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Prosecuting Genocide.

Pierre-Richard Prosper served as a prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal in Rwanda. In 1994, more than a half-million Rwandans were killed in a massacre. Last year, he successfully prosecuted the former Mayor of Taba, Rwanda for genocide. He also convicted the former official on rape charges. This is the first time rape has been recognized as a instrument of genocide. Prosper is an American attorney who worked for the Justice Department and for the Los Angeles County D.A.'s office.


Other segments from the episode on February 4, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 4, 1999: Interview with Pierre-Richard Prosper; Interview with Stanley Nelson and Vernon Jarrett.


Date: FEBRUARY 04, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 020401np.217
Head: Pierre-Richard Prosper
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Pierre Prosper is the first person to win a conviction for genocide in an international tribunal. His case also established the legal definition of what constitutes genocide. Prosper was a prosecutor with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

The tribunal was established by the UN to try cases relating to the 1994 genocide in which an estimated 10 percent of the population was killed. Prosper had previously worked in the Los Angeles D.A.'s office prosecuting gang-related homicides. And worked with the U.S. Justice Department prosecuting narcotics cartels and offenders.

His genocide case was against Jean-Paul Akayesu, who was mayor of the Rwandan village of Taba where 2,000 people of the Tutsi minority were killed. Akayesu was convicted last September after a 14 month trial and sentenced to life in prison.

A few weeks after winning the conviction, Prosper returned to the U.S. He's now working in the Justice Department. I asked him what Akayesu was convicted of.

PIERRE-RICHARD PROSPER, PROSECUTOR, INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL TRIBUNAL: One count of genocide. A count of direct and public incitement to commit genocide. Three counts of crimes against humanity -- murder. A count of crimes against humanity -- extermination. A count of crimes against humanity -- torture. A count of crimes against humanity -- other inhumane acts. And a count of crimes against humanity -- rape.

GROSS: Would you describe what you know of his role in the Rwandan genocide?

PROSPER: Well, Mr. Akayesu was the level -- was a government official. He was the equivalent of a mayor here in a big city in the United States. His role -- the best way to describe it would be as an administrator of the genocide, in a sense, because what you had is you had policy people at the top dictating the policy or the doctrine for the genocide. And you had people at the Akayesu level who would actually implement the plan.

GROSS: So what did he say to help spur on the genocide?

PROSPER: Well, a lot of it was propaganda. What he would do is he would play on the fears of the average farmer, most of these people were illiterate, essentially telling them that if you do not kill or attack the Tutsis they would attack you, kill you, or put you into slavery.

So he incited a population by telling them that you must go out. You must pick up arms. It is your duty to go out and kill these people.

GROSS: Now, I've read that he said the you should also rip babies from their mother's wombs.

PROSPER: Exactly. Part of the genocide -- it was not limited to the type of victims. They went after young and old alike and fetus. We had several stories that were told in the course of the trial that pregnant women were attacked. They were aborted or basically killed in such inhumane conditions that it was impossible for a fetus to survive.

The reason being is that they did not want a Tutsi child born into the world and to come back maybe 20, 30 years later and be an enemy.

GROSS: Did Akayesu actually participate in any of the killing?

PROSPER: The evidence that we had, and that the chamber agreed with, was that he ordered the killings of large numbers of people. We did place him at the scene of several massacre sites ordering his policemen or militias to go out and kill these people.

We did have some evidence that he would actually beat some people before they were actually killed. Actually, as far as physically killing or committing the act that caused death in the end, there was no evidence as such.

GROSS: Now I believe Akayesu never admitted guilt. What was his version of the story?

PROSPER: Well, Mr. Akayesu, throughout the entire course of the proceedings, never accepted responsibility. Essentially what his defense was that he was overrun by the militias. He was powerless. He couldn't do anything. He was threatened himself. He, like I said, he did not accept or admit any guilt.

But what he would say is that he wanted to save the people, but because the militias were so strong he was unable to do so . Therefore, he sat back passively and watched the genocide unfold in his community.

GROSS: How convincing was that?

