George Curry, a Fierce Journalist Who Never Backed Down From a Fight

To say he was a giant in journalism is an understatement.

George Curry during press conference unveiling AIDS in Black Face: 25 Years of an Epidemic on June 5, 2006, at the Open Society Institute in New York City
George Curry during press conference unveiling AIDS in Black Face: 25 Years of an Epidemic on June 5, 2006, at the Open Society Institute in New York City Tim Grant/WireImage for BET Productions

They’re taking George Curry back to Alabama for burial. I assume that’s what he wanted. He died suddenly of a heart attack the other day in suburban Washington, D.C.

Alabama—where we were both born, that made us the butt of many jokes because we always regarded “Sweet Home Alabama” with mixed emotions, as do many other Bamas.

Alabama—with its “Heart of Dixie” motto we both loathed; its hard racism, harsh Jim Crow laws, snarling Gov. George Wallace; Birmingham’s bullhorn-bearing Police Commissioner Bull Connor; the Ku Klux Klan; the list goes on—was difficult for African Americans. It is the state that stymied George and me and others in our ambitions, denying us quality education (but we got it anyway), a place we both fled to fulfill our dreams of becoming journalists.

Alabama—George and I detested its history but dearly appreciated our black communities; his in Tuscaloosa, mine in Montgomery—which comforted, nurtured, sustained and protected us in our youth, until we could escape its stifling clutches. Our Alabama backgrounds made us extremely sensitive to the ills of society.

George and I met and became fast friends in the 1970s when we were reporters—he at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, I with the New York Times, based in Chicago. We both had a strong passion for the profession, as well as for the national black community and covering its issues. We were among the optimists who held out hope in those days as we fought to integrate the newsrooms of daily newspapers and television and radio stations.

When I became the first black editor at the Times in 1977, I was surprised by the reaction and excitement among black journalists across the country, especially in the Midwest and East, where most of us worked. They celebrated my promotion as a sign of hope that doors would swing open for them; if the mighty New York Times did it, their companies surely would follow.

Black colleagues in Kansas City—Lewis Duiguid, Jeanne Fox, Gerald Jordan, et al.; and in St. Louis—Bob Joiner, Ken Cooper, Sheila Rule, Gerald Boyd, Ellen Sweets, Linda Lockhart and George, among others—threw parties and dinners for me. From the beginning, George was one of my most ardent supporters and toughest competitors. We were both active in different worlds—big-city, mainstream media versus education and the black press.

George and his colleagues founded the Greater St. Louis Association of Black Journalists and a workshop to train aspiring high school journalists in conjunction with the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Those efforts predated formation of the National Association of Black Journalists, as did local associations in a few other cities, including Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, New York and Washington, D.C.

The death of George Curry last Friday shook the media world. I am still shaking. To say he was a giant is an understatement. He was a trench fighter who savored the combat. We engaged in many disagreements, as he did with other friends and colleagues. But with a grin, quirky laugh and handshake, there was never any bitterness. Mere friendly, if serious, disagreement. And he was a pure, true journalist: fair, courageous and honest.

As if a prelude to his own death, he discussed his concern about the deteriorating relations within his large family earlier this month in an article for the Baltimore Afro under the headline, “Even Funerals Are Not Family Reunions Anymore.” He told of serious divides within his family and joked that “funerals have become our family reunions.” He vowed that, “As long as I have breath in me, I am going to try and get my family back together.”