George Curry’s career is testament to pushing for change and giving back
He wanted better for those came behind him
George Curry had been a quarterback since the days of his Alabama childhood. He could gather a team of peers to move in the backfield and on the line to make things happen. Sometimes they would win.
By the time Curry became a senior at tiny Knoxville College in east Tennessee, he had melded his interest in studying history with his interest in sports and journalism. He was quarterback for the Knoxville football team and editor of The Aurora, the campus newspaper.
With graduation at hand, in the spring of 1970, reality was setting in. A pro career as quarterback was not in the cards, he found. A career as a sports journalist was. Curry would be recruited by Sports Illustrated, becoming the second sportswriter of color to be hired by the magazine. As he began compiling his record in newsrooms, Curry would use the same quarterbacking skills he had learned and employ them as a journalist.
In the decades ahead, Curry became an outstanding reporter and eventually a successful and influential newsroom quarterback. Over the years, he became known as a respected and demanding coach, mentor and a player who took risks to win when seemingly insurmountable challenges confronted him.
The newsroom quarterback had taken a break from the rush of the game last weekend to get a bite to eat. Within hours, he had died of a heart attack at a Washington, D.C., hospital. Curry was 69.
“He [Curry] started early giving back,” said journalist Dwight Lewis, a reporter and columnist for The (Nashville) Tennessean for 40 years until his retirement in 2011. Lewis was a longtime colleague of Curry’s.
Lewis said he and Curry met while both were in college and toying with journalism. Lewis played baseball at Tennessee A & I State College, now Tennessee State University, and wrote for The Meter, the campus paper. Curry, the Knoxville quarterback, was editor of the college’s paper. They met at a summer journalism camp in Atlanta held by Clark College, Lewis said. Both became newspaper reporters after college, Lewis recalled. As life goes, they would run across one another at various journalism gatherings, Lewis said.
“George kept going until the end,” said Lewis, reflecting on Curry’s work and achievements. “He [George] was like Alex Haley,” he said, referring to the author of the bestselling book Roots. He came to know Haley after his book drew the author international acclaim. “Both had a hard time saying no to people.”
Lewis said he remembers the day after Haley died. Lamar Alexander, a friend of Haley’s, said, “We used him up. I thought about the same thing with George Curry,” said Lewis. “I guess he was just one of those people who had a hard time saying no to people. He wanted to give everything he had.”
Curry could get also get real serious, such as when he was articulating the need for journalists to pursue justice for the underserved.
He could also take a break from what he clearly saw as the troubles of the world. Occasionally, he was in for a serious card game of Dirty Hearts, in which he was the usual winner. He would listen for hours to the late legendary singer James Brown. In his element, Curry would imitate civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson, and sound more like Jackson than himself.
Curry’s sudden exit from life’s stage may have been among the most unwanted turn of events for those who knew him and worked to advance diversity in the news media. What has made Curry’s passing even tougher is that his death comes when we are losing those who promoted affirmative action in employment, diversity and coverage. These roles are not being filled fast enough with successors of equal courage and determination.
Think for a minute about the heavy toll in recent years: Philadelphia Inquirer reporter and editor Acel Moore; Dori Maynard, president of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education; John Seigenthaler, founder of the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center; Minnie Two Shoes, a co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association; Washington Post columnist William Raspberry; broadcaster Sidmel Estes, the first female president of the National Association of Black Journalists; rising reporter Michael Feeney; and Los Angeles Times columnist Frank Del Olmo. They preceded champions of change such as Al Neuharth, founder of the Freedom Forum, Jim Batten, chairman of Knight-Ridder, and their progressive peers.
Curry’s passing reminds us that champions like him will not be with us forever. It reminds us that we need to refresh ourselves in order to carry on the work of the second generation of media diversity troopers, lest there be no third generation about whom to cheer.
The pioneers started in an era when it was tough for blacks to get jobs in the general media and tough for progressive whites to get most of their peers to open the doors to let us in.
Like Curry, the second generation now reaching its homestretch is steadily making its exit as we struggle to hold onto the gains marshaled by our predecessors.
Curry courageously and proudly carried the baton on behalf of us all — people of all colors who wanted to achieve unity of shared respect, shared power and shared achievement.
Curry’s photo albums chronicle highlights of his meetings and appearances with people of influence and from the grassroots including Pope John Paul II; civil rights activists Jesse Jackson, Coretta Scott King; South African president Nelson Mandela; Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, former President Bill Clinton and wife Hillary Clinton; civil rights leaders Julian Bond, Andrew Young, John Lewis; poet Maya Angelou; and Kemba Smith. It’s the kind of history most any journalist would want to earn.
The list goes on as do the piles of news stories and columns Curry penned. He reported all the cops and robbers stories, as any rookie would. As he got his footing and grasped the potential of media to effect change, he moved on to issues about controversial public and private policies and practices that undermined the ability of black Americans, other minorities and the poor to be respected and treated as equals.
A look at Curry’s career showed he was among the generation of people who did their best to make good on following paths carved by the pioneering generation of black journalists who had preceded him. That was when times were really rough.
After graduating in 1970 from Knoxville College, the Tuscaloosa, Alabama, public high school graduate was one of the first blacks hired as a full-time reporter for Sports Illustrated. In 1977, he left Sports Illustrated for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a reporter until 1983.
During that time he authored his first book, America’s Most Famous Black Coach, a biography of legendary college football coach Jake Gaither. He also started the St. Louis Minority Journalism Workshop in 1977, one of several such programs he would launch or work with around the nation.