PROSPER: It wasn't convincing at all compared to the evidence that we brought in . We marched in a series of witnesses who placed Akayesu at the scene of massacre sites, giving the orders, watching people being killed, watching the women being raped, encouraging militia men to rape these women.

And also, when you it in the context of Rwanda, the mayor, or the "bergmess" (ph) as its called in Rwanda, is probably the most powerful person in the day to day life of the average citizen. So for him to be powerless was just not credible. Again, because when he would give orders the community would listen.

GROSS: What was the most convincing thing you think you said during the trial?

PROSPER: That I said?

GROSS: Mmm-hmm.

PROSPER: Well, actually the -- my goal during the course of the trial was to really present a strong theory of the case. And the theory that I really pushed to the trial chamber was that this was a case of betrayal. It was a case of abuse of power.

And I say that again because of the position that Akayesu held -- he was a person that the average citizen went to for all sorts of advice. If they had a problem with their family members they went to Akayesu. If they had a land dispute they went to Akayesu. If they needed an ethnic identity card they went to Akayesu.

So when the people went to him seeking protection and he refused, and also turned into a predator, it was a clear case of betrayal. And I felt that once the chamber understood that they started to understand the case, and would except the evidence that we presented.

GROSS: This was the first genocide conviction in Rwanda. Did you think you'd get it?

PROSPER: I felt that I would get it. But I have to say it was a difficult case. Not for lack of evidence, but it was just difficult for many reasons to work through the logistics of bringing a case of this magnitude to trial. The fact that this has never been done before. There was no precedent. I had to rely on the Genocide Convention of 1948 which is basically a two page document.

I really had to search legal writings from scholars and diplomats alike to see what the global concept of genocide was. And we had to really break it down and formulate it into a legal, in a sense, policy for the chamber to follow in this case.

GROSS: This was the first trial that included rape as an instrument of genocide. Why did you decide to include it and how did you verbally include it as an act of genocide?

PROSPER: There's been a substantial amount of evidence in Rwanda that rape occurred during the events of April, May and June of 1994. Initially, a problem that we had was linking it up to an accused. We were able to do that in the Akayesu case in the middle of 1997 -- in June of 1997.

We included it as part of genocide because it was clear when you heard the evidence that these women were systematically raped in an effort to not only psychologically destroy them, but to destroy the group. To humiliate them to such an extent that they no longer even act as normal citizens of this earth. They're off to the side and they're just immaterial and irrelevant, in a sense.

GROSS: Was it hard to get women who had been raped to testify?

PROSPER: It was not easy. The hardest thing to do was to gain their trust. I remember going out in a field and meeting with some of these witnesses. We met on several occasions before they even agreed to come forward.

Firstly, because they -- again they had to gain my trust or I had to gain their trust and their confidence. And after a while, once that began to unfold, they began to talk to me about the events as to what happened. The next issue for them was, OK, would they be ready to talk about this in public, in a court of law before unknown judges, before the accused, before an international community that was watching?

And after spending a lot of time with them and discussing all their concerns and their fears, these women showed amazing strength and came forward and spoke in great detail about exactly what happened to them.

GROSS: What did it mean culturally for these women to be able to do that?

PROSPER: Well, culturally it was difficult, in a sense, because generally in Rwanda this is a subject that's taboo. If you've been a victim of rape you may even be outcast and no longer part of the normal society, which plays right into the genocide theory that we presented to the chamber.

But it was amazing that these women showed a collective strength and decided that it was very important that they come forward and have a story be told. It was important that the point the finger of accusation to the accused, letting everyone now what the role of that person was and how that person was responsible for what had happened to them and thousands and thousands of other women.

GROSS: My guest is Pierre-Richard Prosper. He was a trial attorney with the office of the prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. We're going to talk more after we take a short break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Pierre-Richard Prosper. He is the trial attorney with the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, who convicted Jean-Paul Akayesu of nine counts of genocide and crimes against humanity. Akayesu was the mayor of the Rwandan village of Taba, where about -- a minimum of 2,000 people of the Tutsi minority were killed.

What was it like for you to deal with the magnitude of genocide? I mean, you've been used to a lot of terrible crimes and murders and drug cartels, but not genocide.

