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Oh here I was breaking out in Mississippi. The. Old deal was breaking now. That was why they sent me down to. Look to see what the mood was among black journalist Dorothy Gilliam. Next evening X-Day. I'm Kojo Nnamdi I first saw Dorothy get him standing in a funeral home in Harlem on a rainy day in 1976 when the Harlem skies wept and mourning over the death of Paul ropes and the singer actor and activist. Little did
I know at the time about Dorothy give them stellar past or even more stellar future. A former reporter and columnist for The Washington Post Dorothy gives him has won awards too numerous to mention and served as president of the National Association of Black Journalists. Her work during the civil rights movement is captured in the documentary freedom's call. North to get him. Welcome. Thank you so much coda It's a pleasure to be here I had forgotten that it had been that occasion when we first met. I walked into the funeral home because I was working on WOR radio at the time and managed to persuade the management to send me to that funeral. It was raining walked into the funeral home and there was this gorgeous woman scribbling in the book and I introduced myself and it turned out to be you you later wrote a book called Whole groups and all of them are. Yes. Can you reflect a little bit about that. Talk about the influence the hopes of the world. Well Paul Robeson was a truly a renaissance man
and I am of that generation that was kind of kept away from Paul Robeson. Growing up you know growing up in the 50s in high school at that time we didn't know much about him and so at that point in 1972 I was working as an assistant editor in the style section of the post. And when I heard about this salute to Paul Robeson I wanted to go cover and I wasn't doing a lot of writing I was mostly working as an editor but occasionally I would go in cover stories and that when I went to cover the salute to him at Carnegie Hall I was absolutely stunned at the audience it was such a. An integrated audience there were people there from all walks of life. And I began to learn about this figure who I felt had been hidden from me. And I figured if he had been his life had been hidden from me it had been hidden from so many
others. And so when I had when I came back I brought the story about the salute. And as you know as a journalist we are often asked to write the obituary of famous people who are aging. And so I had a chance to write his obituary and the more I knew about him the more I the more fascinated I became. And of course what they do with those of bitter words is they put them in in tight as they did in those days now it's an entirely different process. But until the person actually passes away. So Robeson that was 972 rose and didn't die until 1976. But from that obituary I decided that I really wanted to write a book. And I was able to get a contract and wrote the book and Robeson is. Amazes me continually that bought into Does ropes into a lot of young people in America
who never heard of it. I think so and I'm very pleased to hear that. And but he has life you know here was truly a person who was an athlete a scholar a linguist an actor a singer and a true humanitarian. Because here was a person who was willing to give up you know worldwide acclaim in order to stand for those things in which he believed. And Harry Belafonte sounding a little like him these days I have to tell you. And of course ropes and had a great influence on Harry Belafonte I was growing up as an adolescent in Guyana with my father would tell me about Paul Robeson and said that they don't like to talk about him because they say he is a communist. And of course the fact that nobody was talking about him fascinated me so I was fascinated the ropes and began to learn more about him. But what I've been learning more about recently as a result of the documentary Freedom to call is Dorothy. I did not realize that you started your journalism career when you were a
teenager. How did that happen. Well I had finished high school at 16 and I got a job at the Louisville defender. My dad was a minister and so we hit even though I was born in Memphis Tennessee I actually grew up in Louisville Kentucky because that's where he was sent by the in the church and that's where his church was. So I got a job right after graduation from high school. I got a job at the Louisville defender. And I was hired as a secretary to Mr. Frank Stanley and Mr. friend one day Mr. Stanley came in and he said and I work in this is I was also attending college I was a freshman in college and so I had after my classes I'd come in tightness to Stanley's letters or do whatever and I knew that I had an interest in journalism but this was my way of trying to test that that interest. So one day Mr. Stanley came in and he said Dorothy the society
editor your zeal. And I thought oh I'm sorry to hear that. I wondered why he was telling me. And he said we're going to send you out to cover some party stories. And so at the ripe old age of 17 and I have found myself writing society stories for the law I will defend their you know I hear so many of these stories you know Francis ward very well might. Yes France is what he later became a columnist of course for the Miami Herald and works here for a while but once I had a conversation with him and Francis said you know after I graduated college is when I started working at a newspaper I started as a custodian a reporter for the newspaper. Well what happened was that I realized that working at the little defender that I really wanted to become a better journalist so I transferred to Lincoln University in Jefferson City Missouri and went to the school of journalism there. And so I graduated in 1957 from Lincoln University and 1957 was the year of the Little Rock.
