On March 6, 1978, “Hustler” magazine publisher and professional provocateur Larry Flynt was shot and critically wounded on a street corner in Lawrenceville. Along with his local attorney, Gene Reeves, who was also shot, Flynt was returning from lunch to the Gwinnett County Courthouse, where he was being tried on obscenity charges.
For five years, both the shooter and his motive remained a mystery. Many assumed that Flynt was targeted for trying to bring his X-rated magazine to the Bible Belt – he’d briefly managed to sell Hustler at Stan’s Shopette in Lilburn and at an Atlanta bookstore, and Fulton County was waiting to try him next. Flynt, who remains paralyzed from the waist down as a result of the shooting, later became convinced that a government assassination team had been trying to stop him from digging into JFK’s killing.
In fact, as Gwinnett County writer Carole Townsend reveals in her absorbing new book, “Blood in the Soil,” Flynt’s shooting was part of a terrifying three-year crime wave carried out by one man, avowed white supremacist Joseph Paul Franklin. How much so became clear starting in 1983, when Gwinnett County Police Department Detective Michael Cowart and his captain visited Franklin at the super-max prison in Marion, Illinois. Cowart ended up interviewing Franklin several times and the now retired detective spent hours speaking with Townsend for the book and even shared some tapes of those interview sessions.
Franklin was serving two consecutive life sentences at Marion for killing two black joggers in Utah and an interracial couple in Wisconsin. By 2013, when he was executed for the fatal shooting of a man outside a St. Louis synagogue in 1977, the Mobile native had been tied to 22 killings in all, along with the assassination attempt on Flynt and one on civil rights leader (and Atlanta native) Vernon Jordan.
“He was trying to get the message out,” Townsend said of Franklin’s prolonged spree of violence.“His message was ‘We are being overrrun by Blacks, Jews, anyone who’s not a White Anglo Saxon Protestant.’ He thought, ‘We need to rise up and take our power back,’ and this was the only way to do it.”
Flynt’s unwitting part in all this had begun a few years ealier in Atlanta. In December 1975, Franklin was in a busy newsstand here thumbing through the latest edition of “Hustler.” It included a spread of sexually explicit photos featuring a black man and a white woman.
“It wasn’t the fact that Flynt was a depraved pornographer that bothered Franklin,” Townsend writes. “To Franklin, interracial couples were an abomination … (That) was the day that Larry Flynt became a marked man.”
Franklin may have gotten away with that crime for a long time, but the fact that no one was seeing the bigger picture started to eat at him. In August 1983, he sent a letter through his attorney to the Gwinnett police chief, claiming to have “knowledge of a case he might be interested in” and requesting he send an investigator to the Marion prison.
“He wasn’t getting people’s attention with the random unconnected killings he was doing from Wisconsin to Georgia,” Townsend said she realized from listening to those taped interviews. “He’d assumed people would connect the dots and the race war would get kicked off. He believed it would happen once he shot Flynt, since he was such a high profile character. Instead, he fell so miserably short.”
Townsend grew up in DeKalb County and has lived in Gwinnett for nearly three decades as the population has exploded to nearly 900,000 people. A veteran writer and journalist, she’s imbued “Blood in the Soil” with knowing details about just how different things were there as recently as 1978.
“Of all the things I uncovered, it probably blew me away the most that Gwinnett County had one ambulance then and they had to choose which guy was going to go first,” Townsend chuckled, referring to the panicked moments after Flynt and Reeves had been shot and were awaiting transport to Button Gwinnett Hospital. “The trial was a circus already and the shooting sent it over the top.”
“Blood in the Soil” is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble and many independent bookstores. Townsend has several local appearances scheduled: 1 p.m. - 3 p.m. on June 18 at the Barnes and Noble at The Forum on Peachtree Parkway in Norcross, and 1 p.m. - 3 p.m. on June 25 at the Barnes and Noble at the Mall of Georgia.
For more information, go to www.caroletownsend.com