It’s not an exaggeration to say 45 years is a lifetime for many African Americans.
Forty-five years for an African American-owned business is an anomaly.
For me to say I’ve spent my entire adulthood—45 years– working for an African American business–particularly one created specifically to serve our nation within a nation–is beyond comprehension.
While I was exceedingly idealistic (and somewhat naive) when I began this journey, there’s no way I could envision I would spend nearly half a century in one role.
Yet, given that ‘fate’ (or maybe God) had engineered my career in journalism, I never doubted this is what I was ordained to do.
While skipping school as a young teen, I happened across Rae Moore, (at the time) the only Black reporter at the Milwaukee Sentinel. As an inducement to detour from my disingenuous truancy path, she arranged for me to get a job at the Sentinel as a copy boy.
The die was cast.
Following a tour of Vietnam during my military service, my occupational designation was changed to photojournalism after a picture I had taken of Sammy Davis, Jr. during a USO tour was accepted by Jet Magazine.
After ‘serving my country,’ I decided to major in mass communications at UW-Milwaukee. Despite being a freshman, I was offered an internship at the old Milwaukee Star Times, headed by Robert Thomas, currently the associate publisher of the Milwaukee Community Journal.
Through attrition, I became the managing editor while still in college, and a year later, I was offered the position of the editor here.
If that career path is a mere coincidence, I have land in Afghanistan I’d like to sell you.
I call it fate, which in laymen’s terms means I was destined to be here, a member of the unique fraternity of African American journalists dedicating their entire lives to a mission of Black empowerment.
Nearly 35 years ago, I was asked by the Milwaukee Press Club to write about the Black Press of America and its unique position at the vanguard of the Civil Rights Movement.
I explained how and why we differed from the ‘general’ media and how our position at the vanguard of the Civil Rights Movement helped define the craft of advocacy journalism.
In essence, we not only covered civil rights demonstrations and campaigns, but we also participated in them. Sometimes we actually organized and led them.
Since its inception in 1826, the Black Press has maintained a commitment to the motto of its founders–Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm–to ‘plead our own cause.’
We’ve done that with dedication and commitment that transcends a mere vocation.
In fact, we’ve taken the Black Press motto to another level, not only educating and informing our readership but serving as an advocate and conscious of our nation within a nation.
We’ve also been a resource for various social services—both public and philanthropic—and a liaison for individuals who lacked literacy or the acumen to fend for themselves.
But our primary mission has been to advocate and educate. And though we have ruffled many feathers along the way—including among the black status quo–we have earned the respect of both friend and foe over the years.
Dozens of local and national awards decorate our walls, including many for this column, attesting to our professionalism and journalistic excellence.
The Community Journal provided our community with a new prism. We sought then and continue to question the failing status quo, analyze questionable cultural shifts, and seek paths to empowerment versus negotiated concessions.
Our first editions not only addressed educational issues, starting with opposition to the school desegregation process.
Our primary focus was on local issues, but we also linked readers to news about tribal concerns nationally and throughout the diaspora with an African news page.
While I was given autonomy in the development and choice of stories, publisher Patricia O’Flynn Pattillo often was tempted to reign in my militancy, which tended to antagonize many traditionalists. My philosophy then, as it is today, is grounded in Black Nationalism, which frequently conflicted with the civil rights status quo.
To balance those hard-hitting paradigms, we chose to never dedicate precious page space to crime stories, choosing instead to seek and accentuate the positives, as Mrs. Pattillo mandated.
We are not just a news medium—even though, until this day, there is no other medium that explores and records the lifestyle, history, and issues of the African American community as well as we do. We are also an advocate, griot, and research entity.
When the first edition of this publication was printed, the only ‘cell’ phones were seen on the sci-fi television show ‘Star Trek.’
The internet was a sewing style, and the closest we came to a computer was a calculator.
During the first decade of our publication, we set the copy on a commercial typewriter. We laid out the pages by hand and shot and developed photos in black and white.
Given my background, I developed photographs in a darkened kitchen in our ‘apartment’ on Port Washington Road, a block away from our current location.
