We Need You Now, Bill Raspberry!

Journalism pioneers of the 1960s gave blacks a presence in the news media. That voice is fading out.

Posted:
 
william_raspberry_072512_400jrw33
The Washington Post/Getty Images

(The Root) -- Today, we will give Bill Raspberry the kind of send-off he would have appreciated. Prominent journalists, editors, politicians, ordinary people and friends will gather in Washington, D.C.'s majestic National Cathedral to pay their last respects; there will be flowers, music and frequent retellings of one of the most remarkable careers in our business.

Raspberry, a son of Mississippi schoolteachers, had worked at black newspapers and managed to snag a job as a Teletype operator at the Washington Post. As it happened with many of us, the black rebellions of the 1960s propelled his journalistic career when mainstream newspaper editors suddenly noticed that they had few, if any, black faces to send out to cover the riots. Raspberry used that foot in the door to become one of the first black columnists to reach a national audience (after Carl Rowan) and to win a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

Raspberry was a member of the first generation of African-American journalists to barge into an exclusive all-white club. Forty years later, we find ourselves regularly recording the deaths, retirements or buyouts of black reporters who once made their mark on our journalistic institutions. The questions not often asked are these: What has been the impact of these departures? Is TV and print news better and more complete because of the legacy of black journalists?

The pioneers of the 1960s -- Thomas A. Johnson, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, C. Gerald Fraser and Earl Caldwell at the New York Times; Claude Lewis at the Philadelphia Bulletin; Ted Poston at the New York Post; Austin Scott at the Associated Press; Hal Walker at CBS News; and a handful of other "firsts" -- brought new voices and new perspectives to the news. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s had been covered for the major media almost exclusively by white journalists, while black journalists had been largely limited to the black press.

Once black reporters began penetrating the mainstream media, they enriched the dialogue by telling the story from the inside. Scott, who later moved to the Washington Post, was allowed into the strategy meetings of the first National Black Political Convention in Gary, Ind., in 1972. Hunter-Gault set up the first Harlem bureau for the New York Times. Caldwell was the only reporter at the Lorraine Motel when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. In 1972 I witnessed a comical confrontation between the militant Jewish Defense League and the New York chapter of the Black Panther Party from inside the Panther headquarters.

My group, the generation that followed those pioneers, sought to expand coverage of the black community from crisis to routine. There were four black staffers in the Style section of the Washington Post in the 1970s, and we made it a point to write not just about pathology but also about the normal and extraordinary lives of black America: I chronicled a day at the historic Florida Avenue Grill and wrote about a Sunday ride through the Virginia countryside with a black Corvette club.

Hollie West wrote a three-part, 15,000-word interview with Ralph Ellison. Jacqueline Trescott wrote about the downfall of Florence Ballard, one of the original Supremes, who ended up on welfare and saddened a generation of fans. Trescott also chronicled the many clubs, some steeped in the professional circles of doctors and professors, that led social life in black Washington, including the annual Kappa Dawn Dance.

Our group defined Howard University as a cultural center full of people who were pioneers in their field, from the physicians at Howard University Hospital to poets Sterling Brown and Stephen Henderson to esteemed librarian Dorothy Porter. Many of our articles were edited by Dorothy Gilliam, another pioneering black journalist.

When more than 50 of us from all over the country crowded into a Washington hotel room in 1975 to create the National Association of Black Journalists, our goals included increasing black representation in the news media, helping redefine news to be more inclusive and tackling some of the barriers we still faced. There were very few black editors making decisions then; there were almost no black foreign correspondents. Black anchors were still rare on local and network television. But NABJ was not welcomed with open arms by our employers; some of the people in that hotel room in 1975 dared not sign the charter. After all, some editors were questioning our "objectivity" for joining an advocacy group.

Almost 40 years later, one could argue that our efforts were a success. Some 2,500 journalists attended the NABJ convention in New Orleans earlier this month, Vice President Joe Biden spoke and many of the major media institutions that once looked on NABJ with alarm now send recruiters to the annual event.