From left: Michael b. Hodge, Ivan Brandon, Leon Dash, Penny Mickelbury, Ronald A. Taylor, Clifford Alexander, March 23, 1972, Metropolitan AME Church, Washington. (Credit: Ellsworh Davis/washington Post)

From left: Reporters Michael B. Hodge, Ivan C. Brandon, LaBarbara A. Bowman, Leon Dash, Penny Mickelbury, Ronald A. Taylor; Richard Prince and attorney Clifford Alexander, March 23, 1972, at Metropolitan AME Church in Washington. (Credit: Ellsworth Davis/Washington Post)

Thirty years ago, they fought for a fair chance. Today, there’s still work to be done.

An edited version of a story that appeared in the September 2002 edition of the National Association of Black Journalists’ NABJ Journal.

By Steven Gray

Five former Washington Post reporters met in a restaurant in March, and six of them met at a colleague’s home in August — not to mark the 30th anniversary of the break-in at the Watergate Hotel, but of the landmark Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint charging the newspaper with discrimination against its Black employees.

The case, believed to be the first of its kind against a major American newspaper, unarguably accelerated the hiring and promotion of scores of journalists of color. More importantly, it helped solidify the role of Black journalists in the interpretation of contemporary American history. Yet, it seems the complaint and its significance has been largely ignored. There was no formal recognition of it scheduled at this year’s NABJ Convention in Milwaukee, where we relished in the ascension of more Blacks to top newspaper posts.

African Americans head bureaus in Mexico City, Paris, and Johannesburg, while
Black columnists write on topics ranging from the African AIDS crisis to personal finance. Sure, at first glance, there is much to celebrate.

To the Metro Seven — as the group of Black Post reporters came to be known — the struggle for equality in the nation’s newsrooms is hardly over, as some wish to believe. Within the complaint’s allegations lie stark parallels to scores of issues that still linger. Yet, some of the Metro Seven survived at the Post, in journalism, partly on their own resilience, in the days before there was a deputy managing editor, or even an executive editor, to turn to for counsel. They had nothing but themselves.

Constant challenges for Dash

In 1966, a Howard University student named Leon Dash was working as a copy aide at The Washington Post when then-city editor Stephen D. Isaacs offered him a spot in that summer’s intern class. Dash quickly accepted, and was eventually hired as a full-time reporter assigned to cover the District’s Metropolitan Police Department. From the beginning, he faced constant challenges from Southern-bred police officers fresh from the Vietnam War, as well as from his own Post colleagues, whom he learned could be “some of your stiffest competition.”

Two years later, he left to serve in the Peace Corps, in Kenya — soon after, riots erupted in Washington and dozens of other American cities in the wake of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Editors looked around their newsrooms and realized, perhaps for the first time, the consequences of the absence of people who could penetrate communities of color and authoritatively explain just what was ticking inside Black America’s head. And so they plucked reporters from the ranks of Black-owned newspapers, then they even recruited police officers, teachers and government officials. Then in March 1968, the Kerner Commission concluded that “along with the country as a whole, the press has long basked in a world, looking out of it, if at all, with the white man’s eyes and perspective.”

Indeed, The Post realized this, too, and by Dash’s return in 1971 had hired several more Black reporters. Among them was Penny Mickelbury, a child of the Civil Rights Movement who just a few years earlier had become the first Black reporter at The Athens (Ga.) Banner-Herald. To Mickelbury, then in her early 20s, the jump to The Posts “large, noisy” downtown Washington newsroom was at first glance daunting, but surmountable. “There were these people who were ephemeral, who floated around in sort of a rarified world,” recalls Mickelbury, who was quickly promoted from night police reporter to the District government beat, largely because, she is convinced, editors realized that many emerging Black bureaucrats were reluctant to talk to white reporters.

Still, Dash did not see strengthened coverage of Black culture in The Post’s pages, or significant improvement in the status of the newsroom’s Blacks, for that matter. White editors, he believed, “didn’t see anything extraordinary in that. They thought our development was consistent with our entry into the industry.” Dash flatly rejected that notion, and believed Black reporters were stifled primarily because of their race. In his own intern class, for instance, he watched silently as a White male Harvard University intern was quickly assigned a story that was destined for page one.