Those nine young people trying to go to High School in Little Rock Arkansas How did you get involved with that story. Well my first job out of Lincoln was at the Tri-State Defender in Memphis. I had tried to get a job on the daily newspaper in my hometown the Louisville Courier-Journal in times. And they basically they were not interested at all. They they just I mean it's that point race was indeed a factor. They say they basically said you know we don't have any internships that you know we don't have anything. So the first job I was able to get was to Tri-State Defender and I went down to Memphis in August of 957 and Little Rock broke in September of 950. And of course I was definitely a rookie and my boss was a guy named Alex Wilson and Alex Wilson was a pretty big timer by then within the defender chain and he of course went over to cover the story. But as it turned
out Mr. Wilson was horribly beat and he had left me behind he said You're too young you're a girl stay behind. And so I'm back in Memphis doing what he told me to do when you know the television stations started showing me images of Mr. Wilson being beaten. And so I got myself together and went off to Little Rock. And there was. You know one of the stories one of the most important stories of the civil rights movement and I was able to cover that Mr. Wilson didn't have much of a choice about letting me help cover it since he was truly incapacitated although he kept going. But I'm really happy to be that able to tell his story in this documentary the story of Alex Wilson among others in this documentary so that means that you know only green when he was just a high school student on the screen of course later became an assistant secretary of labor. Well actually I didn't actually know Ernie because I didn't I don't remember
meeting him at that point. I was in business Daisy Bates you know years older than he was of the sort of right I think I was maybe two years. But I was in Daisy Bates's home and we were you know there with the journalists and we were in the middle of all of that you know that drama because you know Daisy Bates's home we didn't have any place to stay. I think there was one motel for black people in that in that city. And that was a hole that was a problem with journalists black journalists covering the civil rights movement. There were not hotels there we had to sleep wherever we could sleep. When I was covering later in Little Rock star in Oxford Mississippi I had to stay in a black funeral home. We just you know there was people forget and one of the reasons that go it was so important to do this documentary. People forget that these stories have to be told in black journalists are going to go and cover those stories. But that in terms of from the perspective of
the whites who live there and in their fury that these stories were being taken out of the South and broadcast and print it and you know telegraph to the larger world journalists were just their lives were just as cheap as any other black person there Dorothy courage is a sometime thing. It's very difficult for people to understand we could understand exactly what Mr. Wilson was saying to you. Don't come here. What alot of people don't understand is why you when you were a teenage girl practically You're still very young and you're going into a cauldron of racial hatred. Didn't you feel fear at the time. You know I did feel fear and but I think part of the whole idea of being a journalist even at that point is that you go where the story is. And one of the the things that attracted me to going there was that you know here was even at that point I'm not sure it penetrated you know
deeply. But you know here was one of the here was one of the big stories actually of the civil rights movement. And there was no doubt that I felt fear but I tell you what happened happened and what helped me Ernest Withers who is the photographer who is also in this documentary. Yes indeed. He's legendary photog and legendary photographer. He was in Little Rock with Mr. Withers I'm sorry with Mr. Wilson rather he had come back to Memphis to have his film developed. And so when I was deciding to go I called Mr. Withers because I heard he was back. And so I went back to Little Rock with him. And I knew that he was going to help negotiate the south and help to help get me in and get me out he knew where to go and he was really an important part of my ability. Even when by the time I covered the University of Mississippi the integration of Ole Miss By James Meredith. I was by then a reporter at The Washington Post.
