Leadership in Civil Rights
By Mark Whitaker
[Editors note: This article is excerpted from a larger essay commissioned by Tina Brown for the December 31, 2012 edition of Newsweek, the last print issue in the U.S. Whitaker’s full essay is available at the hyperlink listed below.]
Osborn Elliott, Newsweek’s jovial, martini-sipping editor wanted to help readers understand the black point of view, even as the movement veered toward militancy, and eventually decided it was Newsweek’s duty to help. Peter Goldman and Ed Kosner, another ace writer, didn’t know what was up the day Oz invited them to lunch at the Four Seasons in 1967, until he shared his dream of publishing Newsweek’s first-ever advocacy issue on how to address racial poverty and discrimination in housing, education and employment. The result was a groundbreaking cover called ”The Negro in America: What Must Be Done” that won Newsweek its first National Magazine Award.
I remember reading that cover when I was 10 years old. The previous summer my father, a black scholar of Africa who had divorced my mother when I was 6, paid my brother and me a rare visit. He was reading Newsweek one day and told me, “They do a good job on civil rights.” It was all I needed to ask for a subscription for my birthday. I started devouring the magazine, and in its pages I learned the details of Martin
Luther King’s murder, followed the rise of the Black Panthers, and first heard of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s jeremiad about the black family.
Ten years later, I was writing for my college newspaper when I was offered a summer internship at Newsweek. By then, the Watergate crisis and public exhaustion with race issues had dulled the magazine’s appetite for the story. A lawsuit filed by female staffers unable to advance beyond secretarial and research jobs had exposed its inconsistent zeal for equal rights. But an African-American news editor, John Dotson, and his boss, Rod Gander, had finally gotten serious about integrating the magazine’s ranks, and I was soon working with a rising generation of talented black journalists like Vern Smith, Sylvester Monroe, and Dennis Williams. They schooled me in Newsweek’s ways, but also warned about limits to advancement. After two successful summer stints, Dotson predicted that I might become a section head some day if I accepted a full time job. “What about editor?” I asked. “Newsweek isn’t ready for a black editor,” he replied somberly.
I reminded Dotson of that assessment 20 years later on the day it was announced that I would get the top job. Still, even I was surprised by how much the press focused on the “first African-American to edit a news magazine” angle in covering the news. My predecessors Rick Smith and Maynard Parker had continued to do strong covers on race, including a memorable 1987 cover story (titled “Brothers”) about 12 friends from a Chicago housing project and two special issues on the 1992 L.A. riots. I had contributed to some of those stories, but I owed
my rise more to accomplishments in other areas. “I want to be the best editor I can be, period,” I told the reporters, reflecting my journalistic ambition but also my resolve not to be seen as anyone’s token. And over the next eight years my gifted colleagues joined me in pursuing that goal, producing award-winning coverage of Sept. 11, the march to war in Iraq, and the untold stories of George W. Bush’s election and reelection.
Privately, though, I was determined to stay on the race story, but to do it in a way that grappled with the new ways America was changing. So I championed fresh, provocative black voices like Ellis Close, Allison Samuels, Veronica Chambers, Lynette Clemetson and Marcus Mabry…We even dared to publish an issue called “The Good News About Black America,” taking a measured look at areas of statistical improvement in African-American life.
…in the annuals of America’s “race beat,” the memory of Newsweek will live on forever.
[To read Whitaker’s full article click on http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/12/23/mark-whitaker-newsweek-reporters-at-the-civil-rights-barricades.html ]
Mark Whitaker was a summer intern at Newsweek from 1977 to 1980, joined the staff as a writer in 1981, became a senior editor in 1987 and served as Editor from 1998 to 2006.