PROSPER: You know, it's one of those things where it's so unimaginable what happened in Rwanda. The fact that people could commit such heinous offenses -- go out and kill in such large numbers. I think what I had to do was to really put a shell around myself and just look at this objectively and try to get the job done.

I listened to the stories of the victims which were horrendous. It was just incredible accounts of what they went through. And took it, and objectively applied it to the law that I had and tried to present the best case that I could to the chamber.

GROSS: Did Akayesu fit your description of a man who was guilty of genocide? Physically. I mean, I don't know if you had an image in your head about what a man who would be capable of genocide would look like.

PROSPER: Well, that's -- I'm trying to think back to when I first joined the tribunal, if I had a thought of what a genocide war criminal would look like. It's difficult to say if I had an image in mind, but what I can say is that he did not fit that image.

Because when I first saw Akayesu in court what really stood out to meet was that this was an educated man. A charming man, in a sense, by his presence. Persuasive. He was a politician. A family man, in a sense.

When we saw him in court he was very respectful of all parties including myself. It was a complete contrast to the evidence that I had on paper at the time. But as the case evolved you could see that this was a person with two sides, with two faces.

He had the public persona that he would present to the chamber, and presumably to the community at some point in time. Then there was this much darker and sinister side that we heard about through the course of the trial and proved to the trial chamber.

GROSS: Did you come to think of him as a psychopath or sociopath?

PROSPER: Not really. I mean, the way I saw him was that he was a man that made a cold, calculated, political decision to commit genocide. I think what he was doing was looking out for his best interests -- political interests -- to see what would advance him the furthest. He obviously had to have some level of hatred for the Tutsis to commit these attacks, but it really appeared to be a calculated political decision.

GROSS: That's a very extreme decision. I mean, there's a lot of politicians who we would accuse of back stabbing maybe, but not genocide.

PROSPER: Exactly. But what you have to do is you have to look at the environment in which he was operating in. It was an environment of genocide, in a sense, at that time. And I say that because the killings began in Rwanda on April the 6th, that evening, of 1994.

Akayesu did not really join the party, so to speak, until the night of the 18th of April 1994. So in that interim period, the evidence we produced was that he was monitoring the situation to see which way he should go. Which way the tide was turning. And then he finally made that decision and went with it.

GROSS: You've tried a lot of cases in the United States. What's something that you were used to doing in U.S. courts that you couldn't do in the war crimes tribunal?

PROSPER: One of the things was -- for example, the rule of evidence and objections. You know, here we object quite frequently to certain questions being asked or certain answers. At the tribunal, the judges took the approach of essentially letting a lot of evidence in, and then in the end they would decide what was relevant and what was credible evidence.

I became more comfortable with that in the end because I realized that I was pleading the case to experienced personnel as opposed to a jury who might not have legal training. But that was one of the things I had to get used to.

GROSS: You formerly prosecuted gangs in Los Angeles. You worked against the Colombian drug cartel. Do you see any connections between your work prosecuting gangs and gang-related crimes and prosecuting the Colombian drug cartel and your work in Rwanda?

PROSPER: That's -- I mean, it is a difficult question in a sense that the magnitude of the offense is just so different. But what we are dealing with here is human tragedy. We're dealing with people, as far as perpetrators, who are manipulative and manipulated by ideologues or what have you, in a sense.

Then you have these victims who are so helpless and so vulnerable to the environment in which they are operating in. I think you find that obviously in a gang community you have these helpless victims who are -- who may be just standing by and are caught in some sort of gang warfare.

With the perpetrators you have gang members who believe the doctrine that's being administered by their gang members or that community, and they go out and perpetrate these crimes. And in a drug environment you have people -- influential people -- taking advantage of a criminal environment for personal gain.

And you have the same thing in Rwanda with politicians taking advantage of a genocidal environment for personal gain.

GROSS: And all these situations that people involved with the violence seem to have to find ways to transform their victims into non people.

PROSPER: Exactly. And that's the thing about genocide is that the individual, in a sense, just does not matter. You're targeting the group. So when -- that's why I believe that many of these people were able to go out and kill their neighbors.

