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BOOK EXCERPT: 'My Times in Black and White: Race and Power at the New York Times'

Sunday, February 14, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 8:17 p.m. CST, Sunday, February 14, 2010

All excerpts are from "My Times in Black and White: Race and Power at The New York Times" (Lawrence Hill/Chicago Review Press, February 2010), by Gerald M. Boyd;

“Chapter 3: From Uganda X to Cub Reporter”

If you go

Robin D. Stone, Boyd's widow, will share lessons from his just-published memoirs, “My Times in Black and White: Race and Power at the New York Times,” during her visit to the Missouri School of Journalism this week. Two presentations will highlight this year’s theme for Black History Month, “The History of Black Economic Empowerment.” The lectures are free.

“A Trailblazer's Lessons on Empowerment” will be presented at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center.

“The Story Behind the Story: Gerald Boyd's ‘My Times’” will be presented from 2-3 p.m. Thursday in Room 100-A at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute.



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Copyright Robin D. Stone, all rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

That fall, Gary dropped me off at the Greyhound terminal in downtown St. Louis. I carried several suitcases, books, and a beat-up clarinet, a hand-me-down from my brother. I watched out the window as the bus barreled west on Interstate 70, and the place that had been my home for eighteen years faded into the dust. I studied the signs as unfamiliar towns like Mexico, Moberly, and Jefferson City, sandwiched between vast stretches of farmland, came and went. I worried about what to expect.

Gary tried to prepare me, but although Lincoln University, the small, predominantly black college that he had briefly attended, was about an hour away from the University of Missouri, the two were worlds apart. I knew that Missouri, the older, larger institution, enjoyed a better reputation and was more challenging academically. The journalism school, founded by Walter Williams, ranked among the best in the world. At his college, Gary had been part of the majority; I was going to Missouri as a minority. This move was more than either of us could imagine.

The University of Missouri sits in Columbia, roughly halfway between St. Louis and Kansas City. Recognized by the six pillars, the only structures standing from a fire in 1892, it was the first public university west of the Mississippi River when it opened in 1839. I could not get over the size of the campus as I made my way from the bus terminal to Stafford Hall, my dorm. It was a city within a city, and my astonishment must have been similar to Grandmother’s the first time she arrived in St. Louis from Itta Bena.

I adjusted easily, finding my way to Jesse Hall, where I picked up my financial aid package, paid tuition, and registered for classes. I headed back to Stafford, one of a dozen or so dorms housing male students. It was an older unit in an undistinguished building on the southern end of campus.

My roommate the first year was white. I suppose that should not have surprised me, but for some reason, I had not thought of what it would be like to share a room with a white person. He was a student from Iowa. Polite, even friendly. He had arrived first, chosen his bed, and unpacked his belongings. He had no posters on the walls spouting antiwar slogans or featuring favorite singers or bands. We would come to spend a lot of time together in that room, studying and talking. We never argued, but I do not recall either of us ever asking the other for a favor—not even to make sure we woke up in time to take an early morning test. Mostly we respected each other’s independence and privacy and space. Once we left the room, we went our separate ways. We never ate together or socialized. Few black and white students did. I do not remember his name.

***

I decided to major in journalism and political science. A second degree would make me more marketable as a journalist, I believed, though I later came to realize that a good journalist needs only a keen interest in a particular subject. Curiosity plus legwork becomes expertise.

I also decided to try out for the campus newspaper, the Maneater. To qualify, I had to write a story based on information on a handout. Many of the so-called facts were misleading or wrong. I knew from the start to check everything. I also knew not to assume the words were correct just because they appeared on paper. My story showed two qualities critical to journalism: accuracy and skepticism. I passed and joined the staff.

It was not long before I began to chafe from openly racist attitudes and slights. The university, with an enrollment of about twenty thousand, had fewer than five hundred black students. The year I arrived, the college had just appointed its first black faculty member, Arvarh Strickland, a history professor.

I knew nothing about the university’s history with blacks. I soon heard stories, like the one involving Lloyd Gaines, a St. Louis scholar who in 1938 gained admission by winning an NAACP-sponsored lawsuit in the Supreme Court. The university was ordered to admit Gaines or set up a separate and equal law school for blacks. The decision was a significant legal building block for the case that led to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that banned segregation in public schools. Gaines, who would have been the first black to attend the university, disappeared after the court’s ruling. Rumor had it the Ku Klux Klan got him, that he escaped the public glare by fleeing to Mexico, that he led a quiet life as a teacher in New York City. Whatever his fate, in the eyes of blacks, the university bore the brunt of the blame.

