New Collection | Black Journalists Oral History Project

Oral History master’s student and RBML graduate student worker, Kyna Patel, was part of the team that organized and processed a collection that documents important moments in black journalism in America.

The Black Journalists Oral History Project consists of interviews with journalists, editors, publishers, and various members of the black press about a wide range of issues. Conducted by Henry G. La Brie III in the 1970s, the interviews cover: aspects of running a newspaper (editing, printing, getting news, advertising, etc.), the Kerner Commission Report, the historical role of the black press, the white establishment press, and several other topics related to race and journalism.

yellow book cover for Perspectives of the Black Press 1974
Some of the oral history interviews in the Black Journalists Oral History Project. Mercer House Press.

In helping process this collection, I read and listened to transcripts and audio from these interviews and stumbled upon many things that were not on my radar. Accounts of the suburbanization and white flight’s effect on local black press’ circulation, how the success of Ebony paved the way for black models to be hired more for national advertising, and the obstacles and dangers encountered by journalists reporting and gathering-news-while-black were either new to me or expanded upon in a more real and accessible way than what I learned in school.

However, the point that really piqued my interest in the collection overall was that despite Mr. La Brie conducting these interviews almost fifty years ago, much of what the narrators said vaguely echoes the spectrum of opinions and perspectives in today’s contentious media landscape. C. A. Scott, publisher and editor of the Atlanta Daily World, discussed how he wasn’t one to participate in the sit-ins and protests of the early 1960s:  

I didn’t think it was right to just, say, go sit out on a man’s business until you put him out of business or force him to submit to your idea. I didn’t think that was quite right morally. So the World did not go overboard in what I call joining the stampede of the ’60s and ’61, and M. L. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] and the group… We said we won’t be pushed too far to the left by the students in the Negro community, because all of the Negroes, the leaders, everybody was sort of stampeding… Our idea was to be reasonable, give them a chance to readjust and not, as I describe it, launch a formal attack to force them all to just change right now.

Other journalists weren’t as conservative in their views on direct action and protesting. William O. Walker of the Cleveland Call and Post played an active role in desegregating the White House lawn and stopping people from not serving black people in restaurants in Union Station in Washington, D.C. In describing himself and his work, he says, “I was always a crusader. I believe in taking crusades and fighting, but this is how I built the paper in Washington. I fussed with Congress. I’d pick out a congressman that said something about Negroes. We’d jump on him. We’d give him hell in the paper. I kept a feud going with different Congressmen and all of that kind of thing.” When asked if news was any different at the time of the interview, he responded, “Still doing the same thing. Still crusading, only a little different. Some people basically are still fighting for civil rights.”

These examples highlight how people today vary in their approaches toward progress and enacting change. One of the most important points of this oral history project that shows this ongoing struggle towards justice is succinctly explained by Afro-Cuban American journalist Louis E. Martin:

That’s what the whole Civil Rights Revolution’s been about, is to take the damn blinders off both groups, black and white. That’s all that mattered. You’re seeing the damn thing as it really is, and pretty much for the first time. That process is not complete… I know many eminent southern whites who really think of themselves as moral leaders, men of great integrity and character, who don’t really understand what the system does to black guys. They just really can’t see it… It’s like toothache. You can understand it, but unless you get one, you don’t really know what the hell it’s like, you know?

The interviews in the collection allow us to compare what progress still has to be made to fight for justice and equality. Their anecdotes and experiences from the early 1900s through 1972 hold up a mirror to what we witness and experience today. These black journalists and others working for civil rights illustrate the dedication and effort for that must continue.