Three generations of Black leadership – Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee; Congressman John Lewis and U.S. Senator Barack Obama – were honored over the weekend by the National Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation (NNPAF).
“We are pleased to recognize these significant individuals and to thank them for their service, their support, their leadership, their courage, their dedication,” said Brian Townsend, chairman of NNPAF and publisher of the Precinct Reporter in San Bernardino, Calif.
The four were honored at a dinner here, which served as the primary fundraiser to support NNPAF projects, including the NNPA News Service, the Black Press Institute, Black Press Archives and BlackPressUSA.com. Ofield Dukes, one of the country’s leading publicists, served as chairman of the program committee and former Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman was emcee of the event.
Obama was honored as Newsmaker of the Year, Lewis received the NorthStar Community Service Award, and Ruby Davis and her late husband, Ossie Davis, were presented the NNPAF’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
DaimlerChrysler Services presented a special Entrepreneurial Award to Dr. Donald Suggs, publisher of the St. Louis American.
The nation’s first Black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, was founded in 1827 in New York, the same year the state abolished slavery. The two editors, Samuel E. Cornish and John B. Russwurm, declared in that first issue: “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us.”
That history was not lost on Obama.
“One-hundred and seventy-eight years after the first Freedom’s Journal, we are still pleading our own cause,” said Obama, only the third Black U. S. senator since Reconstruction. “Centuries of progress later, the role of the Black Press is still promoting a diversity of ideas and covering a diversity of issues in cities and towns across America. It is absolutely vital that we have an independent African-American press that will speak to our issues. And that’s what all of you do.”
Obama’s election last November was hailed as historic. But the modest junior senator from Illinois does not share that assessment.
“I haven’t made history yet. I just won an election. History has yet to be made,” he explained. “There’s a history of struggle on the part of our people, and overcoming. To the extent that I accept this award, I accept it on behalf of all people who have struggled to overcome. And I appreciate those who have elected to make sure that story is told.”
With the Senate meeting late into the night to consider President George W. Bush proposed budget, Obama interrupted his legislative duties to accept the award at a downtown hotel before rushing back to Capitol Hill.
He credited the Black Press with covering the real newsmakers. Obama said, “They are the single moms who work two jobs, the teenagers who need to stay out of the jails and in the classrooms.”
The Newsmaker of the Year is the top award given during Black Press Week. Previous winners have included Jesse Jackson Sr., Colin Powell, Minister Louis Farrakhan, Dick Gregory, Maxine Waters, C. DeLores Tucker and Army Brigadier General Vincent Brooks. This year marks the 178th birthday of Black newspapers and the 65th anniversary of NNPA.
Title sponsors for the dinner were Lockheed Martin Corporation and the Coca-Cola Company. Co-sponsors were: AT&T, IMB, Office Depot and Sodexho USA. Contributors were DaimlerChrysler Services, the Democratic National Committee, GMAC and PhRma. Supporters were Pfizer and R. J. Reynolds.
This year is also the 40th anniversary of Bloody Sunday which kicked off the Selma-to-Montgomery, Ala. March. Congressman Lewis, then chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was one of the leaders of the march that led to passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Lewis was introduced at the dinner by his long-time friend, John B. Smith Sr., publisher of the Atlanta Inquirer and NNPA first vice president. In his speech, Lewis, who grew up on a farm outside of Troy, Ala., recalled applying for a library card in Troy in 1956. He was told they were for Whites only. Seven years ago, he held a book signing in that same library for his autobiography, “Walking with the Wind.”
“It illustrates that progress has been made at laying down the burden of race,” Lewis said. “Without African-American publishers, the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings…As publishers, you must never, never give up. We have a mission and a mandate from our forefathers and foremothers.”
The Lifetime Achievement Award went to the late writer, actor and civil rights icon Ossie Davis and his wife, Ruby Dee. The actress was abroad working on a movie. Elinor Tatum, publisher of the New York Amsterdam News, presented the award to their grandson, Jamal Davis, a student at Howard University. He drew a chuckle from the audience as he recalled his grandfather’s love for Black newspapers.
“He was a very strong reader and supporter of the Black Press. On my grandfather’s desk were stacks of Black newspapers,” he said. “If you go into the office, there were all kinds of Black newspapers, but he wouldn’t allow anybody to throw those papers away.”
Alexis Herman reminded the audience: “If the lions do not write their own history, then the hunters will get all the credit,” she said, quoting an African proverb. “And I thank you for writing our history, for capturing our story. For making sure that you always kept the faith.”