Fight for the High Ground

Last summer I wasn’t sure whether Vernon Jarrett’s crusade to retake the Chicago Association of Black Journalists was “returning the organization to its roots or tearing it apart.” Now we know. It’s in pieces.

In 1976 CABJ was founded in Jarrett’s living room. He’s 80 now, still full of energy, still willful, and still writing–for the last few years as a columnist for the Defender. But the era when he and the other old standard-bearers ran CABJ passed in the late 90s. The key event was the convention of the National Association of Black Journalists held in Chicago in 1997. “The people who worked the hardest were the PR people and wannabes,” recalls Channel Two’s Monroe Anderson, who at the time was the regional director of NABJ. “To host a national convention takes a lot of time and energy while doing a full-time job, and a lot of people were burned-out afterward. Their involvement in the organization diminished dramatically. In the meantime, the PR people, the people on the fringes, were still into it. They came to the meetings, and they did the work.”

In 1999 they took over. Angela Harkless, a practicing attorney who ran an obscure on-line society journal called Cachet, was elected president, succeeding Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell. Anderson says he felt uneasy–not only was advocacy giving way to schmoozing and networking (perhaps that was inevitable), but “associate members” who didn’t work for mainline media had supplanted journalists who did. There was more to this distinction than credibility–or snobbery. Those mainline media companies bought banquet tables; they were a vital source of CABJ’s financial support.

NABJ even had a rule that associate members couldn’t be the top officers of its local affiliates. CABJ bent that rule. “I stood up at many a meeting and explained the situation to them,” says Anderson, “but it was not a fight I wanted to have. These people had put in sweat equity to make the convention the most successful one to date.”

Says Jarrett, “When you see an organization dominated by people you don’t see anywhere in the media, you begin to wonder. There was a lapse of attendance–nothing was happening. All they did was give a big banquet. I didn’t even go to the banquet last year, and they had some kind of founders award.”

When Cachet’s photo editor, Louis Byrd III, was nominated early this year to succeed Harkless as president, Jarrett decided the old guard needed to saddle up again and rescue CABJ. A slate of familiar names was put together–Jarrett at the top, Channel Five’s Art Norman for vice president–to lead the charge. But instead of cutting and running, the parvenus dusted off a CABJ bylaw requiring all candidates for office to have been dues-paying members for a year before the election. Jarrett and his running mates were told they weren’t eligible to run.

So the old guard dusted off a bylaw of its own and accused the incumbents of improperly mailing out the “official nomination form” to the membership. In April the old guard commandeered the CABJ candidates’ forum and demanded that the election be postponed and the nominating process started again from scratch. Harkless wasn’t about to let that happen. So the two factions went their separate ways and held separate elections. Refusing to recognize either set of officers, NABJ urged the two sides to come together and vote again.

And that didn’t happen. In October Jarrett and Byrd appeared separately before the NABJ board in Washington, each arguing why his faction should be recognized. The board ruled unanimously in favor of Jarrett’s. “One of the reasons,” says Randye Bullock, a Detroit publicist who’s now regional director, “was the openness of the new organization to include members of the old organization. In fact, they even had a position for immediate past president. They were a little more open in trying to be inclusive.”

Bullock was already on record calling it a “travesty” that Jarrett hadn’t been allowed to run in the first place. Even less impartial was deputy regional director Marsha Eaglin; a producer for Network News Service in Chicago, she’d run for secretary on Jarrett’s ticket. The NABJ board had chosen familiar names with years of service to the cause over people they barely knew with sketchier ties to the media.

If NABJ had any real authority over CABJ that would have been that. But it doesn’t. CABJ is an autonomous organization, and NABJ couldn’t tell Byrd he no longer ran it. All NABJ could do was recognize Jarrett’s organization as an NABJ affiliate and refuse to recognize Byrd’s. That’s why the group Jarrett runs is now known as the National Association of Black Journalists–Chicago Chapter. And that’s why the CABJ treasury of some $50,000 is still in Byrd’s hands. Jarrett has talked about suing CABJ to get the money, but it’s hard to imagine what the grounds would be. A black journalist sympathetic to both organizations calls the idea of a suit “kind of ludicrous” and adds, “If it comes to pass it will perpetuate wounds we should not have opened up in the first place.”