James Meredith is and in the documentary as is honest with us. Right. And but when the Post asked me to go to little to who Oxford to to cover the story the first person I called was Ernest Withers. And I flew down to Memphis and met up with him and then together we went into the south. But once again it was part of what at least helped to somewhat ameliorate my fear was the knowledge that if I traveled with Ernest Withers he would be able to. He said Yeah you know what I was going to yes I know stuff I have to write. And I think you know what a.. Yes. I knew that but he would but. But truly he was a brave man and a wonderful companion you start of the Washington Post in 1961 and you stayed there except for a brief period to raise your children until 2003. Right. Right. Never the less especially when one sees the documentary you
understand of those early experiences with Alex wills onus with James Meredith and the like still seem to be the strongest memories of your journalistic career. Well in many ways they helped to set the path and the course for my journalistic career. I certainly didn't know it when it was occurring. But as I look back at it I can see that what I gain from those early years and watching the courage of an Alex Wilson a courage that you talked about Courage is a sometimes thing. But you know where does one summon the cult the courage to to to say when you're unexpectedly attacked by a mom. To say I decided that I wasn't going to run. I decided that no matter what happens I was going to walk. Even if they killed me you know that's
not a courage that you mull over or you know decide you're going to have. At an opportune moment. That is a deep sense of awareness of who you are and what you're doing and the importance of what you're doing. And so it was exposure to people like that that that really helped to make me understand what journalism was about. And you know I think I tried to do some some decent work after that. But it all it all in many ways went back to the you know we did a lot of this and we're going after that inside and outside of the NEWSROOM you come into this town where everybody in Washington who comes here comes here it seems seeking power you are the Washington Post in 1961 at a time when there were very few African-American journalists in the Washington Post. Is that the background that you had in the civil rights movement that caused you to be not intimidated by this town. I don't know I guess I hadn't really added up in quite that way
but certainly it helped because one of the things that I did early on after I was in Little Rock and worked in the Tri-State Defender had an opportunity to work for Jet magazine and I worked for J for almost two years before going to what I say get some white credentials at Columbia and then being hired by the post. But now a master's program a master's right. But at the time it was another important time in helping to really set my sights on. I think both the both the importance of our people and also the strength. Of black people and it and it really reinforced the desire to write about them you know to get beyond the stereotypes to get beyond the you know to get into into into the real life of real people. And so I think you know all of those
those experiences joined together to you know help you so to speak it was the groaning that carried you through. And I needed it because it was very difficult at the post in those early days as you were as you said there were two other black reporters there to me and I was the first woman and or at least that's what I'm told and it's always shaky when you say you are the person anything. But but you know there was so many issues just trying to get a taxi cab to get there to get your story. And of course it was a time when I couldn't come back and use that as any I couldn't explain what was happening to anybody because I knew there were people there who who wanted me to fail who expected me to fail. And so that would have been seen as an excuse to mask incompetence. If I continue to say you know I'm late you know I'm a pragmatist pad past deadline because a taxi would be yet. And so you just had to learn to suck it up and you know bear
those kind of things and you know there are those of us who remember the metal eight eight minority reporters black reporters of The Washington Post in the metals actually actually sued the Washington Nationals for discrimination the Washington Post is of course a much different place these days have you one of the reasons it is a different place because you work to bring minorities to the post as I said inside and outside of the NEWSROOM. Even as you had to be covering reporting and then raising children on a regular basis and then coming back to the paper again. At what point and why did you decide to become a columnist. I decided to become a columnist kind of in an offhand way. I had been at the end of my years working as an assistant editor. I really felt it was check time for change and even though I was shaking in my boots I remember going to be and sending been Bradley a note saying you know I really would like to be the editor of The Washington Post Magazine.
And somehow that that memo got lost and I finally you know went up to the front and said You know I really sent you a memo and you never answered but I wanted to be you know the editor of the Boston Post Magazine and basically you know he said well you know we're not ready to change that yet but is there anything else you'd like to do. And I said Well I think I'd like to write a column. And I got the opportunity of a terrific column. It was too. And then you became president of the National Association of Black Journalists and what I would consider a watershed moment in that organization's history the moment at which it was set to become really national influence tell us about that experience what did you do. Well in 1991 I took a year off from the post and went to the Gannett Center for Media Studies to write what I thought was going to be a book on racial diversity in the MIT Media the importance of it right was needed at center.