They no longer saw them as their neighbors. Then longer saw them as a friend. They no longer saw them as a family member. They saw them as a Tutsi.

GROSS: Was there anything that you learned in prosecuting gang members or drug cartel members that you found very helpful in prosecuting Akayesu for genocide?

PROSPER: To prosecute this case I really had to draw upon a lot of different experiences. And I think one of the main experiences that really helped me here was dealing with victims of violence -- acts of violence. The key for me was, I think, to really understand the -- not only the pain, but the fears of the victims. What their concerns are or were.

Because the key is to really make the witness or the victim feel comfortable enough to come out and tell the full story. So what I learned from the cases, in a sense, was just really to sit back and listen to the story. Listen to the victim. Really be a human. Not get caught up in, OK, this is my job. I'm just a prosecutor here.

What I would do is I would put my prosecutorial hat to the side for a minute and just talk to them as a human being, and then eventually move into the lawyer mode -- the prosecutor mode and prepare them for trial.

GROSS: How do you think you were changed by this experience of prosecuting for genocide and war crimes?

PROSPER: Well, Terry, I'm still trying to figure that out right now myself. And I think what I'm trying to do is really come to terms with everything that I saw and everything that I heard. What I can say is it's definitely touched me more on the human level. I've become more compassionate to the pain and suffering of people, not only throughout the world but even here at home.

It's easy for us as individuals to read something in the paper and say, "oh, gee, that's terrible." And then you turn the page and go to some later news. But I think it really takes a special person to pay attention to some of these things and try to do something to make a difference. So I'm hoping that this experience helps me, not only now, but in the future. And I hope I can continue to contribute in some way or form to, I guess, humanity.

GROSS: Akayesu was convicted and given a life sentence. Was there a possibility of a death sentence? Is their capital punishment in Rwanda?

PROSPER: Well, there is capital punishment in Rwanda, but in the tribunal. And this was actually a big issue that we had to deal with. The United Nations, in one of its previous declarations or convention, has a prohibition against the death penalty.

So the maximum penalty that we could impose was life imprisonment. But in Rwanda you actually have the death penalty. And again, the issue was why should a low level perpetrator get the death penalty when the high level orchestrator or organizer received life imprisonment in some foreign prison?

So we were at odds a bit with the Rwandan government, and we just had to explain to them that the international community is against the death penalty.


...before a firing squad. Meanwhile, Akayesu is found guilty and he receives life imprisonment.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

PROSPER: Oh, thank you for having me.

GROSS: Pierre Prosper was a prosecutor with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. He now works with the Justice Department.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Pierre-Richard Prosper
High: Pierre-Richard Prosper served as a prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal in Rwanda. In 1994, more than a half-million Rwandans were killed in a massacre. Last year he successfully prosecuted the former mayor of Taba, Rwanda for genocide. He also convicted the former official on rape charges. This is the first time rape has been recognized as an instrument of genocide. Prosper is an American attorney who worked for the Justice Department and for the Los Angeles County D.A.'s office.
Spec: Africa; Crime; Death; Human Rights; Justice; Trials; Murders; Rape; Violence; War; World Affairs; Pierre-Richard Prosper

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Pierre-Richard Prosper

Date: FEBRUARY 04, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 020402NP.217
Head: Stanley Nelson
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:30

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Stanley Nelson has made a new documentary about the newspapers published by African-Americans for African-Americans. These black papers were particularly important in the period between slavery and the Civil Rights movement.

Nelson's movie, "The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords," just won the Freedom of Expression Award at the Sundance Film Festival. It will be shown on many public TV stations Monday night. I asked Nelson why he wanted to do a documentary about the black press.

STANLEY NELSON, FILMMAKER, "THE BLACK PRESS: SOLDIERS WITHOUT SWORDS": Well, I've done a couple of other historical documentaries, and I found that I was using the black newspapers as a primary source of research. And in looking at the papers I would just become fascinated and sidetracked by the papers themselves, and so I would be looking for a story on page six and find myself stuck on page one reading slowly, you know, through the whole paper. And I just thought the papers themselves would make great stories.

GROSS: When you were researching subjects what was covered in the black papers or covered differently in the black papers?