In 1976 you could count Black elected officials on one hand. Educational and economic apartheid were the norm. And the concept of diversity and inclusion had not been birthed.
As many readers have dubbed us the ‘Black education crusader,’ I guess it was appropriate that our first edition carried several stories on education.
In fact, we were the only local newspaper to lambast the Milwaukee school desegregation process, which had been approved by Federal Court Judge John Reynolds several months earlier.
The MCJ challenged the white media and school administrators’ assertion that Reynolds had mandated an ‘integration’ process to replace apartheid.
Instead, it was a ‘desegregation’ program that was schemed to place the burden for busing on the shoulders of Black students under the misconception that it was a voluntary program.
Much worse was the fact there was no pot of academic gold at the end of the rainbow.
As we noted, our children were frequently met with low expectations, harassment by bigots, and unprecedented suspensions by fearful and prejudicial teachers.
I recall doing stories on Black students who were suspended for carrying Afro-picks (which ignorant teachers thought were weapons) and of neo-Nazis parading around southside schools daring Black students to venture into their segregated communities.
Much to the dismay of the status quo and people of color who thought the school ‘integration’ process was a cure-all for America’s social ills, we called the desegregation process a sham, noting that it didn’t provide the long-sought-after goals of the lawsuit.
The academic achievement gap increased as black students were used as pawns for a busing scheme that enriched the district while severely hindering academic achievement.
Over the years, that template has become the cornerstone of our publication.
We championed the cause of the Coalition to Save North Division, Blacks for Two Way Busing, and sanctions Against South Africa. We pushed for MBE programs in local government, championed the desegregation of the police and fire departments, and spoke out against police brutality, including the murder of several Black men, including Ernest Lacy—a predecessor to George Floyd.
We found ourselves attacked by the government, special interests, and ‘missionaries’ intent on driving the freedom train for our advocacy and call for self-determination.
The police department was rumored to have spied on our operations and punished us for challenging the policies of the racist chief.
I recall a memo in which that racist police chief–Harold Breier–called us liars and communists when we wrote about the Chicago influence on local youth gangs in the early 1980s. He refused to focus resources on hindering gangs, prompting the explosion of terrorism that followed.
We were most notably at the forefront of the school choice movement, which grew out of dissatisfaction with Milwaukee’s nation-leading academic achievement gap and Black dropout rates.
Though the teachers’ union threatened our advertisers for taking such a bold stance, we have maintained our creditability and service to our community by remaining at the vanguard of the struggle for educational equity and options.
Of course, education wasn’t the only area we championed.
One of our editorials prompted Alderman Marvin Pratt and Alderwoman Marlene Johnson to introduce a drug parapharnalia ordinance. Another led to a study of minority business enterprises.
We fought hard to change state law on police chief tenure after the killing of Lacy. We also fought to create an equitable redistricting process to enhance Black representation.
We have been consistent in advocating for Black voting rights, and participation.
On several occasions, we have even led civil and human rights campaigns and demonstrations.
I vividly recall the refusal of the local NAACP to organize a demonstration of the Capital Marine Bank when it was discovered that financial entity refused to close on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.
I took it upon myself to do it alone.
Actually, I wasn’t alone. After designing signs in the Community Journal offices, I took my eight-year-old son with me to stage a day-long demonstration in front of the bank on a cold January. We paraded in front of the bank all day in the frigid cold, taking breaks to warm up in my parked car. One White woman drove through our parade, suggesting it was ‘child abuse’ to keep my son out in those conditions. I felt it was the price he would pay for justice. I planted a seed.
I remain frustrated—and somewhat angry—with the NAACP, which I learned called a press conference to take credit for the bank relenting and vowing to henceforth respect the King holiday.
As a pioneer in the anti-apartheid movement (we were the first and only publication to run a weekly page of news about Africa), I used this column to draw attention to the sale of South African Krugerrand coins by M&I Bank.
My call for a boycott in this column was apparently successful, as two decades later, the bank finally decided to advertise in Black newspapers, except the Community Journal, however.
