The Ku klux Klan rally had just begun, with about 50 white persons robbed in white, red, green and blue, a roughly equal number of reporters and about 150 spectators in attendance.
For the assembled news media, it promised to be lively story. Led by Imperial Wizard Bill Wilkenson of Denham Spring, La., the colorful secret society members had invaded President Carter's hometown two days before the Fourth of July.
Speaking from a makeshift pine platform in a rented field, Wilkinson had just begun to address the Klan's Saturday night rally when a high-pitched whine split the air.
"Look out! Look out!" came a hoarse cry, but it was too late. A small sports car smashed into the platform form the rear, slid under it and plunged into the crowd.
None of the robed Klansmen, whom Wilkinson had just asked to step to one side for pictures, was among the 29 persons taken to Americus and Sumter County Hospital. At least six reporters and photographers were, making them part of a spectacle they had come to observe.
Eighteen persons remained at the hospital today, many of them with broken or dislocated bones, according to a hospital spokesman.
The car's driver, identified as a white man. Buddy Cochran, 30, of Americus, was arriagned today on 19 counts of aggravated assault. Justice of the Peace John Southwell set bond at $10,000 on each count. No plea was entered. Cochran did not make bail.
A Klansman identified as Michael J. Johnston, 31, was charged with simple assault and carrying a pistol without a permit after he allegedly struck Cochran on the head with his pistol as Cochran was being arrested.
Cochran, who was not seriously injured, was legally intoxicated at the time of his arrest, according to Sumter County Sheriff Randy Howard. Howard said a test administered to Cochran read at above Georgia's legal limit of 1 per cent blood-alcohol level.
Howard said Cochran is a former Marine and Vietnam war veteran who told law officers he "just didn't like the way Wilkinson talked."
A Klansman who witnessed the incident said that less than a minute before the crash. Cochran was telling a camera crew that he objected to the Klan's racial slurs.
"He was saying he had a black buddy in the Marines in Europe," said Travis Kimbrell of Adger.Ala.
"He was using a lot of profanity, and one of guys went to get the cops. That was when he jumped into the car," Kimbrell said.
He said Cochran yelled from the gray Jaguar as he started the engine, "Want to see me do a number on these folks?" He said Cochran then headed for the platform, his tires spinning.
Neighbors in the quiet section of Americus where Cochran has lived since Christmas with his wife and two children, described him as normally a quiet man, who sometimes did favors for them like repairing disabled cars.
State Police Capt. Stewart McGlaun said Cochran is a diesel mechanic, was born in New York City and has been a resident of the South for about two years. He said Cochran had not been in serious trouble before.
The aggravated assault charges pending against Cochran carry a penalty under Georgia law of from 1 to 10 years each. Additional charges may be lodged later, according to Howard. "We want to wait and see just what the nature of some of the other injuries are," he said.
Despite reports that "Miss Lillian" Carter, the President's mother, was seen at the rally scene after the car crashed the platform, state Sen, Hugh Carter, the President's cousin, said she had not gone anywhere near the rally "and neither did any of the other Carters."
Billy Carter, the President's brother, was in the hopsital early today visiting acquaintainces who were injured, but did not attend the rally, according to McGlaun.
At Camp David, Md., where the President is spending the holiday weekend, a spokesman said the Carter was aware of the incident but would not comment on it.
An Americus hospital spokeman said most of the injured appeared to have been curious spectators at the rally and not active participants. Thirteen of those treated were from Americus or Plains.
McGlaun said that to his knowledge there is no Klan chapter in Plains, a town of 682, but "there are some folks there who sympathize with it."
Klan leaders also said they knew of no Plains chapter but picked the President's hometown as a rally site to bring their cause to nationwide attention.
Wilkinson had obtained a permit for a "music show, patriotic display and activities" in early June, a permit that Plains Police Chief Billy McClung said Saturday apparently was obtained under false pretenses. There was no music at Saturday's rally.