A Place at the Table

Setting the record straight on early black journalists

Missing Pages: Black Journalists of Modern America
An Oral History
By Wallace Terry
Carroll & Graf
368 pages, $15.95

In the spring of 1944, John Q. Jordan told his local draft board chairman, “I’m a fairly good journalist but I don’t know what kind of marine I’ll make. I’ve never fired a gun.”

The chairman was apparently persuaded. Jordan, a correspondent for a black-oriented newspaper, The Norfolk Journal & Guide, bought a uniform, was issued an army captain’s insignia and headed to Italy to cover all-black units.

While there, Jordan did, indeed, file regular dispatches. He also helped to carry the wounded from the battlefield, prepared black soldiers for interviews before white audiences, and, on one occasion, issued orders after he was mistaken for a real Army officer.

That’s just one of the remarkable stories told by the pioneering black newsmen and newswomen featured in Wallace Terry’s oral history. With this final project, Terry intended to fill the gaps in the historical record, to remind readers that black journalists, too, covered some of the premier news events of the last century. He accomplished that and more.

Terry interviewed nineteen journalists whose body of work spanned a couple of generations. The earliest had careers starting before World War II; others worked during the era that included the civil rights movement and Vietnam; the successful broadcast careers of Bernard Shaw, Carole Simpson, and the late Ed Bradley ended more recently.

With this treasure trove of history, readers are reminded of not-so-long-ago events that made journalism history. There’s Earl Caldwell’s historic legal battle against the FBI, which tried to press him into service as an informant against the Black Panthers. Then there’s the rollicking testimony of Chuck Stone, who as a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, was a swashbuckling figure to whom many criminals surrendered. Nobody owns a city anymore quite the way Stone or his peers, Jimmy Breslin and Mike Royko, did.

Now that newsrooms are comfortably, if not completely, integrated, it’s striking to recall how recently they abandoned their “whites only“ hiring policies. Many did so only during the urban riots of the 1960s, when news organizations did not want to risk sending white reporters, in essence, across enemy lines.

But Missing Pages is more than a history of black journalists. It is a history of journalism–a stark reminder, in many cases, of the ways in which the practice of newsgathering has changed over the last several decades.

Carl Rowan, for example, ended his career as a highly respected syndicated columnist. But he had spent years trotting between newspapers and political service; at one point, he was ambassador to Finland.

Rowan’s first political appointment came during the administration of John F. Kennedy, when he was working for the Minneapolis Tribune. “When Kennedy and Nixon were campaigning for the presidency, I was asked to do a series on them,” Rowan told Terry. “The guys who ran the Washington Tribune bureau weren’t pleased worth a damn that
the editors had asked somebody from the home boonies to write the story–
especially a black guy. But I came down, did the series, and wrote a piece for
Ebony magazine.”

Later, after the inauguration, “I was awakened by a call from Louie Martin, a black advisor to the White House. ‘The president asked me to wake you
up and tell you that he wants to talk to
you,’ he said. ‘He wants you to join his administration.’ ” Rowan was named deputy assistant secretary of state for public affairs.

These days, if a journalist received a high-ranking political appointment following his high-profile–and probably flattering–newspaper series about the candidate, media critics, ethicists, and bloggers would give him a lashing
with a verbal cat-o’-nine-tails. But
back then, when James “Scotty” Reston and other well-known columnists were Oval Office confidants, it hardly raised an eyebrow.

Similarly, Jordan’s complicated roles as “simulated captain” and newspaper reporter created confusion but, apparently, little consternation. “A sergeant in the Pentagon gave me the oath as a captain in the Army,” he told Terry. “It meant that I would rate the privileges of a captain on the bases, and if I got captured the Germans were supposed to treat me like an officer.”

He was more than embedded; he was ensnared. Yet Jordan never misunderstood that his first duty was to his readers. He clashed with Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., son of the famous general; Davis didn’t want Jordan to mention even a single casualty or print anything that might in any way suggest that black troops were not superheroes.