A bank official noted my column in its decision in excluding us from advertising, despite our being the largest circulated African American newspaper in the state.
That scenario was not an anomaly.
I recall a national department store official revealing they would not advertise because to do so would draw too many ‘Negroes’ to their store, thus scaring away White customers.
While that might sound like a ridiculous statement, it was consistent with barriers we have had to overcome to this day.
It is not happenstance that you don’t see any major grocery store in this publication other than Pick N Save, which has been a true partner to the Black Press and our community.
In fact, with few exceptions, you have never seen a major, major department store or chain restaurant in any Black newspaper.
It’s not always about discrimination, racism, or fear of a flood of Black faces. More often than not, it is out of ignorance and prejudice.
I guess it’s karma that many of those stores have closed as our city has turned darker.
The fact that the Black Press has never had financial stability is directly linked to that irony.
But we have survived.
And we did so without holding our tongues or backing down from challenges, whether systemic racism or the agenda of special interests.
Our positions on issues, advocacy for justice, and refusal to be controlled by political parties or special interests have set us apart from other media.
No one at 3612 N. King Drive has gotten rich.
Indeed, all of our staff—from the janitor to the publisher—could have had successful careers and financial stability by working elsewhere.
In fact, the publisher makes far less than the editor and has gone without income for extended periods to ensure the paper is on the stands and online every week.
But the rewards have been great, and the mission sustained because of a commitment you will find few others are willing to make.
That came at a cost, however.
I don’t have a pension or a 401K to rely upon, even though I honored my commitment to my late son’s 5th-grade class at the Young Leaders Academy and provided over $30,000 in scholarships.
And that commitment paled in comparison to a similar effort by the publisher and her son, Speech, of Arrested Development fame.
Their scholarship, named after son and brother Dr. Terence Thomas, has exceeded $1 million!
Beyond my appreciation for the contributions this publication has made to our community, I am grateful to have shared this journey with remarkable people. During our tenure, we have lost many family members, including founders O.C. White and Jim Ewing.
Two decades ago, we lost our first production manager, Joe Martin, and cartoonist extraordinaire Lester James Kern.
Office manager Bernice Thomas and my sister Bernadine who worked as a typesetter and son, also made the transition. As did my son, Malik, who authored a ‘rap’ column called ‘Musical Milkyway.’
Sales representatives Carol McDuffie and Jimmy Johnson each died in the last couple of years, leaving professionally and fraternally voids that will never be filled.
And then there were Black Press pioneers Walter Jones and photo griot Harry Kemp. Both contributed as much to my career as they did to the community.
So too did ‘volunteers’ Don Deedrick and James Baker, whose array of skills and expertise may never be equaled.
Remarkably, the remaining core group—Pattillo, Thomas Mitchell, Bob Thomas, Colleen Newsom, and Bill Tennessen remain intact, averaging 38 years of tenure.
Indeed, we are family, a tribe within a tribe, serving a nation within a nation.
And equally important, we are dedicated to a vision and purpose that we have not wavered from in nearly a half-century.
I don’t know how long the Community Journal will exist. New media paradigms and financial hardships are a constant reminder of our vulnerability. But thus far, we have beaten the odds and survived the economic challenges that have seen dozens of Black newspapers fall by the wayside.
Despite false generalizations to the contrary, people—Black, Brown, and many Whites–continue to pick up our publication and read it from cover to cover.
I hope the MCJ will be around for generations, as our value and importance will never be diminished.
And I assume I will be here until my last breath.
In fact, I once read an article about Bat Masterson, the 19th-century sheriff, gunfighter, and gambler.
After he hangs up his six-shooters, Masterson became a journalist. A janitor supposedly found him at his newspaper one morning slumped over his typewriter, dead of natural causes.
His last typed words were that ‘the only difference between the rich and poor is that the poor get their ice in the winter, while the rich get theirs in the summer.’
I hope to go out the same way, found slumped over my computer with a smile on my face.
I hopefully will have a long time to think of similarly profound last words.
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