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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

A Tenacious Journalist

He was a mover and shaker wherever he landed: Besides his early career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, his work history included the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, made up of militant young soldiers of the 1960s sit-ins who spearheaded the civil rights movement (and perhaps influenced his own militant bent); Sports Illustrated and the Chicago Tribune, where he was New York bureau chief; and Emerge magazine, where he was editor until it folded in 2000. He served as editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service until last October, when he departed in a huff when the cash-strapped organization cut his salary in half. His last battle was an attempt to revive Emerge as an online publication.

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It was at Emerge where George showed his ferocious tenacity as a journalist. He used the position to satisfy professional ambition and personal drive. He did not shy away from controversy—indeed, some would say he courted and welcomed extreme controversy. Two cover stories that featured Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in caricature were shining examples—one with the justice dressed as a lawn jockey alongside an unflattering headline, “Uncle Thomas”; the other with him in an Aunt Jemima head rag. To say the cover pieces caused a stir is putting it lightly.

George loved the ensuing flaps that generated conversations in homes, newsrooms and barbershops across America. He explained in an editor’s note that slave owners used lawn jockeys as a sign that a slave had escaped. About the Jemima cover, he stuck the knife in deeper:

I apologize. In retrospect, we were far too benevolent. Even our latest depiction is too compassionate for a person who has done so much to turn back the clock on civil rights, all the way back to the pre-Civil War lawn-jockey days.

However, he said that his favorite Emerge article was something more serious: a 1996 piece authored by our good friend and my former colleague at the Times, Reginald Stuart, about Hampton University student Kemba Smith (pdf), who got caught up in a vise between a drug-pushing boyfriend and the stringent drug laws. She was arrested along with him and deemed equally guilty. Smith was given a 24-year prison sentence. Her case prompted a national outcry against harsh sentences for drug offenders, and President Bill Clinton commuted her sentence in 2000.

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George didn’t care who the opponent was; if he disagreed strongly, he would let the chips fall. He has had minor skirmishes with the Times and other publications, even with our friend Richard Prince. When his salary was cut by NNPA, he sent me a message blasting the group. Two years ago, he laid into the NAACP over its infighting as it selected new leadership.

Recently he forwarded a cartoon to some of us that mocked Dr. Ben Carson, the black surgeon who ran in the Republican presidential primaries. The cartoon had his picture on a box of Uncle Ben’s Rice besides such digs as  “Cooked up in a cracked pot,” “Chock full of pure insanity,” “Half baked ideas & theories” and “Crazy every time.” George said that he wished he could have used the cartoon in Emerge.

An Outpouring of Sympathy

For all his efforts, George Curry was honored throughout his career. The Washington Association of Black Journalists named him Journalist of the Year in 1995. He was also author of Jake Gaither: America’s Most Famous Black Coach in 1977, and he edited an anthology, The Best of Emerge Magazine, in 2003.

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There has been a steady outpouring of sympathy since the weekend. A notable one came from Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee for president, that read:

I am saddened by the loss of an outstanding journalist and supportive friend. George E. Curry was a pioneering journalist, a tireless crusader for justice, and a true agent of change. With quality reporting, creativity, and skillful persuasion he influenced countless people, including me, to think beyond their narrow experiences and expand their understanding. George may be gone, but he will not be forgotten.

When I left the Times to become chairman of the journalism department at the University of Alabama, George couldn’t restrain himself as he chortled, “Paul, people don’t go to Alabama; they leave Alabama.”

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And so our dear buddy, George Curry, is headed back to our home state for final rest on Saturday after a terrific and torrid career and life. I guess the last laugh is on us. For him, it was never say die. I’m certain, at the end, he picked a fight with the Grim Reaper over some minor details. That was George, as ever.

Paul Delaney is a former reporter and editor at the New York Times and is completing a memoir on his career.