America owes Bryan Monroe a debt of gratitude
Remembering a journalism stalwart who centered his focus on the Black community
Let’s begin remembering Bryan Monroe in the way he so often unabashedly did himself.
I did the first interview with Barack Obama after he was elected president – and I did the last interview with Michael Jackson before he died.
Bryan was rightly proud of those achievements. They were focal points of his three-year tenure as vice president and editorial director at the Ebony and Jet magazines in Chicago.
The magazines’ coverage of Obama’s monumental campaign and election, not to mention other critical issues affecting the Black community, were unquestionably invigorating and always on point. For that, all of America owes Bryan a debt of gratitude.
And yet for many journalists across the country, in the hours after he died of a heart attack on Jan. 13 at his home in Bethesda, Maryland, at just 55 years old, his professional accolades paled compared with the humanity he exuded in countless measures over the years.
Bryan was vice president-print during the two years, 2003 to 2005, I served as president of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ). He followed me as the organization’s leader the next two years. Our respective boards of directors pretty much had the same members.
Two dozen of us the night he died spent nearly three hours remembering Bryan via Zoom. It was incredibly joyous and heartbreaking, loving and cathartic, emotional and resolving for us to recall his friendship, spirit, encouragement, generosity, confidence, leadership, vision, hugs, love for his family – and, yes, his willingness to pick up the check for expensive meals and alcohol.
Leading the gathering, I began by noting that Bryan was the youngest of the now six former NABJ presidents to die. Imagining that he sits on the heavenly NABJ board alongside groundbreaking journalists Chuck Stone, Vernon Jarrett, Les Payne, Tom Morgan and Sidmel Estes is offering me some comfort. No doubt, just as he did for so many of us over the years, Bryan is showing them how to use or adapt to the latest digital technology.
During the Zoom call, we also admired how Bryan consistently advocated for more coverage of underrepresented communities, and for journalists of color to have greater opportunities in U.S. newsrooms. He was a passionate supporter of UNITY: Journalists of Color, the organization that would convene Black, Asian, Hispanic and Native American media members every four years.
In Bryan’s remarkable career – he also helped lead a team of journalists from Knight Ridder and the Biloxi Sun Herald in Mississippi to a Pulitzer Prize for its Hurricane Katrina coverage, served as editor of CNNPolitics.com and was a professor at Northwestern and Temple universities – his greatest contribution was getting Ebony and Jet ready for the Obama moment.
The magazines had become venerable not only for their decades of telling the stories of African Americans that mainstream media neglected, but also by starting to feel ancient and obsolete.
Hired to succeed Lerone Bennett Jr., the renowned Black scholar, author and social historian, in 2006, Bryan quickly recruited several journalists from top newsrooms across the country to join him at the historic Johnson Publishing Co. headquarters on Michigan Avenue.
My wife Mira Lowe was among the journalists Bryan recruited to Ebony and Jet – she would become the weekly newsmagazine’s first female editor-in-chief – making her one of many others there and elsewhere whose careers were significantly advanced by him essentially saying, “You could do this.”
During our Zoom call, we spoke of how as president Bryan pushed NABJ to extend its influence internationally, and helped to force the ouster of Don Imus from his syndicated radio show after the shock jock had racially disparaged the Rutgers University women’s basketball team.
We appreciated that Bryan, a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, was still doing important things for the causes of diversity, inclusion, equity and access from his perch at the Lew Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple. Indeed, he was co-leading a new college task force performing a content and culture audit for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
And we recalled how we almost lost Bryan in April 2004. I’ll never forget when, the day after an NABJ board meeting in Washington, he had not left his hotel room by the early afternoon. After I persuaded the cleaning staff to open the door, we found Bryan in a dire medical condition. Thankfully, Jerry Ceppos and Jay Harris, two influential journalists from the Bay Area in California whom he respected, and his then-wife Tahirah helped get him the care he needed.
In 2013, by then an op-ed editor for CNN, Bryan wrote two pieces detailing his battle with obesity, and how he had lost 170 pounds after having gastric bypass surgery in 2006.
Let’s also mention how, as the latest national reckoning on race was taking shape in June, Bryan challenged “white people to step up.” His audacity inspired me to write my own piece about my hope for my students in the fight for racial justice. If he could speak out, I should, too.
Bryan last month sent Mira and I a Christmas card with a family portrait and bio blurbs as updates. Born in Munich, the son of an Army general from North Carolina and schoolteacher from New Jersey, he loved his children dearly. His daughter Seanna, 20, is a junior studying math and education at Temple; his son Jackson, 19, lives in Los Angeles and, after the killing of George Floyd in the spring of 2020, helped organize a protest group that gained national attention. Bryan’s fiancee, Abrielle (Abe) Anderson, is an associate general counsel for a large health care company.
My hope was that Bryan and I would grow old together as past NABJ presidents, seeing each other at annual conventions and continuing to mentor future journalism and organization leaders.
Our last text exchange was to share home addresses. He then wrote, “How y’all doin’?” Not wanting to engage in a long conversation that night, I didn’t answer. Damn!