MLK commemoration highlights the struggle for civil rights and inclusion

One of Dorothy Butler Gilliam’s first assignments at The Washington Post was covering integration in the deeply segregated South. As the newspaper’s first African-American female reporter, the work carried particular pressures and dangers.

Speaking at the University of Chicago’s commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr., Butler Gilliam recalled the courage of James Meredith, who sparked riots when he enrolled at the University of Mississippi in the fall of 1962. She also detailed the conviction of black journalists who felt unsafe and unwelcome covering the civil rights movement across the South—often smuggling in typewriters or wearing disguises, or in Butler Gilliam’s case, sleeping at a black-owned funeral home to get the story.

“I knew that if I failed, it would be tougher for the next black woman to be hired by a major daily newspaper,” Butler Gilliam said.

Her speech at the Jan. 16 commemoration included a discussion with her daughter, UChicago Prof. Melissa Gilliam, on civil rights, today’s media landscape and Butler Gilliam’s efforts for equal rights. The event capped a number of events in UChicago’s 28th annual celebration, which included the presentation of the Diversity Leadership Awards to faculty member Randolph N. Stone, alumna Sunny Fischer and staff member Scott Cook.

Below is an edited transcript of Butler Gilliam’s conversation with Melissa Gilliam, Vice Provost for Academic Leadership, Advancement, and Diversity and the Ellen H. Block Professor of Health Justice: 

Melissa Gilliam: I’d like you to begin by taking us back to where you started, to the civil rights movement. What compelled you as we, many of us, are thinking, “What do we do in this moment in time?”

Dorothy Butler Gilliam: I think I would use the example of James Meredith, as a young person who got involved in something quite dangerous. One thing was that he had been exposed—he was a veteran—to living in places and situations where the harsh segregation of America was not practiced. He knew that there was a better way for him to live. Medgar Evers, who was also killed in Mississippi, was also a veteran. And I always think of how Congressman John Lewis talks about his own decision to, as he said, “get in the way.” It wasn’t because parents were an example, it was a deep, abiding conviction that they had to move to make change. And I think that you know, the exposure to other places, the knowledge that not all African-Americans, or “Negroes” as they were called then, or “blacks,” were treated in other places the way they were treated in America.

All of this gave people the moral courage that Dr. King pushed us to have. The other thing was that Dr. King stressed that individually we have a power, and this helped to magnify the individual’s understanding of how important it was to be a part of this great revolution.

MG: There’s a lot of attention now on The Post, for example the new movie. I’d like you to talk about what was it like to be, not only in a place where there were very few black people, where there were very few women, and nobody else who held both identities. We talk here about imposter syndrome—meaning there’s a certain sense of insecurity when you go into these places. What did it feel like to be the only black woman in a very large organization?

DBG: It was very tough at times, and I don’t want to sound beleaguered here but, you know, the rejection hurt. There were the difficulties in getting around, you know, and still having the same expectations of me that they would have of the white reporters.  If I couldn’t get a cab to get back and forth to the office, then it made it just more difficult to do the work. Luckily, I had attended a women’s college for two years and learned shorthand, and so when I finally got a taxi I could sit in the back and use my shorthand to start writing the story so that when I got to the office I didn’t have to start from scratch. But I’m happy to say that by the 1970s there were African-Americans, people of color, more women.

MG: You mentioned that efforts to diversify the media were successful but now faltering. What are your thoughts about the current attack on media and the prospects for diversity in the media?

DBG: I think the current attacks on the media are very, very dangerous. I think they are dangerous internationally: The American democracy has been a touchstone around the world, so when you have a president who makes the kinds of statements that are being made, some things are tweeted, they’re erased the next day. But it still has a very destabilizing effect on the American democracy, internally and throughout the world. I think it not only lowers the prestige, but it also raises questions in the minds of people around the world. So a lot of people say that, “The media should just not pay attention to tweets and disregard them,” but it’s just more serious than that, it’s about the cumulative impact of this kind of behavior. There is so much turmoil in the world now that it only adds to that ongoing, earthquake-like disturbance that is taking place.

MG: So, one of the challenges people mention is that there’s just significantly less diversity in the media. We have a project here, led by Prof. Cathy Cohen called the Black Youth Project, and BYP10, in which young people themselves are making media. Can you talk a little bit about ways in which people who are being disenfranchised, marginalized, in the media are able to still get their voices heard?

DBG: Well, right now we’re kind of in the new century of journalism, which is very different. It’s in the process of, being made. We know—The Washington Post is one of the few daily newspapers that has done any significant hiring in the last year or two. That’s pretty significant. Newspapers are continuing to reduce staff. But we have the emergence of new readership habits, and also we have the emergence of social media in young people, and I’ve been espousing the importance of giving young people voice and many of them have certain views of social media, and to good effect. I think media is in the process now of developing into what it’s going to be. In many ways, media and technology are partners. But there are just a lot of questions, a lot of challenges. I think what is yet to come is certainly yet to be seen.