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Protests more bark than bite with low attendance

Anticipation of a showdown fades as Martha Burk and supporters make their stand.

By KATHRYN WEXLER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 13, 2003

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- By the time social activist Martha Burk and about five dozen supporters arrived Saturday morning at the designated grassy expanse on Washington Road, Georgia state troopers and deputies from two counties were girded for mayhem.

Some 70 patrol cars were parked in rows across a field of lavender buds. A paddy wagon was at the ready.

This was the moment of truth, the climax of momentum brewing since Burk requested 10 months ago that the all-male Augusta National Golf Club admit a woman and club chairman Hootie Johnson balked.

On Saturday, Burk mounted the platform as play at the 67th Masters continued behind the club's front gates a half-mile away. A tangle of microphones stood before her, a band of supporters behind.

She scanned the crowd of several hundred. Almost all wore media passes or law enforcement badges.

"We got the police state of Augusta!" Burk said, her subtle Texas twang ringing across the lawn.

Officers in blue and gray uniforms leaned against cruisers, squinting into the sun. A few exchanged glances.

Across the 5-acre field, a few dozen defenders of Augusta National held their signs and cheerfully spoke to the media. One man sold T-shirts with a red slash through the word "BURK." Cars crawled along Washington Road, honking their support.

In the end the event would prove equal parts politics, entertainment and two-bit carnival.

Officers would have little more to do than keep an amused eye on a motly group of people with agendas all their own, including an Elvis impersonator, a gray-haired anti-war protester doused in white paint and a Ku Klux Klan representative, sans sheet.

Burk was flanked by New York congresswoman Carolyn Maloney and Eleanor Smeal, a long-time activist and current president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, who Burk called her mentor.

Protesters were mostly young women, wearing shirts that associated them with Burk's group, the National Council of Women's Organizations. Others were from the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, though its leader, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, was nowhere in sight. The National Organization for Women also supports Burk's cause, and several held signs.

Burk called on corporate club members to resign their membership or face the wrath of female stockholders and consumers.

"Today we are protesting with placards, tomorrow women will be protesting with their pocketbooks," she said.

The boycott tact is relatively new. A few days ago it became clear Augusta National had no intention of bowing to Burk's demands after Johnson told a roomful of journalists the club would not admit women if he "dropped dead right now." About 60 club members stood in solidarity.

Burk, it could be said, one-upped him in melodrama.

"Chauvinist pigs grew up into corporate pigs," she taunted.

On cue, someone behind the platform inflated a pink balloon of, yes, a pig. They also mounted a gigantic puppet show. On one side was a papier-mache rendering of a woman in military garb. On the other, a KKK member, his white sheet emblazoned with the Augusta National logo.

"We're so glad to know who's supporting the club," Burk said.

It was a nod to the singular man who brought a plywood sign saying he represented "the one man klan group."

But perhaps Burk could be forgiven for some of her antics. She has had it rough in east Georgia.

Local residents overwhelmingly seem to support the club. And last week Burk lost an appeal in federal court in Atlanta to move her protest up Washington Road, closer to the club entrance.

As it was, she ended up about a half-mile away at "the pit," as she called it. The land is owned by Augusta National, which leases it to the city. Tournament-goers parked closer to the club, so pedestrian traffic was sparse.

"President Bush lets us come talk closer to him," she said.

Smeal warned that although Saturday's turnout was low, organizations representing more than 7-million women nationally stood ready to take up the cause.

"We want to hear Coca-Cola defend its position," she said.

Janice Mathis, vice president of Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, told the crowd, "Being black and female, you understand that racism and sexism is made out of the same thing."

But few African-American organizations have spoken out against Augusta's all-male membership.

One black-oriented group, Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny, stood on the field, preaching against Jackson. It didn't matter that Jackson didn't show, said the group's leader, the Rev. Jesse Peterson.

"He's not the man," Peterson said.

One picketer held up a sign promoting an unusual agenda. His shirt read, "Golf is vile," and his sign explained, "Golf replaces housing, farms and forests."

Ed Archer and his 11-year-old daughter, Rebecca, took in the sights. Next to them a man hoised a painted sheet with a boy urinating on the words, "Martha Burk." Rebecca pointed, and they both chuckled.

"We didn't have tickets to the Masters," Archer said, "so this will be the top show."

-- Kathryn Wexler can be reached at or (813) 226-3383.

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