Twenty-nine years ago, a delegation of the Capital Press Club went to Martinsville, Va., and pleaded with the governor on behalf of seven black men who were accused of raping a white woman.
Although they lost that particular fight when all seven were found guilty and later executed, the pioneering club remained a small but influential voice against bias.
"We were a fighting club," recalls Alfred Sweeney, a reporter for the Afro-American in the '40s and an early club president. "We battled discrimination in the fire department, in the armed services, in eating places. The members joined some very early pickets on U Street outside restaurants."
In more recent times, the black press club's members have marched into the offices of television news directors, pleading the case for a dismissed or beleaguered black employe.
The forums have changed but the club, now in its 35th year, has retained its advocacy role and its metamorphosis matches the ebb and flow of the black press, which is commemorating its 152nd anniversary with a variety of activities in Washington this weekend.
The club was founded in 1944 by the Washington representatives of the black weeklies and news services. It was a time when these black correspondents had to draw straws to be the one representative to attend some government press conferences.
When the organization was founded, "We had a tough time going at first. The black publishers thought we were forming a union. J. Edgar Hoover though everything we wrote was suspicious," said the first president, Alfred E. Smith, who wrote for the Chicago Defender under the name Charlie Cherokee. "But once we got Marshall Field to speak, everyone wanted to be seen at our events."
Here the national newsmakers found an important audience. Vice President Henry Wallace was an early speaker. Others included Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, vice presidents Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, and Thurgood Marshall, Adam Clayton Powell. Robert Weaver, Whitney Young and Sargent Shriver.
Some white journalists, such as Drew Pearson and I.F. Stone, joined the club, as did distinguished blacks outside journalism, such as author Arthur P. Davis and educator Mary McLeod Bethune.
The collective influence of the club prompted presidential candidate John F. Kennedy to invite 40 members over to his Georgetown house for a buffet dinner in 1960.
In the 1960s the composition and purposes of the club started to change. Many of the reporters who had worked as stringers and one-man shops for the black weeklies went on to higher-paying jobs in government. The white press, as civil rights and urban stories became national news, hired some of the best black press talent. But as the picture changed, black reporters had problems within the white structure. Some sources were not available to them. One 20-year veteran of the club remembers "deep background" sessions with the Washington police chief in the basement of a member's house.
Also, as the younger blacks moved into the general media, they found the club too conservative. When they arranged a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. after he broke with Johnson over Vietnam, a number of older club members, especially those with government ties, boycotted the King appearance.
Younger members also found some club actions contradictory. In 1968, the year of turbulent social changes, the club honored the sharp, critical work of several black journalists but awarded its scholarship to a white student from Lanham, Md.
Marion Hayes Hull the current president, says the club is changing. "For a long time the club concentrated on the print media, then it was over-whelmingly government people. That caused a separation. So I have been recruiting people at the television and radio stations, in addition to students at the local schools," explains Hull.
More and more the instruments of the black press are changing. In its history of more than 150 years, there have been 3,000 black newspapers. Today there are 250. Minority ownership of broadcast outlets is increasing, blck radio networks are developing and a Washington-based national radio syndication, the Black Agenda Reports, was begun recently. Even the locked-up frontier of distribution is being tried.
To celebrate Black Press Week, the Capital Press Club co-sponsored a twoday seminar with the University of the District of Columbia, which continues through today, Yesterday, John H. Sengstackle, publisher of the Chicago Daily Defender, addressed the National Newspaper Publisher Association. Historic black publications are being exhibited through next week at the Howard University Department of Journalism.
Also, younger politicians, such as Washington Mayor Marion Barry are renewing the use of the press club as a major platform. "Like the institution of the black college, the black press was there when we needed it, when no other institution was diligent in its focus on our special needs and concerns," Barry said yesterday.
At the press club's first meeting of the year last month, Barry announced his special investigation into discrimination in the fire department. "I think the club's meetings should be used from-to-time to break major news." said Barry. "In the current Bakke atmosphere, we have to find all the means to retain our gains. And those of us who have made inroads into progress must not forget to nourish institutions such the Capital Press Club."