tommy Charles and Doug Layton, there were plans to burn Beatles records in response.
“‘What’s going on?’ I asked, soon after I got to my office and called (Tommy) Charles, who enjoyed racing stock cars, running for mayor of Birmingham and doing televised commercial pitches,” Benn wrote in his 2006 memoir, “Reporter: Covering Civil Rights… And Wrongs in Dixie.” “‘We’re upset with Lennon and are going to show him just what we think of his comments,’ Tommy told me. The more he talked, the more I knew it would be something our Atlanta and New York desks would love to get.”
Benn’s story, “Burn, Beatles, Burn!” was printed in many newspapers across the Southeast and country.
Benn also covered the civil rights movement, from “Bloody Sunday” to the Gov. George Wallace and his opposition to the movement.
In 1967, Benn would leave UPI to go to the Decatur Daily, where he worked with such Alabama journalists like Ben Windham and Tommy Stevenson, before leaving in 1974. After stints at the Selma Times-Journal and the Natchez Democrat, Benn would join the Montgomery Advertiser in 1980, where he worked as a reporter and columnist until he retired in 2003. However, even in retirement, Benn continued to write a weekly column for the newspaper until 2017.
“Journalistic integrity cannot be duplicated. That’s all reporters really have,” Benn said in a resolution the Alabama House of Representatives passed honoring his career in 2012. “We never make much money. What we can leave behind is a good name in our chosen profession. I hope I’ve done just that. There are those who will disagree but I’ve tried to be as fair as I could be.”
In a statement, Eric Benn said his father was a man who loved his family, friends, Jewish faith and journalism.
“He dedicated his entire adult life to reporting the news, good and bad,” he wrote on Facebook. “From covering the civil rights in the 60’s, to being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, to interviewing presidents, to covering the day-to-day life in the South, to writing a book, etc., he loved nothing more than the State of Alabama and especially his home town, Selma. Though gone, he will never be forgotten.”
Gay Talese, a celebrated journalist and author of such pieces as “Frank Sinatra has a Cold” and “The Kingdom and the Power,” said that in the world of journalism, Benn was a rare breed: a gentleman, first and foremost.
“His courtesy, his patience, his willingness to listen to other people who disagreed with him, made him unique in a profession known for its forthright dedication to getting the facts fast and first, and caring little sometimes how this was achieved,” Talese wrote. “People visiting Alabama, especially reporters like me, could always count of Mr. Benn to provide background information on any subject of interest; and no matter what time of day it was, he never complained about being interrupted by people needing his guidance or assistance. I’ll greatly miss him, as will all who ever came in contact with him.”
Originally from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Benn and his wife, Sharon, lived in Selma for decades. They had two children and four grandchildren.