In 1983, Curry left for the Chicago Tribune, where he worked for a decade as a Washington correspondent, and New York bureau chief. Those assignments had him traveling around the world, including covering the 1988 presidential contests in which Jackson, then based on Chicago, made a serious bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
From the Tribune, Curry leaped into the magazine world as editor-in-chief of Emerge, a relatively new national monthly founded by Wilmer Ames, the Time magazine editor who founded Emerge as a serious alternative to Ebony magazine. Curry had freelanced for Ames and the two developed a good working relationship, making Curry an easy choice when Ames stepped down.
“He was a good editor, a different kind of editor,” said veteran Washington editor Flo Purnell, the first person Curry hired to work with him on Emerge. Purnell had been a copy editor for USA Today. Curry wanted her to be managing editor of a national magazine with a circulation of more than 100,000.
“George could pull in the broad view,” Purnell recalled. “I knew how to think and plan ahead.”
Curry and Purnell crafted issues of the magazine that grabbed attention month after month. They included cover pictures mocking President Ronald Reagan’s choice of attorney Clarence Thomas for the U.S. Supreme Court, ostensibly replacing the late Justice Thurgood Marshall. The stories were accompanied by biting reporting on Thomas.
Emerge would lead coverage on “cyber hate,” working with the Southern Poverty Law Center to produce one of the first national stories about hate online. The magazine continued work on civil rights murders in the South and did detailed reporting of supporters of the Federalists Society, the conservative political action organization.
Winning widespread acclaim for their courageous work, Curry and his small team of editors, fact checkers, freelance writers and photographers often worked late nights and many weekends to produce the magazine.
One of its high points was publication in May 1996 of “Kemba’s Nightmare,” a 10,000-word opus penned by me. “Kemba’s Nightmare” was about college freshman Kemba Smith, who became involved with a drug dealer only to be indicted and convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to 24½ years in federal prison with no chance of parole, despite being a first-time, nonviolent offender.
The Emerge story, one of the longest feature pieces in a regular magazine since Harper’s published “The Prisoner of Sex” in 1970, was indeed a gamble for Curry. It was far longer than the 2,000-word story initially assigned. It was about a nobody, contrary to what people thought sold magazines. A direct assault on the federal government’s mandatory-minimum sentencing law, it was as hot a potato as putting Thomas on the cover again.
Didn’t matter. It was a risk Curry felt was worth taking because it made sense to challenge a law that was causing longtime prison time for thousands of young people. He must have thought to heck with our jobs, our standing in the business, or invitations to Washington parties. We were journalists championing a cause for those with no voice in the halls of government.
“Kemba’s Nightmare” was potentially more controversial than any cartoon about Thomas. Curry, the quarterback, was set to throw long. The toss was a winner.
The story spurred a movement in the black church, among Greek-letter organizations, educators and lawmakers. It captured the attention of the larger legal community. Even newspapers and magazines, some of which had discarded letters from Smith before she hit the cover of Emerge, and had published editorials supporting drug sentencing laws, began to focus on mandatory-minimum sentences as more than a story about the war on drugs.
By the time Curry used Smith’s story to declare that the law was a war on blacks, momentum at the White House was shifting to grant relief to first-time, nonviolent offenders.
Smith’s 24½ year mandatory sentence without parole was commuted by President Clinton in December 2000, to time served — 6½ years. This year, President Barack Obama has continued Clinton’s move. A bipartisan Congress is ready to roll back the law, acknowledging its racial overtones, disruption of families and extreme costs to taxpayers. This could have been achieved 20 years ago, had folks been reading Emerge.
“He took a gamble on me, having me as the poster child on an issue,” Smith said after hearing of Curry’s death. “He wanted to highlight an issue. It wasn’t just about me.”
Smith, who is now a member of the state corrections board in Virginia, credits Curry’s decision to publish the story for creating a movement about prison sentencing that continues today. “His decision changed my life. It has helped me define my purpose.”
Curry was as surprised as the magazine’s readers when owner Robert Johnson, founder of BET Television, decided in 2003 to sell it to two entrepreneurs who wanted to take the magazine in an Ebony direction.
Within months Curry, his small crew and his journalism were gone. A few years later the magazine, having won some 40 national magazine awards under his leadership, was gone, too.
Curry was able to continue spreading hard news to black America as editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service. That position ensured weekly publication in nearly 200 papers across the country of his syndicated column. It focused on issues of importance to the general public, especially issues that negatively affected people of color. He helped give context and meaning to the Black Lives Matter movement. He drew on his life experiences and study of American history to go home to Alabama to report from Selma on the 50th anniversary of the historic bloody confrontation with police on the Edmund Pettus bridge.
Curry had another mild heart attack on that trip, shook it off, noted the danger and kept moving. His readers wanted to read of his insights. His mentees, now in the hundreds, wanted to call him for career advice. Someone who knew of him wanted him to come speak at a convention for free. Of course he said he would, hoping that gesture could pay for itself at some other event.
Curry also wanted to continue working on a big dream that had been derailed more than a decade earlier. He wanted to revive Emerge as an online news operation. We talked about it all year, with the May 2016 issue marking the 20th anniversary of the publication of “Kemba’s Nightmare.”
We would write about how much Smith had reclaimed her life and devoted herself to counseling others about the dangers of irresponsible choices. The story was to include news that her son, born in the early days of her custody, was about to graduate from college this spring. We swapped ideas about Smith again and pondered what else could we find to reconnect with America as we did in the Emerge years.
It was a stunning note, to put it mildly, that the Smith idea would be shelved. George Curry, the black “Mouth of The South,” the colleague who could move as decisively as Isaac Hayes in the closing minutes of his Hot Buttered Soul, would not be here to quarterback for us.
Services for George Curry will be held Saturday in his hometown of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Those expected to attend include civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, founder and president of the National Action Network.