“I said, ‘I’m not the kind of reporter to report whatever I’m told. I’m not going to defame you or make you into some kind of villain. I’m here to help and to make our troops look as good as possible. But I can’t tell my readers that you don’t ever have problems, that you never have casualties.’ ”

That struggle wasn’t jordan’s alone. It is echoed time and time again by these early black journalists, who describe soul-rending inner conflicts as they tried to remain fair-minded, ethical journalists without selling out black people and black causes.

After all, providing mainstream coverage of black Americans, in all our varied humanity, was a new and fragile practice. These pioneering black journalists knew better than most that white news organizations had never covered black Americans fairly or accurately, and they wanted to do what they could to make up for those failures. Yet they had enough gumption and integrity to resist becoming just p.r. agents.

Perhaps Barbara Reynolds tells the most poignant account of that struggle. As a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, she not only covered Jesse Jackson but also became his close friend and confidant. By her own admission, “I became one of Jesse’s leading cheerleaders.

“Jesse …seemed to know more about what reporters should do than we knew. He indoctrinated us. And I assumed he was correct. He defined the role of black journalists as those who protected black leaders.”

But Reynolds began to question her role as Jackson’s protector and public relations representative when she accepted a contract to write a book about him. Questions that she’d long had about his tactics kept pushing to the surface. So did rumors she’d heard about his fabricating the story of the infamous bloody shirt, which he claimed was bloodied when he cradled a dying Martin Luther King Jr. in his arms.

“Jesse was closer to me than any brother could be,” Reynolds says. “I
had to decide whether I was going to be a cheerleader or a journalist, and it was the hardest decision I ever made,” she told Terry. “I cried all the time.”

Though Jackson refused to cooperate, Reynolds did her research and wrote the book, exposing Jackson as a charismatic leader but a man with considerable flaws. Jesse Jackson: The Man, The Movement, The Myth was published in 1975.

Needless to say, racism–either subtle or harsh–serves as the backdrop for all these narratives. We learn that a Mississippi sheriff addressed James Hicks, correspondent for a group of black newspapers, as “nigger” the entire time he covered the Emmett Till trial.

Joel Dreyfus, by contrast, complained of a more subtle form of bigotry that kept black reporters confined to certain positions in the newsroom of The Washington Post. Simpson remembered that co-workers did anything possible to shake her composure while she was on the air, including dropping their pants and mooning her. Any black person who has been in the news business as long as I have will certainly recognize the frustrations of these thoughtful and assertive journalists.

Terry did their stories justice, a testimony to his extraordinary skills. But one of the most compelling narratives is his own. His widow, Janice, writes in the epilogue that after her husband died, she asked the writer Zalin “Zip” Grant to adapt a piece that Terry had published in 1990 in Parade magazine, “A Friendship Forged in Danger.”

In it, Terry tells the story of the day in 1968 when he and Grant risked their lives to recover the bodies of four dead journalists, including Terry’s friend, fellow Time correspondent John Cantwell, in Saigon:

The Americans are now pushing into the area. We are finally able to drive down Minh Phung. At road No. 46, we spot a demolition team. They tell us it is still too dangerous to go farther. When we say we are going to try anyway, they give us each a carbine. We walk down the dirt road.

There, we find them.

I am too overwhelmed to cry.

That powerful tale apparently inspired this powerful little volume of history. In the author’s note, Terry writes of thumbing through a book about war correspondents that he was thinking of using for one of the courses he was teaching at Howard University.

“I was hardly surprised to see that no black correspondents were mentioned…. What stunned me, however, was the story of a British correspondent who claimed that he had rescued the bodies of four white journalists murdered by Viet Cong sappers in the Vietnam War. I knew this story was a lie because I was there, and he wasn’t. In reality, another American correspondent and I made the rescue. This was a major and very dangerous event in my life.”

“ Why, I asked, was I left unmentioned? Was it because I was black?”

With that, Terry determined to set the record straight. He has done all of us who wish to know the history of this business better–indeed, all who wish to know the history of this country better–a great favor.

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Cynthia Tucker won a Pulitzer for commentary in the spring of 2007, and is a syndicated columnist and editor of the opinion section of The Atlantic Journal-Constitution.