By George E. Curry
WILMINGTON, N.C. (NNPA) – Howard University Journalism Professor Clint C. Wilson II’s broad criticism of the Black Press proves that he needs a “reality check,” said Ben Chavis, leader of a group of 1970s activists known as the Wilmington Ten.
“There’s a distinguished journalism professor in Washington,” Chavis said, referring to Wilson. “He recently said that none of his students read the Black newspapers. Well, I am saying, ‘What kind of teacher are you?’ It isn’t the students’ fault. That Negro needs a reality check.”
The former executive director of the NAACP made his comments at a dinner here Saturday night following the premier of “Wilmington Ten: Pardons of Innocence,” a documentary co-produced by the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) and North Carolina journalist Cash Michaels. Former Gov. Beverly Perdue and NAACP State President William J. Barber, II were honored at the dinner.
Chavis was reacting to a column by media critic Richard Prince that was redistributed by The Root, the Black-oriented website created by the Washington Post.
“One devastating piece of circumstantial evidence of the waning influence of the Black press is the response I have received from journalism students in my virtually all Black Howard University classes over the past decade,” Prince quotes from Wilson’s self-published book on the Black Press. “When asked whether they have either read – or have knowledge of – a Black newspaper in their home communities only about 20 per cent say they have. Among those who are aware of the papers, almost none say they read them with any regularity. Let me emphasize, these are journalism students…”
Wilson evidently failed to ask a follow-up question even a first-semester journalism student at Howard University would have been expected to ask: How many of those students in his unscientific study read White-owned newspapers with any regularity?
Studies by the Pew Research Center and others show that newspaper readership has been declining for more than a decade, especially among young people. So, declining readership is an industry-wide problem, not one limited to the Black Press, the studies show.
Chavis credits the NNPA for leading a successful 2-year campaign that resulted in the Wilmington 10 receiving pardons of innocence Dec. 31, 2012 from outgoing Gov. Beverly Perdue 40 years after their unfair convictions.
Chavis and nine others were arrested and convicted on an array of charges connected to the firebombing of a White-owned grocery store amid violent White resistance to local school desegregation. Most of the defendants received a 29-year sentence, with Chavis receiving 34 years, the longest sentence. Citing prosecutorial misconduct, an appeals court reversed the convictions. Yet, the Wilmington Ten never received pardons until the NNPA launched a national campaign with member newspapers carrying numerous front-page stories on the injustice, most of them written by Cash Michaels.
Addressing an NNPA convention in 2013 shortly after the pardons were issued, Chavis said, “If it were not for the National Newspaper Publishers Association, your leadership, I doubt if we would be here today.” He also said, “I guarantee you that there’s no other organization of journalists that could have pulled off what you just pulled off.”
In his speech Saturday night, Chavis said, “We need the Black Press. The Black Press helps us affirm what we need to be about every day, every week.”
Chavis continued, “What I like about the Black Press is that it doesn’t put us in a straightjacket. The mainstream press is always trying to put us in a straightjacket…There are some in high places now that are questioning the power of the Black Press. I am going to be very honest: some of the people now questioning the Black Press are some of us.”
North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Cheri Beasley, an African American, also ridiculed the notion that the Black Press is no longer needed today.
“Yes, the Black Press is relevant for the work that you do,” she said. “You are also relevant for the way you teach, for the perspective that you offer and the reality that you help explain.”