"Mr. President . . . ."
Jewelry, lots of it, trembled and shook as the retired schoolteacher, now a White House correspondent, revved up to fire two loaded questions at Ronald Reagan.
"Do I perceive you as resurrecting states' rights through your block grant programs without any guidelines? . . . We see all of this as a setback to civil rights. . . ."
Alfreda Madison is speaking. Her strongly opinionated weekly syndicated column appears in 128 black newspapers from coast to coast. When she asks a question that deals with racial issues, she doesn't play.
"I have a follow-up on that. You know blacks fought very hard and long to overthrow states' rights. I'm from Virginia; we had a pretty tough time . . . ."
Madison grew up on her father's 100-acre peanut and tobacco farm in McKenney in Dimwiddie County, running barefoot and feasting on the family favorite, deep-dish apple cobbler. It was also a tobacco-spitting rural environment, in which the school rooms, dusty roads and main streets were drenched in a feeling of white superiority.
This upbringing shaped and marked the woman, helping turn her into a civil rights activist, a fighter, one who would one day wax indignant in the East Room of the White House because her president was opposed to programs that would help her people. Objectivity be damned.
"I'll change when they change," Madison said recently in the living room of her Southwest Washington condominium. Looking like the schoolteacher she was for 25 years, sitting erect, legs crossed, she let fly with the Madison view of things:
"Our white political leaders are mis-educated; their white schools keep them in a snug, warm cocoon, isolating them from other people, other cultures -- what the world represents."
"I ask the questions," she said, "but they rarely know the answers."
Madison's new career leaves her unfazed.
"I've taught in the South. I've taught in Harlem. I've run up the down staircase, and walked the burning sands, so my being a columnist without any formal journalistic training is but one more track to run -- I know how to run."
Calvin W. Rolark, publisher of the Washington Informer and the chairman of Black Media Inc., a New York-based syndication service, offered her a reporter's job at his paper in 1975.
Madison, who never married, had both the time and the inclination: "I was retired, had nothing to do, and although I don't write that well, I'm an excellent researcher, and I know how to probe."
Soon readers of the Informer, the Shreveport (La.) Sun, the Charlotte (N.C.) Post, the Jackson (Miss.) Advocate, the Norfolk Journal and Guide, and other papers were becoming aware that Madison talked plain and tough about Washington, the seat of power, the place where it all begins or ends.
"Black people, especially in the South, read black newspapers faithfully to find out what is going on in Washington that pertains to them. It's their only source of information. This administration underestimates the power of the black press: we're not given briefings like the daily press and department spokespersons are divinely ignorant of and unprepared for questions dealing with issues that affect black people," said Madison.
The ubiqitious jewelry -- bracelets, earrings, necklace, rings -- clanking and flashing away, Madison adjusts her school-teacherly eyeglasses and plows on: "Only the big white press are seated at the press conferences, their names -- NBC, CBS, etc -- are printed on the chairs, the rest of us have to fidget and fumble in the back. It's unfair, undemocratic."
The past is always with her. Although she won't reveal her age, Madison speaks of racial slights that are still fresh, and burn within her even after the passage of many decades.
"Young white boys used to call my father, the father of six, by his first name. And talk about busing -- when I grew up, we black children had to walk six miles to and from school every day while the whites rode by us on a school bus calling us 'black niggers.' "
Since those childhood days, the racial issue, has, by design, monopolized Madison's time and energy, costing her jobs along the way as she crossed swords with school administrators, newspaper editors, politicians, and institutions she perceived to be racist.
"I'm always being asked the question: 'Where are your black leaders?' And I counter by asking: 'Where are your white leaders?'
"Black people don't need leaders to tell them what's wrong, we already know what's wrong: white people get jobs, black people don't. Capitol Hill and the White House boldly lead the way in job discrimination with lily-white staffs up and down the line," said Madison.
Is she afraid her outspokenness will get her into hot water with news sources?
"It already has -- many, many times. If something is wrong and unjust, I speak on it. I'm too old and I've been through too much to do otherwise," said the woman who told the president: "I'm from Virginia; we had a pretty tough time."