Page, Clarence, The Crisis
Vernon Jarrett: A Giant of History
Vernon Jarrett never seemed to be more than a handshake away from history. He was either quoting it or making it. His own role models were historic journalistic crusaders like the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and William Monroe Trotter and Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who both helped found the NAACP.
He was always quoting them or citing them as he beseeched us young turks to work harder on behalf of our mighty race. "Research," he implored his fellow Black commentators. "You can't write a column without hours and hours of research."
We met shortly after he became the Chicago Tribune's first Black syndicated columnist in 1970. He was 49 years old, a laterinning hitter in the White press, but just getting started on his lifetime of achievements. He would become a spiritual godfather to those of us who were the first to crack this nation's newsroom color barriers.
He came from Paris, Tenn., in 1946 to work for the Chicago Defender at a time when its other bylines included W.E.B. Du Bois and Langsten Hughes. He would interview Paul Robeson, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King Jr., among numerous other stars. He would also be one of the first Blacks in the 1950s and 1960s to host or co-host radio and TV news and public affairs programs.
He became a judge for journalism's highest honor, the Pulitzer Prize, and in 1975, along with 43 other pioneers, co-founded the National Association of Black Journalists. He was also on the board of The Crisis magazine.
But he would call the NAACP's ACT-SO (Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics) program, which he founded in 1977, his proudest achievement. Like many of us, Jarrett was frustrated to see Black youths cheered for their athletic prowess, not their academic achievements. ACT-SO has awarded thousands of scholarships and motivated another generation of rising Black stars.
Jarrett moved to the Chicago Sun-Times in the early 1980s, retired from regular column writing a decade later, but kept writing and agitating almost to the end. He died at the age of 82 of esophageal cancer in a Chicago hospital on May 23. One of the last things he wanted, Jesse L. Jackson said, was an absentee ballot.
I will miss his jolly trademark salutation, "Our leader!" He smiled, but he wasn't totally joking. You, too, are a leader, he wanted you to know, whether you realize it or not, so you might as well fill the role. Vernon Jarrett certainly did.
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