“I didn’t see any kind of consideration of that sort given to Black reporters. There was a lopsidedness of the trajectory toward becoming a journeyman reporter… Blacks were kept at a low level of personal and professional development, and not given any chance to rise above it,” says Dash, who received the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism and left The Post three years later to become a professor of journalism at the University of Illinois at Champaign.

Talk of the disparate assignments dominated casual conversations between Black reporters. Recalls Richard Prince, then a young Metro reporter, “Black reporters kept asking, ‘why did this or that happen? How come Shirley Chisholm’s campaign wasn’t covered? Why did they close the Africa bureau? Why, on major breaking news stories, were Black reporters only assigned to do legwork?'”

Soon, the keen observations turned to formal meetings, and strategizing.

Received unsatisfactory response

In the first week of February 1972, the nine Black Metro reporters sent a three-page memo to then-executive editor Benjamin C. Bradlee asking, essentially, why there had never been more than a single Black reporter assigned to the national desk? Why there were no originating Black editors on the foreign, national, sports, financial and style desks? And, among other issues, why there were no Black reporters in sports, and only two in Style?

Why, after Leon Dash obtained information in an unreleased report on halfway
houses in the city, was the assignment given to a white reporter?

Within a week, Bradlee issued a memo acknowledging difficulty striking a balance between the newspaper’s “commitment to hire, assign and promote the very best journalists we can find” with its “commitment to hire, assign and promote blacks.” In addition, he noted The Post “now employs more black editors, reporters and photographers than any newspaper in America.” Indeed, of 396 Washington Post newsroom employees, 37, or 9.3 percent, were Black; Black reporters comprised 17.5 percent of the 51-member Metro staff. Blacks accounted for 2 percent of the staffs of newspapers with circulation of more than 10,000, and 149 newspapers had none.

What is more, Bradlee promised the newspaper would amplify its recruitment efforts, and hire two more Black reporter-interns into its fiercely competitive program within a month. And he said the paper had twice offered the District editor job to Blacks who declined. The Africa bureau was closed because of financial constraints incurred by the Indo-Pakistani War, he said.

However, Bradlee’s five-page response failed to appease the Metro reporters, who’d begun generating support from White colleagues. Later that month, the Black Metro reporters demanded The Post implement a stronger affirmative action program to bolster the number of Blacks in virtually every job category to at least 35 percent. Within six months, the reporters requested that Blacks account for between 15 and 25 percent of national and foreign, financial, sports and editorial desk staffers. Black copy editors also should be hired in virtually every other section, as should assignment editors, the Metro reporters argued.

“The city of Washington was overwhelmingly Black, and I’d guess 35 to 45 percent of the stories in the paper had Blacks in them or were about civil rights,” says Mickelbury, who left the paper one year later and is now a Los Angeles-based novelist. “So, I don’t think it was an unreasonable request. It was an effort to get The Post where it needed to be.”

In turn, Bradlee offered to hire even more Black reporter-interns, and in the following month appointed Robert E.L. Baker as the newsroom’s equal opportunity officer, charged with overseeing the affirmative action plan. In addition, he promised to hire an additional African-American reporter to the national staff, a Black editor to the Metro desk, and initiate a formal coaching system that would pair senior staffers with cub reporters.

To the Metro 8 (one person dropped out), Bradlee’s response was “an insult to our commitment, vague and totally unacceptable.” A round of contentious meetings between the Metro reporters and editors followed, ending in an impasse.

“No alternative” to EEOC complaint

Penny Mickelbury had had enough. “I wasn’t in the mood for racism. I was disappointed and tired, and I really hadn’t come to Washington to put up with
the same kind of crap I put up with in Athens,” she says. “My tolerance level
had peaked.”

As it had for Black Metro reporters, whose coalition had dwindled to seven.

On March 23, 1972, the Metro Seven — as they came to be known — gathered before a throng of reporters and photographers at Metropolitan AME Church, literally behind The Post’s building, and announced they had filed an EEOC complaint charging the newspaper with “denying Black employees an equal opportunity with respect to job assignments, promotional opportunities, including promotions to management positions and other terms and conditions of employment.”

