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National Association of Black Journalists convention a major milestone for Boston

Robin Washington
National Association of Black Journalists convention a major milestone for Boston
The Boston Globe and the Boston Association of Black Journalists hosted a welcoming party for the members of the National Association of Black Journalists attending their national conference in Boston. Music, mixing,mingling, networking and partying was the order of the evening that brought together some 700 people at Fenway Park enjoying New England’s own lobster rolls. Photo credit: © DON WEST (Photo: Don West)

When the National Association of Black Journalists was founded in Washington, D.C. in 1975, Boston was in the throes of the court-ordered busing crisis. Even as members of the fledgling group joked their meetings could have been held in a phone booth, the city did not rate high in their convention plans.

Last week, nearly 2,000 black journalists gathered at the Hynes Convention Center and Sheraton Boston Hotel, challenging a perception of Boston as hostile to African Americans that has endured over the organization’s 39 years.

“We never had it in Boston before because Boston had a bad reputation insofar as the treatment of black people is concerned,” said Roxbury’s Sarah-Ann Shaw, a retired WBZ-TV reporter and NABJ lifetime achievement honoree. “It happened this time because there have been some small changes, and a group of us here met with the (NABJ) board and made a pitch, and said, ‘come, I think you’ll enjoy it.’”

NABJ, which advocates for increased black employment in a profession lagging in diversity, and for the accurate, non-stereotypical depiction of blacks by the news media, has held its yearly convention in dozens of cities, with repeat visits to places like Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Orlando. Yet Boston never got the nod nor seriously tried for it, even though the Boston Association of Black Journalists is older than its national counterpart.

That changed when the national group held a board meeting here a few years ago and BABJ and the city’s convention and visitors bureau made a bid, explained NABJ President Bob Butler, a San Francisco radio news reporter originally from Chelsea.

“They were telling us … that Boston had changed and they wanted us to help them tell the rest of the country and the world that Boston was not the Boston you remember from the busing crisis,” Butler said.

If that reputation was lingering — “All I knew about Boston was about the school busing thing,” said first-time visitor Denise Clay of Philadelphia — a Thursday night outing to the upper deck State Street Pavilion at Fenway Park helped dispel it. Hosted by Red Sox and Boston Globe owner John Henry, convention-goers mingled with local community leaders, including Boston Branch NAACP President Michael Curry and Banner Publisher Melvin Miller, for what may well have been a history-making event.

“I’ve been to several events at Fenway Park over the years,” WCVB-TV’s Karen Holmes Ward said of the ballpark, itself marred by a less-than-welcoming reputation of unruly white fans of the last Major League Baseball team to integrate. “I would venture to guess that the event … probably was the largest concentration of people of color that was ever in the State Street Pavilion.”

BABJ member and freelance journalist Melanie Morris agreed, attempting a count: “The sign says ‘capacity 500,’” she said, noting it was packed to the gills.

The journalists weren’t just in town to party. Seminars and workshops tackled serious issues, such as a discussion on race in America with TV host Ed Gordon and Harvard law Professor Charles Ogletree. Noting that black families still face obstacles to health care, education and jobs, Ogletree analyzed a W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Ebony Magazine poll that found 84 percent of African Americans saying racial discrimination continues to pervade U.S. society and 44 percent saying they personally know a victim of homicide or suicide. Particularly germane to NABJ’s objectives is the perception by 52 percent of respondents that media portrayal of blacks is generally negative.

Political figures made appearances, including a welcome by Gov. Deval Patrick, who unabashedly lauded the success of liberal and Democratic initiatives — while also praising Republican National Committee chairman Reince Preibus for attending. At his turn at the podium, Preibus said his party could no longer afford to write off the black vote and must diligently work for it, lambasting a prevailing attitude “that it’s OK to show up once every four years about five months before an election.”

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh offered more personal remarks, saying he grew up watching Shaw on TV and that she was someone his family trusted with the news.

Even lighter moments were subject to the journalists’ scrutiny. While laugher roared from a packed theater at a special screening of “Get On Up,” the Mick Jagger-produced biopic of James Brown, members commented on its disjointed script. Former WGBH-TV reporter Marcus Jones, now of Washington, D.C., said he has intensely studied Channel 2’s footage of Brown’s historic televised Boston concert in the wake of the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and that the movie matched it perfectly. But the film took broad liberties in depicting other parts of Brown’s life that were equally well-documented.

Jones also commented on whether the convention would have a lasting effect on the city.

“It all depends on the local (non-black) folks who remain,” he said, “in terms of the attitudes of the people they interacted with.”

Callie Crossley of WGBH radio echoed that — but noted that the journalists weren’t the only black group in town making an impression.

“The Boule was in Boston last week,” she said of the elite national professional fraternity. “Now to have this convention in the same area is really amazing.”

Yet, she said, the city is still fighting an unwelcoming image, and not all in the distant past.

“I will say it does not help when three members of the City Council refused to support a resolution honoring Brown v. Board of Education and the sea change it brought to this country because they thought it was supporting busing. I just have no words (for that),” Crossley said of a “present” vote last May by Councilors Bill Linehan, Steve Murphy and Sal LaMattina.

Still, she said, some actions speak louder than words or council votes.

“When the Boule was here, the men were very busy and I’m told their wives spent a lot at those shops. They wore out those Prudential shops,” she said, noting the journalists crowded the mall, too. “So when people start understanding what others have said lo these many years that black is really about green, maybe there’s some image changing.”

Former Banner managing editor Robin Washington was a two-time president of the Boston Association of Black Journalists and a longtime board member of the National Association of Black Journalists in the 1990s and 2000s. He lives in Duluth, Minn.

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