Sam Yette Dies, Wrote of 'Black Survival'
Samuel F. Yette, a reporter, teacher, author and photojournalist whose publication of the 1971 book "The Choice: The Issue of Black Survival in America" coincided with his dismissal as the first black Washington correspondent for Newsweek magazine, died Friday at an assisted living facility in Laurel, Md.
He was 81 and had Alzheimer's disease, a son, Michael Yette, told Journal-isms.
"My dad would like to be known for teaching," Michael Yette said. "He was a natural teacher, and he wanted to spread knowledge and wisdom to particularly his people to help them advance the lives of his people, and journalism was his tool of preference in doing that."
However, Yette's controversial Vietnam-era book "The Choice" put him in headlines. It came to be used as a textbook on 50 college campuses, including DePaul University, the University of Chicago and the University of Nebraska, he said, as well as at traditionally black schools such as Howard University.
"The book dealt with things they did not want people to know about at the time," Yette told the Tennessee Tribune, which he joined as a columnist, in 1996. "There were those well-placed in our government who were determined to have a final solution for the race issue in this country — not unlike Hitler's 'Final Solution' for Jews 50 years earlier in Germany. I wrote this and documented it. It caused the Nixon White House to say to Newsweek in effect, 'Don't come back until you are rid of him.' "
Yette charged that he had become "unacceptable on the scene" as a correspondent for Newsweek as a result of the book, and filed suit. He was represented by Clifford L. Alexander, former chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission who went on to become secretary of the Army, consultant and board member at Fortune 500 companies and interim chairman and CEO of Dun & Bradstreet.
"I don't mean to be pejorative or vindictive when I say this," Yette said at a 1972 news conference, "but had I been a nigger instead of Black, a spy instead of a reporter, a tool instead of a man, I could have stayed at Newsweek indefinitely," Jet magazine reported.
Michael Yette said that his dad won the wrongful termination case in a lower court but that Newsweek won on appeal. Osborn Elliott, editor-in-chief of Newsweek, said then, "The decision to dismiss Mr. Yette was made on purely professional grounds."
Michael Yette said his dad anticipated that Newsweek would fire him over "The Choice," which was inspired in large part by what Yette had seen from his reporting on Capitol Hill. So he lined up a position with the then-new School of Communications at Howard University and taught journalism there from 1972 to 1986.
When black scholars commemorated "The Choice's" 13th reprinting in 1991, Ronald A. Taylor wrote in the Washington Times that Yette asserted that the book "best documents the genocidal conclusion" held by many about the effect of government policies on blacks.
Yette was born in Harriman, Tenn., in 1929, according to a biographical piece in 1996 in the Tennessee Tribune. He attended Morristown College in that state, earned a bachelor's degree at Tennessee State University, and went on to secure a master's at Indiana University.
"Yette founded Tennessee State University's The Meter — a publication that for more than 60 years has gone on to train, educate and provide practical journalism experience to thousands of TSU graduates who've darkened the doors of its office," alumnus Marshall A. Latimore, who now works at the school, wrote to Journal-isms.
"Yette's legacy is still very strong at Tennessee State. A number of former Meterites have even begun trending topics mentioning their times as staffers, editors and managers working for the publication. Some of the hashtags include #RIPSamuelFYette, #themeter, #metermemories and #MeterAlumni."
When the Tribune piece was written, Yette was a Washington correspondent and columnist for the Richmond Free Press, the Philadelphia Tribune, the Tennessee Tribune, the Miami Times — all part of the black press — and the World African Network, an Internet publication.
Yette points to his assignment with Gordon Parks for Life magazine as the beginning of his understanding of the power of photography," the Tribune continued. " 'As reporter, researcher, pack-horse, camera-loader, Kian scout, front-man and chauffeur for Gordon, I began to appreciate the importance of photography as a powerful — and sometimes indispensable — tool in modern storytelling. On train rides, he would suck up magazines or newspapers and have me select the best and worst pictures, and tell why. I learned also of the responsibility the journalist assumes for the welfare of those he exposes in his process.' "
Yette worked with Parks in Alabama in 1956 for a series in Life about segregation in the South. They soon became close friends. Yette was an adviser in Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential campaign and his official photographer in the 1988 campaign, Michael Yette said.
The HistoryMakers added, "As their first black reporter, he covered City Hall for the Dayton Journal Herald in 1962. Yette became the Peace Corps's press liaison for Sargent Shriver's visit to Africa in 1963 and was made the executive secretary of the Peace Corps . . . in 1964. He was then appointed special assistant for civil rights to the director of the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity, a position he held until 1967."
Coincidentally, services were held Saturday for Shriver, who died Tuesday at age 95.
In 2005, Yette returned to his native Tennessee to become a writer in residence at Knoxville College. But he took ill there, and his sons, Michael and Frederick Yette, brought him home to Maryland in 2008, the two told Journal-isms.
"He was a warm intelligent man who loved his family greatly," Alexander, asked for his thoughts on Yette, told Journal-isms.
Services are scheduled Friday at Zion Baptist Church, 4850 Blagden Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. Viewing is at 10 a.m., with services at 11:30.