The group’s spokeswoman, Metro reporter LaBarbara Bowman, said during the news conference that “the complaint to the EEOC represents our belief that this discrimination cannot continue to exist at a publication in a city that is 71.1 percent Black.” She added that the discrimination complaint — the first filed against any American newspaper — “came after very much thought, very much consideration. We’re very sorry we had to take this step. There is no alternative.”

Post attorney Joseph A. Califano told The New York Times that “The Post feels it is as good or better than any other publication in this country” in the employment of Blacks, and that the newspaper had already established an affirmative action program. For the young reporters, all that mattered was ensuring that African-Americans had a significant role in interpreting contemporary events in American history, and so any feelings of nervousness were minute — although the risk was great.

Ron Taylor, for instance, had been at the newspaper only four months, and was still on probation when he signed onto the complaint. “I thought it was important. I wasn’t going to worry about my career. I could compete with anyone, so I didn’t have any real concern about whether I’d be blackballed.”

News of the Metro Seven  discussions triggered a series of columns, including one by The Post’s ombudsman Ben H. Bagdikian, who wrote that “if The Post is the best, it is still inadequate.”

As the Washington Post noted, “The commissioners voted against pursuing a staff finding of ‘reasonable cause to believe’ that discrimination existed at the paper but gave the plaintiffs a letter entitling them to sue in federal court. The suit was not pursued for financial reasons.”

However, it inspired a group of female Post staffers to file a discrimination suit, which the newspaper settled in 1980 with five-year hiring goals. The New York Times settled a discrimination suit by women in 1978, and Black staffers in 1980. Newspapers and, indeed, other corporations, implemented affirmative action programs in part to thwart the risk of lawsuits.

In 1978, the American Society of Newspaper Editors adopted an ambitious goal of achieving racial parity in the nation’s newsrooms by 2000, pledging that at least 17 percent of newspaper journalists would be of color. Twenty years later, only 12.07 percent of newspaper journalists were of racial or ethnic groups, which comprised more than one-quarter of the U.S. population.

The Washington Post changed, too. In a region that is more than 42 percent of color — and is projected to be majority-minority by decade’s end — 20.6 percent of the newspaper’s 640 reporters, editors, photographers, copy editors and information technology professionals are racial or ethnic minorities. In the last five years, there has been increased diversity on the newspaper’s foreign, financial and news desks. However, some departments, such as investigative and outlook, remain all White, and there are sharp declines on its sports and metro desk — the traditional entry point for the vast majority of reporters. This decline has enormous short- and long-term implications, acknowledged Milton Coleman, who as deputy managing editor, is the newspaper’s highest-ranking African American.

“Given the role that Metro plays in the ultimate staffing of the newspaper, if editors of sections can’t turn to Metro to find journalists who’ve been developed in The Washington Post tradition, it makes it harder for other staffs to diversify,” he said.

There’s still work to do

The Metro Seven remained in contact sporadically over the years, more frequently, lately, through e-mail. Now, they say, it is a joy watching a new generation of Black journalists climb to new heights. Ron Taylor, now a copy editor at the Bureau of National Affairs in Washington, pointed to DeNeen L. Brown, who as The Post’s Toronto bureau chief has reported from the North Pole.

“I think she does what I’d like to do,” he said, “stuff that, frankly, goes where Black people have never been.”

Yet, there is still much work to do. Earlier this year, Richard Prince, who returned to The Post as a part-time foreign desk copy editor, noticed the newspaper briefed a story about President Bush’s appointment of Gerald A. Reynolds, a Black lawyer who is a critic of preferences for racial and ethnic minorities, to head the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education. The New York Times ran a full story. “It’s those kinds of things that just [go] past the radar, and [show] there’s still work to be done.”
Article copyright NABJ.

The Metro Seven's 40th anniversary reunion, with other Washington Post alumni, April 2012.

The Metro Seven’s 40th anniversary reunion, with other Washington Post friends and alumni, April 2012. Top row, from left: Ivan C. Brandon, Sandy Davis, Craig Herndon, Michael B. Hodge, Richard Prince, Leon Dash, Ronald A. Taylor. Bottom row, from left: Hollie I. West,  Angela Terrell, Alice Bonner, Bobbi Bowman, Courtland Milloy.

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