ST. LOUIS — As we boarded the shuttle bus to take us from the Hilton at the Ballpark to America’s Center for the 2007 Urban League Conference, I could already feel the stares.
Minutes later, as the bus pulled away from the curb, we were the only white people on the bus. But the racial barrier was not going to stop us.
We were there to get a story or two and represent the Columbia Missourian at one of the biggest black conferences in the United States. Better yet, we were there to represent the Missouri School of Journalism as two journalism students, one graduate and one undergraduate.
Walking off the bus I wondered what would happen.
Could we get a story?
Furthermore, would it be hard for two white journalists to go into a black conference and get a compelling story?
But beyond that, I pondered the question every reporter asks him or herself every time he or she goes on assignment: Will I get a good story?
We were confident we could get a good story because we had done plenty of research before arriving in St. Louis on Thursday. My reporting partner, Michael Shulman, had talked to many members of the black community in Columbia, and I had made numerous phone calls to the press secretaries of the various presidential candidates who were scheduled to speak at the conference that Friday.
But there were still some unknowns. And it was Thursday.
We came to the conference on Thursday with no clue what we were going to do or what we would get out of the day in terms of a story. I was a little apprehensive, to tell you the truth.
The press secretaries from both Sen. Hillary Clinton’s and Sen. Barack Obama’s campaigns had not let us know if a five-minute interview was possible. And the senators were coming the next day.
All reporters go through this, I told myself.
After grabbing a quick cup of coffee, we quickly rushed into the first plenary session of the conference, or in other words, a debate session on important issues to black people at the conference. The session was titled “Will the black vote be misrepresented in the 2008 presidential election?” Going into the session, we had no clue who was going to speak to us, or what we would do with what was said to turn it into a story.
Sitting in the seat, catching my breath, I looked at the program, which listed, among others, the Rev. Al Sharpton as one of the featured speakers at that particular session. Sure enough, minutes later, Sharpton came on stage to the delight of the assembled crowd.
At this session, I was one of only a handful of white people in the room. Obviously this was not an issue of direct implications for me, a white man, but it had direct implications for every black person in the room — and every black person in Columbia.
Columbia does not have an affiliate of the Urban League. So Columbia was not able to send a contingent to the conference.
But Michael and I were at this conference, and we hoped we would be able to provide these members of our community with a glimpse into the conference.
We thought of ourselves as a link.
After the session ended, we tried to talk to Sharpton as he remained onstage, but his assistant wouldn’t let us. However, she did let us talk to him later in the hallway outside the auditorium.
We got to ask him a question.
That was awesome.
Michael and I knew from the research and interviews we did before we went to St. Louis that the black community of Columbia feels they have not been fairly represented by local media — too much news about crime, not enough about accomplishments.
Michael and I didn’t change that with the story that was published in today’s edition of the Missourian. But we believe we took a step in the right direction, by being at the conference to report for readers back in Columbia what was said there.
It felt good to us, even if we did stand out on the bus.