The same journalist thinks that if NABJ-Chicago wants the money, its members should join CABJ, pay dues for a year, take it over, and merge the two organizations. “That has been a thought,” says Jarrett.

Jarrett claims that NABJ-Chicago has “just about all of the practicing journalists” in Chicago, or the “bona fide journalists,” or “the established black journalists who made the organization.” This idea that some journalists are more legitimate than others rubs even some of the most credentialed the wrong way. “Look at the sorts of things Vernon’s group says–‘We’re the real working journalists,'” says the journalist who thinks a suit would be ludicrous (whose own establishment credentials happen to be impeccable). “There’s a certain thing to be said of the pedigrees of the Tribune and the Sun-Times and channels Five and Seven, et cetera, but there’s a ton of folks at community papers and cable access, and ideally an organization would find some way to balance what those two groups want and need and to draw on the talents of both. Louis’s group didn’t do enough to reach out to the professionals, and I don’t know if Vernon’s group is doing enough to reach out to the smaller media members and students.”

Byrd openly smarts at the lack of respect he’s felt. “There are people who have this perception that the other group has a consensus of the mainstream people, and they really don’t,” he says. “It’s a very small clique–roughly 8, 9, 10, maybe 15 people in mainstream TV and print who don’t agree with what this group did. They’re disgusted with it and don’t want anything to do with it. If you’re not in the group they treat you with contempt.”

Those Were the Days

The black reparations movement will probably go nowhere so long as slavery is the reason given for why money ought to be paid: everyone who enforced slavery, benefited from it, or suffered under it is long since dead and buried. Americans a century and a half ago fought a war over slavery, rewrote the Constitution, and put it behind us.

But then there was jim crow. Despite the rewritten Constitution, under jim crow millions of American citizens weren’t permitted to live, work, study, or worship as they pleased, or eat, drink water, piss, or spend a night where they pleased. They couldn’t vote, run for office, or serve their country as they pleased, or love whomever they pleased, or raise their eyes, let alone their voices, without running the risk of being hunted down and murdered. Jim crow was designed to subjugate and humiliate these millions of Americans, and it lasted a century. The worst of it was restricted to the south, but jim crow was enabled by presidents and lawmakers from all parts of the country. It was enabled by honored statesmen and generals, by captains of industry, by leading sportsmen, religious leaders, and authors, and by many of the most distinguished voices in journalism.

Jim crow outlasted Nazism by a good 20 years. Yet somehow one is the yesterday we expect Germans to continue to be haunted by, and the other is ancient history. Hundreds of thousands of the enforcers and enablers of jim crow survive, as do hundreds of thousands of its victims. Its corrosive aftereffects are all about us, but when Strom Thurmond celebrated his 100th birthday last Thursday most of the mainstream press treated jim crow as so much folklore.

Not everyone. “July 18, 1948,” said Vernon Jarrett when I called him this week. “I was just entering journalism.” Jarrett knew by heart the day Thurmond abandoned Harry Truman and the Democratic Party to found the Dixiecrat Party and run for president on a platform of segregation now and forever.

Thurmond lived to be 100, hired black staff sooner than some other southern senators, and had an endearing way of grabbing at the asses of young women of all creeds and colors. It was easy to sentimentalize him as an emblem of how far the nation’s come. (It’s come so far that an otherwise popular governor of Georgia was thrown out of office last month because he’d relegated the Stars and Bars to a tiny portion of the state flag.) “Strom has done a lot of living” was the headline over the Sun-Times piece last Sunday. Columnist Mark Steyn remembered the time Thurmond spoke “for 24 hours and 18 minutes continuously, back in 1957 when he filibustered the civil rights bill and had an aide standing with a bucket in the adjoining cloakroom so he could relieve himself while keeping one foot on the Senate floor and still speaking.” What a guy. Whatever that 1957 bill might have been about–and for the record, it was about allowing blacks who couldn’t vote the right to seek relief in federal courts–it didn’t matter to Steyn. Thurmond, he wrote, was an “assiduous tender of his constituents [and] the size of fellow a United States senator should be.”

