Last Stop on the Protest Line

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AUGUSTA, Ga. -- We have moved, in a little less than a year, from letters and acrimony to placards and bullhorns. This is the week so many have awaited, and just as many have dreaded. This week, all the I wonders will be answered.
 
Written on the tablet of the worlds most famous golf tournament ' which itself will share the headlines with the Iraqi war ' will be another chapter in this countrys endless struggles about civil rights.
 
Martha BurkDr. Martha Burk is scheduled to lead a public protest Saturday against Augusta National Golf Club, a private organization and the definition of Heaven on Earth to millions who have never been near it. Dr. Burk wants to get that club to admit women as members. She includes this crusade in the agenda of the National Council of Womens Organizations, of which she is chair. That agenda includes, among other things, issues pertaining to reproductive rights, workplace equity, and abuse of women in Third World nations.
 
Dr. Burk has encountered a nations worth of varied reaction, from the enthusiastic You go, girl school to the befuddled head-scratches of the Who cares? crowd to the virulent opposers who perpetuate the American habit of binding disagreement to hate.
 
This last group bothers her not at all, even when they approach in white hoods. (Dr. Burk will not tell the media where she is staying in Augusta this week. She is unflappable, but not reckless.) In a life of activism and inside-the-Beltway machinations, she has learned not to lose sleep over hate mail.
 
But Martha Burk is serious about her quest. She maintains that the clubs sponsorship of so great a tournament as the Masters forces it to sacrifice the shield of private association laws. Chiefs of industry, of consumer product companies, of conglomerates that guarantee rights of women workers, are members of the most storied golf club in the land, Burk says. The economic ties are too great to ignore, she says.
 
Besides, Dr. Burk says, this is not a legal issue, and never has been. It is a moral issue.
 
Finding himself ' and his world ' at the point of Burks bayonet is William Hootie Johnson, one of the most respected men in Richmond County, Georgia, and across the Savannah River in southern South Carolina. By all accounts Johnson is a Southern gentleman of the old school, a soft-spoken, charitable, peaceful man who has carved out over many years a reputation for fair dealing and gentility. Johnson allegedly told USA Today columnist Christine Brennan in 1999 that in time the club would indeed admit a woman.
 
But Johnson read a lot of things he didnt like between the lines of his first letter from Burk, and decided to go public with the matter ' and with his strong response. That decision, and his subsequent handling of the affair, has drawn a great deal of criticism. It remains unclear whether the clubs objection is to the possibility of woman members or to the effort to force a timetable.
 
Either way, Hootie's reaction is truly Southern. The states of the former confederacy have traditionally not liked to be told what to do, no matter what the issue, no matter right or wrong. Witness, in living memory, the struggles to equalize access to education and voting rights throughout the South. Who could believe this club membership issue, although much less important than those basic rights, would be any different?
 
The media attention, which has continued at high intensity considering the lack of true new developments in the case and the outbreak of war, has fertilized the seeds planted by fringe elements ' and so this week we can expect to see and hear from the Reverend Jesse Jackson and his PUSH Coalition, seemingly omnipresent in times of controversy, as well as group called People Against Ridiculous Protests. This last group is one of many anti-Burk voices that have spoken in recent months, some complete with websites on which ' surprise ' t-shirts and other anti-Burk memorabilia are sold, presumably to defray the cost of a big Burk shout-down.
 
We will also hear from native Augustans, many of whom have never thought of the Masters as a class-oriented or gender-based event. They simply love the atmosphere, the ambience ' and the income. A lot of the natives have protest permits, and theyre planning to use them. (And a lot of them are women.)
 
What well see, when the week is over, is whether protests away from the clubs gates will do Burks cause any good. We will see if the clubs strategy of outlasting Burk and crowning a champion inside those gates Sunday makes the matter go away (for if Burk hasnt succeeded by Sunday, what momentum will she have for 2004?). Well see if a federal appeals court will reverse a district court ruling Monday in Burks suit against the City of Augusta. (The district court decided the citys protest permit ordinance was constitutional, both as written and as applied to Dr. Burks group. In that last ruling, the court said that moving the protests to a field near the club is a reasonable time, place and manner restriction on free speech.)
 
And what we will see, for better or worse, is how the game of golf comes out of this in the eye of the public. It doesnt matter that this is not a golf issue, that golf is just the stage on which it will play out. Whatever happens this week will stick to golfs reputation like glue. The national mind doesnt parse things out in detail. If things go badly in Augusta, golf will look bad, no matter who is to blame.
 
Golfs uncertain future in this country could get a lot clearer ' one way or the other.
 
Stay tuned.
 
Related Links:
  • 2003 Masters Tournament Mini-Site
  • Tournament Coverage
  • The Augusta National Membership Debate: A Chronology