And so I was at at the connect Center in New York and I was just struck repeatedly by how little attention all the people who would the media leaders who would come in would come in how little attention they really were paying to diversity. I'm sure there were exceptions but you know it just struck me and I remember getting angry and angry and thinking you know these people don't care about diversity and you know I'm painting with a pretty broad brush there certainly were exceptions. But it occurred to me during that year that you know rather than try to write about the problem I need to become more active. And I made a decision that year to run for an office in the National Association of Black Journalists. I had actually gotten my feet wet in terms of this whole issue of journalists working for for the larger issue of getting more minorities in media. Back
in the 70s when Maynard got me involved in the Institute for Journalism Education Bob Leonard a former editor of The Washington bulls and later the publisher of The San Jose in Oakland Tribune Oakland Tribune Yes yes and Bob had been really involved at that point in starting an organization called the Institute for Journalism Education to train more minorities for media. And so he got me involved in the very early working. You know coming down helping to train then I was named to the board and so I worked on that board for many years and actually also served as chair of that board. So I had been kind of in the in the business. This is in addition to as you say working as a journalist and trying to raise three daughters and all the other thing I had become very involved in trying to get more diversity in media so it was you know in a way a natural next step. Too. Want to be involved in something like the National
Association of Black Journalists which was primarily an activist organization. And so first I ran for vice president and then two years later I was elected president and I think you're so correct in terms of vision characterizing it as at issue as a moment as a watershed moment because it was also a time when there was a discussion about having the first Unity Convention of all the journalists associations of color. And so that was while I was president we had the first Unity Convention where the National Association of Hispanic Journalists Asian journalists Native American journalists and Black Journalists came together and if you want convention and Atlanta yet in 94 that is six one thousand one thousand ninety four. 1994 I remember yes entertained in the suite of the president of the National Association of Black Journalists on that particular occasion. But it went on and you are No. Well you did serve as a fellow at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs for the 2003 and
2004 academic year but what I really want to talk to you about is that you are currently director of the prime movers project at George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs What's that all. Well in my final years at the post I was able to start a program at the post called The young journalist development program. I remember and that was a program where wash we sent Washington Post reporters out to schools in the Washington area with the idea of helping to strengthen and revitalize newspapers. And one of the things that struck me was the year we started that you know not a single high school in Washington had a had a newspaper and you know I didn't know about this and I thought you know we're Where will the next generation of minority journalists come from. If we don't start at the high school level. And so in 2003 when I retired from the post I went to GW with the thought of trying to start a new program. And we were able to raise money from the Knight Foundation and
now we're ending the second year of the prime movers program and again we're working with four media companies USA Today National Public Radio Debbie JLA TV. USA Today Live. And we're sending reporters and journalists into high schools in the city and in Northern Virginia primarily. So we're we're hoping to grow this program and maybe take it national because I think the model of a university acting as the matchmaker between news media companies and high school students were at the news media companies are willing to release their journalists to go into high schools to help strengthen student media and of course also find diverse talent but they just aren't willing to have to undergo all the administrative and you know negotiating with the school systems then teachers and all that but if you have an entity that does it
then I think news media companies are showing that they are. They're willing to go in and be a part of shaping the next generation. One of the things your life shows Dorothy for those who come to Washington hard driving ambitious journalists that you took time off from the Washington Post to raise your three daughters and was able you were able to resume your career as a reporter and to have a successful career as a reporter. I think there's an important lesson there for young people. Well I was I certainly when I left the post I had no idea that I would necessarily ever be able to go back but I did you know reapply for a job that I heard was available and I was able to get it. But I was I did take off for about seven years and you know I think they were important years you know to the like oh no that's not at all times like this you know when you think resort of on behalf of Stephanie
Evening Exchange
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Dorothy Gilliam
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Journalist Dorothy Gilliam remembers the Civil Rights Era and her involvement.
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Chicago: “Evening Exchange; #2625; Dorothy Gilliam,” 2006-00-00, WHUT, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed June 25, 2022,
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