NELSON: Well, I think just about everything. The mainstream papers didn't cover African-American communities at all. So, you know, births, deaths, society news, sports news. Those were all covered in the black papers and they weren't covered in the mainstream papers.

In the film, we take the case of World War II and look at the way the black press covered World War II differently from the way the white or mainstream press covered World War II. And one of the ways that the black press did that was by saying that World War II was really an opportunity for African-Americans to push for freedom at home while pushing for freedom around the world.

GROSS: What do you consider to be the importance of the "Chicago Defender?" It's a paper that originated in Chicago, but also had a big constituency in the South.

NELSON: The "Chicago Defender," in the first 20 years of the century, pushed for African-Americans to come North. Primarily to come to Chicago. And it was partially responsible for the great migration of African-Americans from the South to the North and the West, which changed the look of this country.

You know, black people went from being rural people -- in general, rural people -- thought of as rural people -- to, you know, urban people. And the "Chicago Defender" was one of the major players in that movement.

GROSS: Why did the paper push for that?

NELSON: Well, there's two reasons, I think. One was that its publisher, Robert Abbott, came from the South to Chicago. And for him it made sense. I mean, he was a relatively poor African-American coming from the South and he met with great success in the North that he knew he couldn't have met with in the South.

The other more cynical reason was that it increased his circulation. You know, the more black people that he had in Chicago the more people who could buy the paper. Also, the paper was extremely popular in the South because Robert Abbott could say things that Southern papers couldn't.

I mean, he was very very militant, you know, he had editorials that he would sign, "To Hell with the Ku Klux Klan." And that would be how he signed off his editorials. He said, "if the mob comes to your door then stop them with a shotgun." These were things that, you know, black publishers and editors could not say in the South. And Robert Abbott could say them and it increased his circulation.

GROSS: He became a millionaire. It sounds like he was, among other things, a very shrewd businessman.

NELSON: Yeah, he was an incredible businessman. I mean, it was his idea to -- he started out with nothing. His story is that he started out with 25 cents and cut articles out from other papers and made up his paper from cutting articles out.

And as the paper became more popular he just increased its size and its scope and sent the paper down South, which was an incredibly ingenious decision. Because that's where the vast majority of African-Americans lived. So he sent the paper down South and said things from his vantage point in the North that Southern publishers couldn't say. And became, as you say, a millionaire.

GROSS: Your film makes the point that the Civil Rights movement was really a turning point for the black press. It made -- in some ways it made the black press less powerful. Could you explain?

NELSON: I think that what happened during the Civil Rights movement -- a couple of things happened. One, mainstream papers began to cover African-Americans a little bit. This was probably the biggest story -- the biggest domestic story of the century was the Civil Rights movement, and so it had to be covered. It couldn't be avoided by mainstream papers.

Also, during the riots of that era mainstream papers began to hire black people away from the African-American newspapers to cover riots because they were scared of sending the white reporters into these kind of battle zones. So they hired black reporters and sent them in.

So those kinds of things really helped in bringing down the circulation -- those kinds of things helped bring down the circulation of black papers.

GROSS: Because black readers could turn to mainstream papers and find important black issues covered there -- covered sometimes by black reporters.

NELSON: Right. They could do that, and also you had a real brain drain. So the quality of the papers went down when the mainstream papers could pay a lot more money. They reached a lot more readers. They had more prestige. So a lot of the writers would jump ship and go to mainstream papers.

GROSS: What do you consider to be the state of the black press today?

NELSON: Well, I think the black press isn't nearly where it used to be. I think that, you know, it's not as popular. It's not as powerful as it used to be. I mean, there are some -- there are some real hopeful signs. There are some papers that are retooling themselves. I think we still need the black press


NELSON: Well, I think that the fight for equality that the black press was pushing for -- you know, the black press has to be understood as a real advocacy press. It was advocating for African-American communities, and I still think that African-American communities are not on an equal footing in this country. So, we -- the African-American community still needs advocates. And the best advocate for that, I feel, is the press.

GROSS: Stanley Nelson, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

NELSON: It was my pleasure. Thank you.

