Legendary journalist, Black Press Columnist George Curry remembered as Champion of Civil Rights
By Hazel Trice Edney
Another great soldier’s sword from the Black Press has been placed back in its sheath forever.
—Bobby R. Henry, Sr.
(TriceEdneyWire) – Renowned civil rights and Black political journalist George E. Curry, the dean of Black press columnists because of his riveting weekly commentary in Black newspapers across the country, is being remembered this week as a legend.
Curry died suddenly of heart failure on Saturday, August 20. He was 69.
“He stood tall. He helped pave the way for other journalists of color to do their jobs without the questions and doubts,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. with whom Curry traveled extensively, including to the funeral of President Nelson Mandela. “He was a proud and tireless advocate of the Black press, serving two tours as editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association’s news service.”
Curry’s fiancée Ann Rag-land confirmed that the funeral will be held Saturday, August 27, at 11 am at the Weeping Mary Baptist Church, 2701 20th Street, Tuscaloosa, Ala. Rev. Al Sharpton will give the eulogy. A viewing on Saturday will be from 8:30-11 am.
Ragland said a viewing will also be held on Friday evening, Aug. 26, with Rev. Jackson speaking, but the time and venue have not been confirmed by deadline. Additional details will be announced this week.
Having grown up in Tuscaloosa during the height of racial segregation, Curry often said he “fled Alabama” and vowed never to return when he went away to college. However, Ragland said he always told her to return him home to Tuscaloosa upon his death.
Shocking rumors of his death circulated heavily in journalistic circles on Saturday night until it was confirmed by Dr. Bernard Lafayette, MLK confidant and chairman of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference shortly before midnight.
“This is a tragic loss to the movement because George Curry was a journalist who paid special attention to civil rights because he lived it and loved it,” Lafayette told the Trice Edney News Wire through his spokesman Maynard Eaton, SCLC national communications director.
Curry’s connection to the SCLC was through his longtime childhood friend, confidant and ally in civil rights, Dr. Charles Steele, SCLC president.
Steele and Curry grew up together in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where they played football at Druid High School. Curry bloomed as a civil rights and sports writer as Steele grew into a politician and civil rights leader.
“He was a pacesetter with the pen. He saw things that other people didn’t see,” said Steele. “And once he saw those things, he embraced them and exposed them in terms of putting information into the hands of people who would normally be left out of the process, meaning the African-American community.”
Ragland, Curry’s fiancée and closest confidant, drove him to the Washington Adventist Hospital emergency room after he called her complaining of chest pains Saturday afternoon. He insisted that she take him instead of calling an ambulance. She said he reained conscience throughout the cardiac tests and the doctor assured her he would be fine. But his heart took a sudden turn. She said the doctor tried to explain to her that the turn was totally unexpected. “He said, ‘He was okay, but then his heart just stopped.’”
Curry’s closest colleagues knew and respected him for his journalism and his demand for excellence, which was sometimes expressed in a no nonsense, drill sergeant style of communicating. But, Ragland said the one thing that most people don’t know is “how, even though he was so brash sometimes, how compassionate he was for other people.”
She gave an example of his being at a recent doctor’s appointment and meeting an older man who was having difficulty walking. She said Curry not only helped the man along but bought him lunch.
Curry began his journalism career at Sports Illustrated, the St. Louis Post Dispatch, and then the Chicago Tribune. But he is most revered for his editorship of the award-winning former Emerge Magazine and more recently for his work as editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association from 2001-2007 at NNPA offices located at Howard University.
He returned to leadership of the NNPA News Service in 2012 until last year when he left amidst budgetary issues.
“It’s hard to believe that George Curry, a giant in the journalism profession is no longer with us. The news of George’s death leaves a tremendous void that will be difficult to fill,” said NNPA Chairwoman Denise Rolark Barnes, publisher of the Washington Informer. “George’s uncompromising journalistic leadership delivered on Emerge’s promise to deliver edgy, hard-hitting, intellectual, well-written and thoroughly researched content that attracted national attention and left an indelible mark on the lives of many.”
Barnes added, “I was honored to carry George’s weekly column in the Washington Informer and to work with him as he served as editor-in-chief of the NNPA News Wire. George provided so much of his time, energy, wisdom and incredible journalistic genius to the Black Press. His work will stand as a lasting legacy of journalist excellence and integrity of which all of us in the Black Press and in the journalistic field at large can field extremely proud.”
Jake Oliver, publisher and chairman of the Baltimore-based Afro American Newspapers, who first hired Curry as NNPA editor-in-chief, recalled their long friendship.
“I’m in total shock. I’ve lost a very close, dear friend,” Oliver said. “I hired him at the NNPA at the turn of the century and even before then we worked remotely on various issues that we had the same point of view about. George was a journalist par excellence…He spent a lot of time at his craft and perfected it at a high level. And as a result, he was able to generate national and indeed, international respect,” Oliver said.
“There was so much that he gave to the Black Press and the gifts that he’s left us are enormous.”
The name, George Curry, is as prominent among civil rights circles as among journalists. He did weekly commentary on the radio show of the Rev. Al Sharpton. Curry had appeared on the show on Friday, the day before his death.
“When I started my daily radio show 10 years ago, I asked him to close the final hour every week on Friday,” Sharpton recalls. “About a month ago, he went away for two weeks. He came back last Friday. We teased him [saying] he had rarely missed a Friday. We talked about the elections and everything and the next day he died, which was shocking to me.”
Sharpton said Curry’s legacy “is integrity, is boldness, is holding people – including Black leaders that were his friends – accountable. And defending us when we deserved it.”
Sharpton concluded, “George was probably the ultimate journalist and the epitome of a Black journalist. He held us all accountable as he also told our story with no fear and no concern about his own career. He was a man of supreme integrity and boldness that I don’t know if I’ve met anyone that came close.”
