Al Sweeney wrote a column for the Washington Afro American newspaper called "Just Thinking," and when I picked up the paper recently and didn't see his column I began thinking about him. "Big Al," as he was known in the business, died June 14 after more than 30 years of service to the black press.
Because he loved writing about black people for black-oriented newspapers, his legacy may seem to some as limited as the world in which he confined himself. But Al Sweeney had impact that went far beyond the circulation of the biweeklies that carried his column.
For journalists like myself, he was a role model, tough and determined. He pulled no punches in print, and he took the feedback flak with style and grace. Believe me, that is no easy task.
It took a long time for me to understand why a person with Sweeney's talent would stick with a black-oriented newspaper when it seemed that he could have had more readers and earned more money by working for a white-oriented paper. But Al was loyal to his people and his community in ways that few black writers are today.
Maybe it was his history. After all, there was a time when white-oriented newspapers would not hire him. Maybe he had something to prove. If that was the case, he certainly made his point beyond a shadow of a doubt. It was because of people like him that the black press survived at all, because he brought excellence to his craft.
"Perhaps there is a bit of silver lining in the dark clouds that have been hovering over the plight of brothers and sisters in the current state of affairs," Sweeney wrote in the Afro in January 1979. "And that thin ray of light that could reinvigorate the civil rights movement stems from the battle over the administration's budget.
"There will be heated discussion. There will be conflict. And because of the torrid differences, this nation will witness democracy in action. And when democracy is at its best and there is no domination by one group over another, the rights of minorities will take on a golden hue because they are needed and their support counts."
Big Al was one of those soothsayer columnists, prophesying, predicting and analyzing. These were skills that were honed not by a cub reporter, but by a man who had amassed expertise in many areas before he sat down at a typewriter.
Sweeney, who was 66 when he died, had worked for the Office of Price Administration in 1942 and the General Accounting Office in 1947. He had been editor of the Cleveland Call and Post from 1951 to 1965.
Sweeney then returned to Washington and began his weekly column for the Afro. He also worked at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as an information officer and later for the Transportation and Agriculture departments.
He received honors for his work from the Capital Press Club, the National Press Club and the National Urban League. Born in Cleveland, he was a graduate of Wilberforce University.
In a tribute to Al Sweeney that was entered in the Congressional Record last week, Rep. Louis Stokes (D-Ohio) remarked, "It was Al's strategizing that launched Carl Stokes' Louis' brother political career in Cleveland, culminating in Carl's election as mayor of Cleveland in 1969, making him the first black mayor of a major American city."
Another legendary black journalist, Ethel Payne, for whom the same kind words could be said, put aside what differences she and Al had over the years to pay him respect.
"Al Sweeney is gone, and his passing reminds those of us who are referred to as 'pioneers' and 'veterans' in the black press that our numbers are dwindling. He was special in a distinct breed of journalist."
"He was loved and admired by many people," Louis Stokes said of Sweeney. "The black press has lost one of its most distinguished and prolific newsmen."
Not only the black press, I might add, but also the entire field of professional journalism