Everywhere I turned, I confronted racially charged displays unlike anything I had seen in St. Louis. In one part of the campus stood a pink granite boulder with a plaque of dedication to the valor and patriotism of the confederate soldiers of Boone County. A local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, whose motto was “Lest We Forget,” had the rock placed there. One fraternity proudly flew the Confederate flag and read the Ordinance of Secession at Old South Days every year. At football games, the band offended with a rendition of “I Wish I Was in Dixie.”

The year before I arrived, a few blacks responded to the Confederate flags at a football game by hoisting a flag with the black liberation colors—red, black, and green. That prompted a small riot in which a university policeman drew a gun on one of the black flag wavers. The incident led to the creation of a black advocacy group, the Legion of Black Collegians.

It angered me that blacks were forced to operate as a student body within the student body. The troublesome incidents were a sign that the university needed to accept and adjust to the fact that its student body was changing. I saw the university as a relic out of step with the profound changes that were sweeping through the country. I became determined to do whatever I could to fix these problems, even though I had no knowledge, experience, or plan. I simply determined that the university could and should do better, and I began to say so.

I soon found myself labeled by fellow students and teachers as a campus militant. I reinforced that view with strident rhetoric and belligerence over slights I believed that the university inflicted on black students. I had not come to Columbia that way, but Columbia shaped me through what I saw and experienced.

I joined the black student rebellion, adopting as gospel the slogan of the time: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

We segregated ourselves, ate our meals together, attended meetings of the LBC, and held weekend parties that no whites attended. We pledged “blackness”—not a fraternity but a way of life. My group included friends like Jimmy Ethern, a sophomore from Kansas City, and Gary Cook, a freshman from St. Louis. We made an odd trio — Jimmy towered over six feet, not including his huge Afro plus the black pick that jutted out the top. He appeared menacing but was one of the most gentle men I knew. Gary, the shortest of us, was the real firebrand. He was well versed in the militant rhetoric of the day, and he recited it endlessly. He idolized the Black Panthers, in particular Bobby Hutton, the diminutive Panther killed in a shootout with the police.

We formed the core, and with other students, we made our presence known on campus, sometimes to the point of the absurd. We dressed in dashikis and picked out our ’fros, the bigger the better. We reveled in the nervousness of white students and laughed when we heard that some were gullible enough to believe that we had secret ties to the Panthers or some other militant group that we could summon with a phone call. We went to sports events and cheered for the teams that had more black players. We all studied hard, not so much to master our subjects, but to make sure that we did not flunk out. We were revolutionaries, but we had to stick around to lead the charge.

***

On Friday nights, we gathered in one of our rooms, where we would play Isaac Hayes’s “Hot Buttered Soul” and Ramsey Lewis’s “Mother Nature’s Son.” Fortified by cheap wine like MD 20/20 or Bali Hai that Jimmy was the only one old enough to buy, we talked politics and the need for change till the sun came up. Nothing else seemed more important.

For once, I felt a part of something bigger than myself, and that sense reinforced my need to belong. Inspired by recordings of Malcolm X speeches like “The Ballot or the Bullet” we decided to lose our “slave” names—at least in the presence of one another. I became Uganda X.

I followed every Black Panther development and savored the exploits of Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and Bobby Seale as they stood up to the Man. I revered Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, and Che Guevara. I worshipped Angela Davis, the beautiful, well-educated black woman so bravely willing to die for the struggle.

While I appreciated the contributions of black leaders like Dr. King, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young, I saw them as passive. They did not project my passion for the need for change.

I regarded most whites as pampered, and hippies and radicals as frivolous with choices that I never would have. They could be outrageous one day and the next trim their beards, cut their hair, and rejoin the establishment. Their parents could carve a path toward success for them whenever they were ready to come back into the fold. Of course, my thinking was as simplistic and racist as a white person who believes all blacks are criminals or on welfare.