Senate Republican leader Trent Lott spoke at the party celebrating Thurmond’s birthday and retirement. “I want to say this about my state,” said Lott, who’s from Mississippi. “When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it.” (Mississippians voted two to one just last year to keep the Stars and Bars in the state flag.) “And if the rest of the country had followed our lead,” he continued, “we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years either.”

When I called Jarrett about something else, he was in the midst of writing a column that pondered the implication of Lott’s words. The mainstream press was slow to pay much attention to what Lott had to say, though the Tribune picked up an account from the Washington Post and a few days later the Sun-Times lambasted him in an editorial. Lott’s remark should cost him the post of majority leader when the Senate reorganizes next month. But for that to happen at least a couple of Republican senators would have to remember jim crow with more clarity than the press just did.

A Modest Proposal

From: Joseph Parisi, editor, Poetry magazine

To: Scott Smith, publisher, Chicago Tribune

Dear Scott,

As a culture man myself, I was delighted to hear about the Tribune taking over the Printers Row Book Fair. The willingness of your newspaper to go to bat for the literary life of Chicago is nothing short of amazing. On top of your distinguished Heartland Awards and your equally coveted Nelson Algren Awards, the book fair nails down the Tower’s reputation as the Club Medici of local letters. I’m sure there’s not a struggling author in the city who doesn’t bow in the direction of North Michigan Avenue each morning and whisper the prayer “Effetes, don’t fail me now.”

We’ve been making a little news at our shop too. As you might already know if you read your own newspaper, Poetry came into a significant piece of change the other day. Now we’re asking ourselves what to do with our windfall. Predictably, someone said, “Let’s increase our rates by a penny a line,” but cooler heads prevailed; there’s a beauty-through-misery ethos here that has long served us well, and we tamper with it at our peril. Another idea was to buy the building whose basement we occupy–the Newberry Library–and convert the upper floors into a health club for the staff. But landmark issues arose. So in the end we decided to diversify. Which brings me to why I write.

The gang here at Poetry have kicked it around and decided we want to buy the Chicago Cubs. Let me appeal to you with the sort of sentiment favored by the rhymemeisters we wouldn’t be caught dead publishing: “If you love it, set it free.” You’ve done your best, Scott, to promote the Cubs as another of your cultural events, as a sort of Lakeview Sundance festival, where the scene is the thing and the coarse values of naked ambition are held at bay. But it hasn’t really worked. You’ve never been able to escape the carping “How come a billion-dollar corporation can’t afford to sign a decent third baseman?” crowd, some of them, I fear, your philistines in-house.

The Tribune likes to think in terms of synergies, and you’ve demonstrated over the past 20-some years that the synergies between a multimedia conglomerate and a baseball team are virtually nonexistent. Between baseball and poetry, on the other hand, the bonds are old and glorious. Think Franklin P. Adams. Think Marianne Moore. Poets do not simply admire baseball, we admire it on a higher level than anyone else can. But make no mistake: it is only because poets are so poor and obscure that the public fails to appreciate how combative we can be. Hand our average contributor a baseball, point him to the mound, and send Barry Bonds up to bat, and God willing the first pitch will put Bonds flat on his keister.

Like everyone else in this city–except, it appears, in your executive suite–Poetry wants a winner. Chicago can be confident that once we assume control of the Cubs, we will do what needs to be done. Yes, it is true that after our housecleaning several of your organization’s finest will be looking for work, but allow me to mention how shocking it is that a city the size of Chicago doesn’t enjoy a world-class tulip festival.

Hoping we talk soon,


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland, Robert Drea.