GROSS: Stanley Nelson produced and directed the new documentary, "The Black Press." It will be shown Monday night on many public TV stations.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Stanley Nelson
High: This Monday, February 8, 1999, PBS will air the documentary "The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords." This is the first documentary to provide an in-depth examination of the history of African-American newspapers. We'll hear from the film's producer Stanley Nelson.
Spec: Entertainment; Lifestyle; Culture; Race Relations; Stanley Nelson

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Stanley Nelson

Date: FEBRUARY 04, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 020403NP.217
Head: Vernon Jarrett
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:36

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Vernon Jarrett is one of the journalists interviewed in the new documentary "The Black Press." He started his career in the mid '40s working for one of the most influential black papers, the "Chicago Defender."

Jarrett went on to write Op-ed columns for the "Chicago Tribune" and the "Chicago Sun-Times," and to serve on the "Sun-Times" editorial board. He retired in 1995. Jarrett was a co-founder and second president of the National Association of Black Journalists. He was the first recipient of the NAACP's James Weldon Johnson Achievement Award.

I asked him what the "Chicago Defender" meant to him.

VERNON JARRETT, JOURNALIST, "CHICAGO DEFENDER": I came to Chicago in the latter part of March 1946 from Paris, Tennessee. I had one purpose in mind -- primary purpose -- professionally -- and that was to write for the "Chicago Defender." I had been brought up on the "Chicago Defender" as a child.

Much of the ambitions that I developed as a child came from seeing the pictures and reading about the successes of other people in the "Chicago Defender," and I must say the "Pittsburgh Courier," and occasionally the "Afro American" out of Baltimore.

The "Chicago Defender" had such a powerful tradition as a defender, like its name, and protector of black people in the South until it's just difficult to give just appreciation of what that publication meant to me. The "Chicago Defender," everybody knew about it. Even people who couldn't read.

GROSS: Well, you grew up in a small town -- in Paris, Tennessee. What did the "Chicago Defender" mean to your family in the small Tennessee town when you were growing up?

JARRETT: Well, we read it. We looked forward to it. And remember, when I was a kid Joe Louis was on the scene. Joe Louis was a combination of Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall, Walter Payton and, what would become the greatest athlete of our time, Michael Jordan.

That may be a little difficult for younger people in their 20s or even in their 30s to understand. But there were no great victories scored during my childhood by black people that we knew about. But we did have Joe Louis, so the interest in Joe Louis made us all look forward to those weekend publications, such as the "Chicago Defender" and the "Pittsburgh Courier," that came into our city.

Because here we could see the pictures of these great triumphs of Joe Louis, "The Brown Bomber" "the Dark Destroyer," defeating white folks. Which is something we had to be a bit quiet -- innocent about bragging when it comes to doing anything that might contradict the society that we lived in.

And remember, I grew up in a very racist society. America was at its zenith almost as a racist country. It was tapering off a little bit. It wasn't quite like it was during the 1920s, but America was thoroughly a racist country.

And we could read about the achievements, and of course Joe Louis captivated us because he was winning physically and he was a champion. But we read much more about Joe Louis than we did other people who were probably more deserving in an academic sense.

GROSS: What else did you read about in the "Chicago Defender" when you were young that you didn't find in other newspapers?

JARRETT: Well, I can think of plenty. We were born. You heard about people being born in the "Chicago Defender." You heard about people getting married in the "Chicago Defender." You didn't read about that in the white publications. We were called "Mr.," "Mrs.," "Dr." We heard about our Ph.D.'s. We heard about our black scientists.

And above all, you had columnists expressing their opinions -- intellectuals. I think this is one facet of the black press that has been a bit ignored, maybe a little too much. We had two pages, or at least one full page, in all of the black newspapers of note dealing with black intellectuals.

A fine example: Dubois, probably one of the world's great scholars of this century, wrote a column every week for the "Chicago Defender." The famous poet that we had been reading about during Negro history week, Langston Hughes. He wrote a column for the "Chicago Defender" called "Samuel (ph) Speaks His Mind."

He used the same technique that so many writers do by having a conversation with a cab driver. Well, this was a guy who was always in some kind of situation where repartee was going on between the two of them about the great issues of our time.

