When journalist Claude Lewis was 9 years old, Langston Hughes came to talk to his class at P.S. 23 in the Bronx. The poet's visit inspired the young Lewis to write some poems, which he sent off for comment.
"He told me they were really bad, but I should try some more," Lewis recalled. "Finally after I'd sent off several batches, he said the poems were still terrible, but he admired my persistence, and suggested I get into journalism."
Which Lewis did, starting as an "editorial assistant" (i.e. office boy) at Newsweek 26 years ago, later spending 16 years as reporter, editor and columnist for the now-defunct Philadelphia Bulletin. Now he is the editor and publisher of the first black-oriented national newspaper, The National Leader, which started publishing last May and has a circulation of 70,000. (It aims to have 200,000 a year from now.)
The paper, based in Philadelphia, was started by Ragan A. Henry, a Harvard Law School graduate and millionaire owner of eight radio stations. Lewis says that, besides its national orientation, The National Leader is different from the more than 200 other black newspapers in the country because it does not focus on "crime and sensationalism."
"The black community is a lot more sophisticated than people have understood," he said. "I think there's a need for this newspaper."
The 32-page weekly covers everything from politics to food, with seven full-time staff members and stringers in 28 cities. Because Lewis is determined to produce a "professional" product, he has gone after experienced journalists, and is paying them competitive salaries.
The editorial policy is his alone; Henry has agreed not to read anything until it appears in the paper. "I got word that he was in the newsroom reading copy one Saturday while I was out of town," said Lewis. "We had a real knockdown drag-out fight about it and he ended up by saying, 'You're right,' and that's the last problem we've had about it."
And what are Lewis' editorial policies? He characterizes them as "anti-abortion, anti-death penalty, pro-integration and pro-competence."
"The best birth control is self-control," he said. "There is enough information available to prevent pregnancies. And men are responsible too . . . This nation is moving toward death to control population growth, and that's very dangerous." He rejects the claim that a man can't fully comprehend the trauma of an unwanted pregnancy: "If that was true, then women couldn't have a valid opinion on war until they started fighting them."
He is also convinced that the "wave of conservatism" in the country means that blacks must become more committed to helping each other. "The rumor is that black people are poor; the reality is many of us are not," he wrote in a recent editorial. "As the Rev. Jesse Jackson has often pointed out, blacks spend in excess of $175 billion yearly . . . What is too often poor are the habits related to money on the part of many blacks." He chastised the black middle and upper classes -- who are his readers -- for not giving enough to their own community.
His own four children have gone to private schools, at considerable financial cost to him and his wife, a registered nurse, because, he said, the public schools did not offer enough challenge. "Teachers in public school don't expect much from blacks," he said, and they get what they expect. The Lewises live in an integrated neighborhood in New Jersey.
His paper is not "anti-white" but rather "pro-black," he said, and he makes an effort to run stories that are "upbeat" and positive, and that show respect for the constituency he wants to attract. Recent issues, for example, have included feature stories about a black nun, a Washington-based couple who started a group called "Blacks Against Nukes," and a two-part story about blacks in television.
Prompted by the story about a New Orleans woman who believed herself to be white and discovered she was officially black, Lewis commissioned a story about "passing" and the legal history of government racial categorizations. Another story described the successful medical efforts to save a black baby born prematurely after its mother had been shot in the stomach and the bullet lodged in the baby's brain.
Other recent stories include "Black Votes Wooed in Texas Governor's Race," "Supreme Court Tackles Bob Jones Tax Case," "War on Drugs Launched by Reagan" and a lead story about the prediction that Hispanics will become the largest minority, outnumbering blacks, by the year 2000.
Lewis was raised in New York, where his mother works for the city. "My father never worked a day in his life -- he was a Harlem numbers runner," he said. "But he died when I was young. My stepfather was a cab driver for 30 years and is one of the finest human beings I've ever met."
Not one to let grass grow under his feet, Lewis believes in getting as few hours of sleep a night as possible. He gets up at 5:30 a.m, when his wife has to go to work, and reads, and when he gets home he writes books -- four so far, including biographies of Ralph Bunche and Muhammad Ali. He has also taught journalism at Drexel, Columbia, Temple and Villanova universities, and served on four Pulitzer Prize juries.
"One reason I happen to believe in integration is that white people have been helpful to me all my life," he said. "I've also traveled to China, Cuba, Russia, Israel, and to Europe seven times -- I've spent enough time out of America to know what's good about it."
Within that context, he said, he aims to produce a paper that looks at blacks as "people, not problems," that links blacks across the country "tied by the common fact of their color," and that offers news and analysis useful and pertinent to them. A four-week campaign of television commercials has recently been launched in 14 cities to promote these ideas (in Washington on WTTG).
"Every issue that mainstream newspapers write about has significance for blacks," he said. "But the approach turns them off . . . The black papers have traditionally failed to demonstrate a respect for the black community. We are going to fill the gap."