When Barack Obama becomes the first President of the United States, African American history will not only be turning a new page or be in need of a new chapter--we'll have to write and read volumes of new books. Here's my personal observation of one way we'll have to reshape our perspective. It's my latest ebonyjet.com post.
I was the first black reporter at the National Observer.
In the eight years it had been around before I arrived immediately after graduating from Indiana University, the weekly Dow Jones publication was a whites only destination. Its managing editor let it be known that he was not about to hire anyone black for his newspaper. He had turned down, I was told, a young Bob Teague, who went on to be an award-winning NBC network reporter, and a young William Raspberry, who went on to become the Washington Post’s best-known black columnist.
Months before I was all set to slip on my cap and gown, the conservative ME got his gold watch. His retirement was followed by this pledge from the Observer’s younger editors: they would hire the first qualified black journalist that applied. About that time my resume—highlighting my Newsweek Magazine internship in the summer of 1968—arrived in the mail.
I was with the D.C.-based Observer just shy of two years and during my brief stint, it was just me. There were no other blacks. No other black reporters. No black secretaries. No black pressmen. No black janitors. No black anybody but me. In 1972, I left for Johnson Publishing Company in Chicago, in truth, not because I was black but because I was too green for the job.
After a couple of years of being mentored and challenged at Ebony Magazine, I went to the Chicago Tribune. When Harold Washington became Chicago’s mayor on April 29, 1983, I became the first black reporter to cover City Hall for the Chicago Tribune; make that the first black reporter from any mainstream media newspaper to cover Chicago’s City Hall and city council. The one thing I brought away from both my Observer and Tribune experiences is that it’s not easy being the first black.
At the Observer, I felt as if I had the weight of the race on my shoulders and that any mistake I made would have negative ramifications far beyond me, setting back any opportunity for any other black reporter that might try to follow me. At City Hall, I was the man in the middle of a racial council war as black aldermen were outgunned and outnumbered by white aldermen who were dead set on torpedoing the political agenda of Chicago’s first black mayor. I was second fiddle to an eight-year younger David Axelrod, who had been named the Trib’s political editor and who, more recently, as chief political strategist, brilliantly helped carry Obama to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
It’s not going to be easy for America’s first black president. But that is so obvious and the reasons are so many that a brief discussion couldn’t begin to address them, right now.
It wasn’t easy for Jackie Robinson either. The name-calling and taunts from the baseball fans and the hostilities from the players are history. Since Robinson became the first black major league baseball player 61 years ago, there has been a long and steady stream of first blacks. There was the first black country and western recording star 42 years ago, the first black NFL quarterback 40 years ago, the first black astronaut 29 years ago, the first black Radio City Rockette 20 years ago, the first black governor 18 years ago, and the first black CEO of a Fortune 500 company seven years ago. And, of course, there’s Oprah Winfrey and Tiger Woods.
No doubt, there will be other Jackie Robinsons, in other fields and professions in America. Someday, there will be the first black executive editor of the New York Times or Washington Post. Someday there will be the first Black baseball commissioner. Someday we’ll see the first head of a major movie studio and the first black owner of a major TV network.
But, while any and all of these future black first accomplishments will be important and welcomed when they finally arrive, what Barack Obama has pulled off dwarfs them all—past, present and future.
He may not have run as the black candidate for president but he is, in reality, symbolically and metaphorically, no less than that. So when he is sworn in as POTUS on January 20, he will officially—and forever—be America’s last first black.
Monroe Anderson is an award-winning journalist who penned op-ed columns for both the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times. Check out his blog at monroeanderson.typepad.com
(Illustration by Kyle F. Anderson)