I took immense satisfaction in challenging conventional thinking. We were certainly no experts on debating, but sometimes even the most unlearned person can point out obvious wrongs and suggest obvious fixes. Almost everyone from the chancellor to the janitor knew that the University of Missouri was a hostile place for students of color, especially blacks. But we seemed to be the only ones proclaiming the emperor wore no clothes, even though everyone could see he was naked.

I had high disdain for black students who did not share my view. One of them was Tom Morgan. Morgan, a tall and handsome dude who also hailed from St. Louis, committed the sin of sins by joining the campus ROTC. Wasn’t he aware that racism existed in the military? I challenged him. Didn’t he care about the real struggle? How could he give his life to the military when it was doing such awful things in Asia? Morgan, who clearly had his own agenda, seemed to pay us no mind. ...

***

We revolutionaries took aim at the Legion of Black Collegians, which we considered far too passive. The year before, the group was embroiled in a controversy over the college’s pom-pom squad. When a black woman who had tried out did not make the team, the organization complained, attributing the cut to racism. Our group thought that in order to make significant changes, the LBC needed to select more meaningful targets than the pom-pom squad. We decided to take over the leadership of LBC. Those running it were well meaning but misguided.

We could do better.

I did not run for office but operated in the background, pulling enough strings to get Jimmy and others elected to key leadership positions. It was my first success as a revolutionary. We recognized that there were too few black students to create a critical mass, and too few blacks in authority to lend any weight to our efforts. So we forged alliances with campus activists opposed to the Vietnam War and with women’s groups pushing for gender equality.

We played a moral card intended to embarrass the administration. They could not defend the lack of minority professors, black students, or a place on campus where black students could gather and support one another. We spent hours debating the best way to get the Confederate Rock removed from campus and to get frat houses to stop displaying the Confederate flag.

We hinted at violence in our talks with the administration, but we certainly were not ready to take that drastic step. I could not see violence achieving any goal other than leaving us in prison or dead. I was not just confronting authority but risking consequences that might have altered the course of my life. But my role in the movement gave me a sense of purpose that I had never had before. I drew energy from our rabble-rousing, from the possibilities and even the danger.

Our biggest problem, and one faced by all revolutionaries, was the inability to communicate our concerns to the broader campus. As we sat around reviewing our options, I threw out my idea: Why not start a black student newspaper? Missouri was ripe for one, I argued. The university had a healthy pool of black journalism majors, and enough freshmen and sophomores planning to pursue journalism. That would form the nucleus of a reporting and editing staff. Students from other majors could help by selling the paper or advertising.

The group loved the idea. We agreed that we could produce the paper ourselves and not have to depend on others. We had a passionate staff that was eager to work. My Upward Bound experience had taught me how to publish a newspaper. I quit the Maneater to devote my time to editing.

All we needed was a name. We settled on Blackout. I can’t remember if it came as we sat in a dorm room drinking cheap wine or at a formal meeting of the newspaper staff. Whatever its source, Blackout reflected how we felt: black and excluded from participating fully in the university. It was not nuanced or poetic, but nothing we did those days was subtle.

We printed the first editions of Blackout on a mimeograph machine like the one at Upward Bound. I served as the editor, and Sheila and Jimmy were senior editors. We had a strong staff of budding journalists and bundles of energy. Staffers fanned across campus, shoving the papers in the hands of black and white students passing by and demanding ten cents. By no means a legitimate circulation strategy, but it worked; the several hundred copies we produced at a time always sold out.

Still, there was no comparing Blackout to other campus newspapers, especially our main competition, the Maneater. The Maneater had university recognition and funding through a student activity fee. I realized that the only way that Blackout could grow was to receive similar recognition and the dollars that came with it.

The debate at the newspaper mirrored the discussion then raging throughout black America: would we be selling out by accepting money from white authorities? How else to survive and maintain our own identity? Finally, we agreed: as long we did not allow the authorities to censor us or pull our punches, we could take the money. In that sense, we rationalized, we were using the system to our own advantage, just like whites. Black students paid the same student activity fees as whites.

Why shouldn’t we have a voice?

With our newspaper in hand, I appeared before the Missouri Students Association to argue for university recognition. Blackout became only the second student newspaper sanctioned by the university and the first “black student” newspaper funded by any university. The funding enabled us to produce a professional-looking tabloid newspaper, written by “revolutionaries” and paid for by the establishment. The partnership was strange at best.


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