Curry’s reputation was broad and highly esteemed. Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton also issued a statement upon his death.
“George E. Curry was a pioneering journalist, a tireless crusader for justice, and a true agent of change,” Clinton wrote. “With quality reporting, creativity, and skillful persuasion he influenced countless people, including me, to think beyond their narrow experience and expand their understanding. George may be gone, but he will not be forgotten.”
Congressional Black Caucus Chairman G. K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), wrote: “George E. Curry was a giant in journalism and he stood on the front lines of the Civil Rights era and used his voice to tell our stories when others would not.”
When he died he was raising money to fully fund Emerge News Online, a digital version of the former paper magazine. He had also continued to independently distribute his weekly column to Black newspapers.
In 2003, he was named Journalist of the Year by the National Association of Black Journalists for his work as editor-in-chief of the NNPA News Service and BlackPressUSA.com, NNPA’s public news website.
“I am heartbroken to learn that Mr. George Curry has passed. He has been a beacon for so many and a pivotal voice among Black publishers. His strength and pursuit for the truth will carry on in the lives he touched,” said NABJ President Sarah Glover in a statement this week.
The NABJ release also recalled Curry’s love for working with students and future journalists.
It quotes Neil Foote, a friend of Curry’s and president of the National Black Public Relations Society, saying, “George has made so many contributions to journalism – from the high school journalism workshops to his passionate fight for the black press. There’s a generation of journalists – including me – who are grateful to have had the chance to know him.”
Curry was working to revive Emerge as an online publication at the time of his death. The NABJ statement quotes TV-ONE host Roland S. Martin, a friend, colleague and fellow columnist, who honored Curry during his NewsOne Now television and radio shows this week: “He was still fighting to revive that magazine until his last moment on earth…George Curry died with his boots on, still fighting.”
The following is the edited speaker’s biography of George Curry as posted on the website of America’s Program Bureau:
George E. Curry is former editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service. The former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, Curry also writes a weekly syndicated column for NNPA, a federation of more than 200 African American newspapers.
Curry, who served as editor-in-chief of the NNPA News Service from 2001 until 2007, returned to lead the news service for a second time on April 2, 2012 until late last year.
His work at the NNPA has ranged from being inside the Supreme Court to hear oral arguments in the University of Michigan affirmative action cases to traveling to Doha, Qatar, to report on America’s war with Iraq.
As editor-in-chief of Emerge, Curry led the magazine to win more than 40 national journalism awards. He is most proud of his four-year campaign to win the release of Kemba Smith, a 22-year-old woman who was given a mandatory sentence of 24 1/2 years in prison for her minor role in a drug ring. In May 1996, Emerge published a cover story titled “Kemba’s Nightmare.” President Clinton pardoned Smith in December 2000, marking the end of her nightmare.
Curry is the author of Jake Gaither: America’s Most Famous Black Coach and editor of The Affirmative Action Debate and The Best of Emerge Magazine. He was editor of the National Urban League’s 2006 State of Black America report. His work in journalism has taken him to Egypt, England, France, Italy, China, Germany, Malaysia, Thailand, Cuba, Brazil, Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Mexico, Canada, and Austria. In August 2012, he was part of the official US delegation and a presenter at the USBrazil seminar on educational equity in Brasilia, Brazil. George Curry is a member of the National Speakers Association and the International Federation for Professional Speakers.
His speeches have been televised on C-SPAN and reprinted in Vital Speeches of the Day magazine. In his presentations, he addresses such topics as diversity, current events, education, and the media. Born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Curry graduated from Druid High School before enrolling at Knoxville College in Tennessee. At Knoxville, he was editor of the school paper, quarterback and co-captain of the football team, a student member of the school’s board of trustees, and attended Harvard and Yale on summer history scholarships.
While working as a Washington correspondent for The Chicago Tribune, he wrote and served as chief correspondent for the widely praised television documentary Assault on Affirmative Action, which was aired as part of PBS’ Frontline series. He was featured in a segment of One Plus One, a national PBS documentary on mentoring. Curry was part of the weeklong Nightline special, America in Black and White. He has also appeared on CBS Evening News, ABC’s World News Tonight, The Today Show, 20/20, Good Morning America, CNN, C-SPAN, BET, Fox Network News, MSNBC, and ESPN. After delivering the 1999 commencement address at Kentucky State University, he was awarded a Doctor of Humane Letters.
In May 2000, Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee, also presented Curry with an honorary doctorate after his commencement speech. Later that year, the University of Missouri presented Curry with its Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism, the same honor it had earlier bestowed on such luminaries as Joseph Pulitzer, Walter Cronkite, John H. Johnson, and Winston Churchill. In 2003, the National Association of Black Journalists named Curry Journalist of the Year.
Curry became the founding director of the St. Louis Minority Journalism Workshop in 1977. Seven years later, he became founding director of the Washington Association of Black Journalists’ annual high school journalism workshop. In February 1990, Curry organized a similar workshop in New York City. While serving as editor of Emerge, Curry was elected president of the American Society of Magazine Editors, the first African American to hold the association’s top office.
Before taking over as editor of Emerge, Curry served as New York bureau chief and as Washington correspondent for The Chicago Tribune. Prior to joining The Tribune, he worked for 11 years as a reporter for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and for two years as a reporter for Sports Illustrated.
Curry is chairman of the board of directors of Young DC, a regional teen-produced newspaper; immediate past chairman of the Knoxville College board of trustees; and serves on the board of directors of the Kemba N. Smith Foundation and St. Paul Saturdays, a leadership training program for young African American males in St. Louis. Curry was also a trustee of the National Press Foundation, chairing a committee that funded more than 15 workshops modeled after the one he directed in St. Louis.