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Civil rights journalist dies at 79

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The woman who garnered national attention to the plight of blacks in the segregated South by taunting the Ku Klux Klan in fiery editorials and later became the first reporter to cover the new bomb plant in Aiken for The Augusta Chronicle died Saturday at her home in Aiken.

Amelia Knoedler Penland, a journalist and mother who never considered herself a civil rights activist, was 79.

Although probably best known around the Augusta area as a wife and mother, Mrs. Penland spent her early years as a hard-hitting journalist fighting civil rights injustices, said her daughter, Peggy Penland, 48.

"She was fighting out against what was wrong," her daughter said. "I'm real proud of her."

Mrs. Penland, a pioneer in the field of journalism in a time when most women didn't have careers outside the home, moved to the small town of Unadilla, Ga., in 1948 after she graduated with a journalism degree from the University of Georgia.

It was there that Mrs. Penland took on the Klan after they intimidated and assaulted blacks, Jews and Catholics.

Mrs. Penland covered an election in which a black man tried to vote. Klansmen lined the entrance to the polls and beat him with walking canes.

"That just set her off," Ms. Penland said. "She proceeded to dare the Klansmen to take off their masks."

The Klan even burned a cross in the front yard of the house she was living at, Ms. Penland said. "She was not afraid, but she did have to learn how to shoot a gun to protect herself."

Mrs. Penland was written about in The New York Times for her work and frequently quoted in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, her daughter said. In 1950, Ralph McGill, the editor of The Atlanta Constitution and an avid supporter of Mrs. Penland, invited her to address the state via radio.

In 1952, she moved to Aiken, where she was asked to take the position of editor at the Aiken bureau of The Augusta Chronicle just as the federal government was set to construct the largest peace- time nuclear facility there.

Mrs. Penland met her husband, Robert C. Penland, at a political function during a state race between Strom Thurmond and Edgar Brown. Mrs. Penland had supported Mr. Thurmond and her future husband supported Mr. Brown, her daughter said.

They married in 1956, and Mrs. Penland left her career to be a wife and mother.

She never returned to journalism, although she was honored often.

Mrs. Penland's last award came in 2002 when she visited UGA's Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication in Athens, Ga., and was honored for her contributions to print journalism by the Geor-gia Council on Women, her daughter said.

"It was just so wonderful for me to see this happen after this many years because my mother was surrounded by women who work today, mostly for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and they really saw her as a hero," said Ms. Penland, who accompanied her mother. "They thanked her for paving the way for them and for the civil rights movement."

Although Mrs. Penland never told her daughter why she became a journalist, Ms. Penland mused it was because she loved to write and was deeply involved in politics.

"She's a very strong woman and she has a very strong heart," Ms. Penland said.

Reach Kate Lewis at (706) 823-3215 or

(C) 2005 The Augusta Chronicle. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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