When Violence Was the Black Journalist's Ticket

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Washington, D.C., stayed cool through the long, hot summers of urban uprisings in the mid-1960s, but when Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in Memphis the capital exploded. Bob Maynard, one of the rare black journalists in white daily newsrooms, watched from a radio car and calmly dictated details of the chaos to his colleagues back in the Washington Post newsroom.

The riot era gave him and other black journalists almost exclusive access to reporting the violence that swept hundreds of U.S. cities. During that April night's dangerous duty, Maynard resolved to work toward a day when an aspiring black journalist "could get a chance without having to put quite so much of his life on the line." His work over the next quarter century, as the most visible and vigorous proponent of press integration in his time, demonstrates that he kept that pledge.


Four decades of activism have wrought substantial change since 1968 toward making news media reflect the nation's diversity. Maynard saw newsroom diversity expand from a handful of black reporters to a multi-ethnic pursuit, and journalists of color exceeded 10 percent in newspapers before he died in 1993. Minority employment in daily newspapers reached a high of 13.73 percent in the 2006 American Society of News Editors (ASNE) census. It was at 13.41 percent in the 2009 survey.

Still, the greater part of that work remains undone, as ASNE will likely illustrate when its yearly newsroom diversity report is released on April 13 during the organization's national convention in Washington.

In the riots, Maynard said he knew race was his most valuable asset, despite his exceptional background of six years on a daily newspaper and a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard. He and other black reporters sometimes were mere messengers, dictating stories to newsrooms where the "writers, the editors, the people with ultimate responsibility for portraying the event to the world, were all white."

Maynard traced the 1960s demand for black reporters to a single moment in 1965 when the Watts uprising in Los Angeles sent several white journalists back to newsrooms and emergency rooms, maimed and bloodied. It was a time, "when violence was the black journalist's ticket to a place in the newsroom," he wrote. "There is no doubt in my mind that practically all the black reporters who worked at that time for daily newspapers were hired to cover this violence."  Black reporters and photographers often faced the wrath of both police and protesters. "They were all out on the street eating tear gas and ducking bricks and nightsticks almost simultaneously."


The Post hired Maynard in 1967, when mainstream news outlets were scrambling to recruit "riot reporters" to cover the urban outbursts. Over the next 11 years, he was the first black White House correspondent for a mainstream newspaper, was appointed Ombudsman, and then served three years as an editorial board member. Joining Gannett as its affirmative action chief in 1977, he was named top editor of the Oakland Tribune in 1979. In 1983, when he bought the Tribune from Gannett with his wife, Nancy Hicks, a prolific, high-achieving New York Times correspondent, they became the first black Americans to own a major daily.

Maynard carried the banner for press desegregation as he climbed up the industry, while many efforts arose to tackle "lily-white newsrooms." He often made headlines as an iconic black journalist and spokesman for press diversity. Most notably, he led a multi-ethnic group of accomplished journalists to create the Institute for Journalism Education (IJE), the top producer of minority-group journalism careers, which was posthumously named in his honor.


That message came amid an omnibus set of gatherings that week, including the 10th anniversary commemorations of Dr. King's death and of the Kerner Commission Report. That enduring document, released by President Lyndon B. Johnson's riot panel shortly before King was killed, warned that America was becoming two societies "black, white and unequal." It excoriated the news media for contributing to persistent racial inequality through their biased and exclusive reporting and hiring.

Maynard's immediate audience was the 1978 National Conference on Minorities and the News. That gathering, organized by the newly created Institute for Journalism Education, was timed to get the attention of top U.S. editors and garner national coverage. Nearly a quarter of the 350 participants were graduates of Columbia University's Summer Program for Minority Journalists, a forerunner to the institute and another byproduct of the 1968 crisis. It was hastily launched by former CBS News executive Fred Friendly to train "people who ought to be journalists."


From the 1978 events, ASNE adopted an elaborate set of strategies toward press diversity, including two vaunted traditions: an annual census of newsroom integration and the Year 2000 Plan, a commitment to fully integrate newspapers by century's end. The second, falling far short of its goal by the end of the 1990s, was revised and extended.

Maynard's keen analysis of events distinguished him among journalists and propelled him into history. Race often was cited as central to his rise, but many beneficiaries of his leadership believe his outsized talent merely helped to minimize race as an impediment in a white-dominated profession.


Jack White, a former Time magazine correspondent and columnist (and frequent contributor to The Root), recalled Maynard's arrival at the Post and his extraordinary reporting from the Washington streets in April 1968. White, then a Post copy aide soon to be promoted to reporter, said Maynard was a newsroom standout.

"I think everybody was a little bit in awe of him because he was clearly something different from anything anybody had ever seen in that newsroom before," White said.  Maynard "was just one of the smartest human beings I ever met. But I don't think people really understood what Bob was about until the riots came after was King was killed in 1968."


Maynard turned his analytical talents on the status of black journalists as riots subsided, leaving some 1960s pioneers feeling superfluous in newsrooms that failed to promote them to more competitive assignments or increase their numbers.

"There are mornings in the lives of America's black journalists when the world seems not only to be colored white. It also appears to be colored contradictory—if not downright hypocritical," he said in a speech to ASNE in 1972 when mainstream papers employed only about 300 journalists of color. And 80 percent of those had been hired to cover riots, Maynard estimated. "There is no place to go with figures such as these, except up."


Bob Maynard rests under a simple headstone on a gentle slope of Rock Creek Cemetery in Northeast Washington, not far from the blocks left burnt and tattered by the raging grief in that long ago April. Nancy, who died in 2008, shares his gravesite. Around them, the city continues its recovery from the violence that helped pry open newsroom doors.

Maynard's legacy survives in the continuing struggle to make the news represent all segments of society.  It thrives wherever journalists embrace his admonition that a representative press is essential to democracy—not only for aspiring minority journalists and communities of color, but also for majority white audiences. All Americans deserve the full, accurate story of their society in the news, he insisted, instead of the "badly distorted picture that is presented when white voices dominate and white hands control the final outcome of the product." His guiding philosophy echoes across the capital city and the nation every April when ASNE releases its statistics. Progress creeps along, even as the nation's nonwhite population grows rapidly toward a majority of the nation.


Yet, as Maynard often reminded anyone who would listen, the headcount was never the ultimate aim. Increasing the newsroom presence and voices of Americans of color was merely the means to a goal—that of telling America the story of all its diverse components.

"As much as I might be concerned about the effects of segregation and bigotry in the news on blacks, I am even more concerned about its effects on the whole of our society," he wrote in 1978. "I contend, and will contend for as long as I live, that it is impossible for all Americans to understand what they should about each other if only some kinds of Americans get to control the telling of that story."


Alice Bonner is a former newspaper reporter and editor, and she served as a recruiter for Gannett newspapers and as education director of the Freedom Forum. A longer version of this article can be found at http://www.mije.org/when-violence-was-ticket.

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