Three of the 44 founders of the Natl. Assn. of Black Journalists were U.S. military veterans.
Pentagram Staff Writer Arthur Mondale
As civilian journalists, they were the gatekeepers of public information who said they believed balanced, fair and accurate reporting – along with journalistic objectivity and ethics — collided with the glass ceiling inside U.S. media outlets. Three of them who would test the strength of the glass were U.S. military veterans.
Forty one years ago, 44 African-American journalists met in Washington, D.C., to discuss what they called the lack of equal opportunity within America’s newsrooms. They were professional acquaintances who covered civil rights demonstrations and riots, sometimes daily.
The organization these journalists formed was the National Association of Black Journalists. It was the end of 1975, and was the start of their own protest for equal opportunity.
“The NABJ’s role was and still is to ensure that the media include all Americans so that all aspects of American society will be covered,” said Les Payne, former U.S. Army captain, and NABJ president from 1981-1983.
Les Payne, Paul Delaney and Paul Brock are military veterans and journalists who were part of the 44 founders of the association. They lobbied as an organization putting pressure on general managers, news directors, publishers and editors to increase the presence, profile and influence of African-Americans in the news media. They also worked to improve the treatment of minorities working in the news media and diversify media coverage.
But these veterans, who called themselves “survivalists,” said their military experience many years before equipped them for the battle they encountered during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s out of uniform: a battle for equal opportunity as civilian journalists in America.
Les Payne, captain, U.S. Army 1963-1969, Vietnam veteran
Les Payne, 74, entered the U.S. Army with a B.A. in English from the University of Connecticut in 1964 as an Air Defense Artillery officer before being sent to Vietnam after being retrained as a military journalist in 1966.
“The military was a useful period in my life,” Payne said. “I think as Americans, one duty is to support and participate in the military, just as we pay taxes. I think choosing to do this as a career is noble. Service members are risking life and limb to fight for freedoms and democracy. I know that people are dying and have died so that people who live in a democracy can be treated fairly.”
Payne called his required military training in two separate military career fields a useful period in his life, teaching him how to survive and excel in the midst of challenging and sometimes near-fatal experiences. He would use these skills while serving overseas, both in and out of uniform.
Paul Delaney, corporal, U.S. Army 1953-1955
Paul Delaney, 82, served in the U.S. Army as a radio operator attached to units within the U.S. Air Force. His experience would take him to Bordeaux-Mérignac Air Base, a now defunct base west of the French city of Bordeaux. His job was to gather and disperse statewide U.S. news for troops stationed in Europe.
“I was a green kid who was very unsophisticated about the ways of the world. The military made a man out of me. From the command structure of following orders, carrying out orders and tasks to perform,” Delaney said.
One of his tasks included reporting the big story of May 17, 1954: the results of Brown v. the Board of Education.
“I read the news to our base that the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in favor of school desegregation, which was on a Monday,” he said.
When he left the service, Delaney’s hunger for landmark stories and investigations is why he enrolled in the journalism school at Ohio State University, he said.
But he said out of 15 graduates in 1958, he was the only African-American graduate and the only graduate who was unemployed.
It would be many months before Delaney was hired by newspapers such as Baltimore Afro-American, Atlanta Daily World, Dayton Daily News, The Washington Star and eventually the nationally recognized New York Times, as the Washington D.C. bureau reporter, and later Madrid, Spain.
“I covered urban affairs from politics to social problems,” Delaney said. “But in those times the majority of news outlets had either one or not even a single black person.”
“I was ambitious,” Delaney said. “Anyone interested in journalism must be bold, daring and ready to take the challenge. The military taught me early not to have fear. You can’t come into this field [journalism] with fear.”
Paul Brock, staff sergeant, U.S. Air Force, 1952-1954
Paul Brock, 83, is a Howard University alumnus who said he escaped segregation and overt racism while serving in the U.S. Air Force. Brock was both a radio operator at the now defunct Dry Hill Air Force Base in Watertown, NY, and editor of the base newspaper.
“As a civilian, you can be raised to dislike a group of people, and self-segregate,” Brock said. “But when you go into the military you are forced into sleeping, bunking, eating with different people on a daily basis, and you find out they are no different than you. In fact you might admire them, and your attitude changes. I know that happened to a lot of people I served with.”
When he left the U.S. Air Force in 1954, Brock said he was a college-educated, military-trained journalist who faced “segregation and insults” trying to earn a living.
Brock packed his bags for the U.S. Virgin Islands, where he received employment as a journalist. He called it a “welcome change,” in contrast to his experience as an African-American veteran and journalist on the U.S. mainland.
Metaphorically, the climate, as well as media hiring managers, were warmer, he said.
Brock was offered a job in broadcasting at radio station WSTA-AM. That eventually led to a job with WBNB-TV, on the island of Saint Thomas.
When he returned to the U.S., Brock worked at WETA in Washington, D.C., as a news director and later at WHUR-FM.
At WETA, Brock was credited with bringing the first-ever House committee hearing to broadcast.
Brock’s groundbreaking reporting and producing style led to an audition for a “new venture” called National Public Radio in 1970. He didn’t get the job, but he gained national visibility, he said.
President Truman’s Executive Order 9981 and its impact then and now
On July 26, 1948, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which established:
“The highest standards of democracy, with equality of treatment and opportunity for all those who serve in our country’s defense … equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin…”
Payne, Brock and Delaney credit in various degrees the military for their careers and for being ahead of the curve with regard to equal opportunity employment.
“The services faced the same thing the country faced in regards to civil rights, it’s just the services were further advanced because they had their commander-in-chief and under chiefs looking over their shoulder,” Brock said.
“Even with unreconstructed confederates in the military, the military was quickly integrating and the commanders faced pressure,” Delaney adds. “There were tasks that needed to be performed regardless of color. But I knew I wanted to be a journalist before I went into the military.”
“I learned what citizenship is, and what responsibility is,” Payne said. “Blacks were often kept out of the desirable positions in the civilian sector. They couldn’t be [denied] in the military. I’d have to agree with my veteran NABJ founders when I say the military has a history of being more open [racially] but there’s still work to be done by everyone.”
Payne said he believes minorities who choose to work as journalists in the military will find equal opportunity in employment like he and his colleagues did, but conversely opportunities in the civilian sector are more limited for minorities because discriminatory hiring practices still exist.
Payne notes the limited number of minorities in newsrooms across America, and said he believes it is still the responsibility of U.S. media outlets to address some 40 years after he and his fellow veteran NABJ founders attended their first meeting, on an overcast Dec. 12 morning in 1975.
A Pew Research poll from 2015 revealed the “divide in minority employment.” Employment trends at small daily newspapers and small local TV stations shows they are “least likely to have minority employees.” For example, in large television markets (Market 1-25), minorities account for 29 percent of the workforce, 14 percent in small markets. When taking into account most rookie reporters start their careers at small media outlets, the data suggests a significant proportion of minorities are not entering the media industry.
“This is not representative of America,” Payne said. “It doesn’t look like America.”
Pentagram Staff Writer Arthur Mondale can be reached at [email protected].