What Now for NABJ?

The black journalists' group takes a risk by quitting a key alliance with other ethnic associations.

Former President Bill Clinton and former NABJ President Herb Lowe (Getty)

The annual convention of the National Association of Black Journalists kicked off in Philadelphia yesterday. I'm on my way for the umpteenth time, because I've had a proprietary attachment to the organization. But this year I have more than the usual trepidations I've had over the years.

I've worried about the balance between substance and party at our annual gatherings; I've worried about whether the organization was doing enough to stave off the stunning disappearance of black journalists from the news business; and, now, in addition, I wonder if we've made a severe strategic error by breaking off our participation in the conferences organized by Unity, the coalition of minority journalism organizations battling for a foothold in a business that has never really been comfortable with us.

I'm entitled to worry. I'm proud to have been one of the 44 black journalists who crammed into a hotel room in December 1975 to create NABJ, which grew into the nation's largest organization of minority journalists. Back then, we were so few that most of us knew one another.

Black Journalists Back in the Day

We'd connected every summer on our version of the "chitlin' circuit," which moved from one city to another, from one riot to another, from one black convention to another. We covered the NAACP, the National Urban League, the SCLC, the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Ind., by day and debated the business we were in and our role in it far into the night.

It was on that circuit that I met Earl Caldwell, Bob Maynard, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Chuck Stone, Luix Overbea, Jack White and other pioneering journalists working in "majority" media, but there was also a handful of representatives from black-owned news pubs: the New York Amsterdam News, Philadelphia Tribune, St. Louis Argus and Miami Times and, of course, Ebony and Jet.

Those of us in mainstream media were often at war with our editors. The unrest in black communities, and the Kerner Commission Report on the segregated nature of the news business, had cracked the door open for black reporters. We saw the way the news was covered as one-sided, especially when it came to racial incidents or violence involving the police.

Some editors suspected that we were closet "militants"; we thought they were too willing to believe authority's side of the story. When we filed reports that challenged their preconceptions or comfort level, we were quizzed, harangued and edited out of the truth. Or our stories were simply killed.

Our late-night sessions on the black circuit often focused on how you got those controversial stories past "the desk," the bastion of conformity that served as a firewall against the inflammatory stories of rage and deep dissatisfaction that we brought back. The advice from our elders was priceless: Find someone conservative to say it; use statistics to make your point; use a soft lead -- and then hit 'em with the facts.

Then there were the stories that proved our point, like the killing of Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in 1969. The media swallowed whole the Chicago Police Department's version of a shootout -- until a reporter noted that the so-called bullet holes the police had pointed to as proof the Panthers had fired first turned out to be nail heads.