GROSS: What stories made the biggest impact while you were writing for the "Defender?" Not necessarily your stories, but the stories published in the paper.

JARRETT: Well, remember, the very nature of the black press was protest journalism. We were always protesting the inequities that society had forced on us. We were always reporting tragedies and lynchings and atrocities -- lynching is not the proper word. We're talking about the atrocities from the South.

We were very sensitive of people being denied access to anything. Of course -- remember, we're talking about post World War II where all of the great enunciations about freedom -- full freedoms -- and about defeating Hitler and the Nazi regimes -- fascist-like regimes: Hitler, Hirohito, Mussolini.

You see, that war was a little different. This was a war based on the clash of idealisms. And here we were in America still not having an anti-lynching bill passed. People were being lynched in the South in 1946. Veterans were afraid to come home and wear their uniform.

So we had one protest story after another. Now, all of that mixed in with our goals and what we were going to achieve. Goals about what we expected. And the black press became the primary source, along with NAACP of course, of pressure on governments and big industry to live up to the pronouncements that came out of World War II. That was the climate in which I grew up.

GROSS: Now I know one of your editors when you started to work at the "Chicago Defender" was white. Were there many white people working at the paper?

JARRETT: Well, he was a city editor. Yes, isn't this interesting? I'm happy that you brought that up. You see, the "Chicago Defender" had set an example on integration while urging others to do the same.

One of my editors was a fellow named Saul Garfield. And before that there was another editor, I didn't serve under him he left and went to "Ebony," named Ben Burns. And across the desk from me was another young white man who went under the name of Fox. I learned later that that was not really his name, but he didn't care to have his real name written in the bylines of the "Chicago Defender."

There was another woman -- a white woman -- who was a reporter there, and we all got along fine. No pressure at all. Because the editors who were white were all true believers. You get what I mean? They had a little of the crusade in them.

GROSS: They shared your sense of mission.

JARRETT: Absolutely.

GROSS: Your goal when you came to Chicago was to work at the "Chicago Defender." You succeeded in doing that. How long did you stay?

JARRETT: Oh, I wasn't at the "Chicago Defender" hardly more than -- a little over two years. And then a young man -- a composer that you may have heard of named Oscar Brown Jr. was growing up in Chicago, and his father had a big food distributing company and a school. And we went over into radio. I think it's one of the best kept secrets today.

Oscar Brown Jr. and I, beginning in 1948, became the first black newscasters -- news, now -- on a major radio station, maybe in America. Every morning. I wrote the script and he did the narratives. From all over the country. This is why I'm mostly a night person now.

I used to go downtown at the bookstore right where the old Chicago library used to be at Michigan and Randolph. It's now the city's cultural center. And I would buy up all of the major newspapers from out of town, and walk across the street to Triangle Restaurant and pick out every story -- I learned to really skim read and read fast -- pertaining to African-Americans from all over the world. Every night for five nights a week.

And I would take this stuff and digest it and put it in a newscast in 15 minutes for the next morning over WJJD, that's the station Marshall Fields, the liberal editor and founder of the "Chicago Sun-Times," owned. And we had a fantastic news thing.

So I went from newspaper to radio. And I also worked for another black organization that since has become -- it's gone out of business. And that is the Associated Negro Press. This is a fairly reasonable facsimile of UPI for black papers.

GROSS: My guest is journalist Vernon Jarrett. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is journalist Vernon Jarrett. He got his start writing for the influential black newspaper the "Chicago Defender." He's one of the interviewees in the new documentary "The Black Press," which will be shown Monday night on many public TV stations.

You spent two years working at the "Chicago Defender." Later in your career, in 1970, you became the first African-American syndicated op-ed columnist and for the "Chicago Tribune." Would you compare for us the experience of writing at the "Defender" to being the first African-American Op-ed columnist at the "Tribune?"

JARRETT: The big difference -- at the "Chicago Defender" I felt a certain type of freedom just to unleash and express myself. And I didn't have to worry about whether someone understood me or not. I knew the readers knew what I met, what I was talking about.

But when you have a vast audience of people from different walks of life, different races and religions, you got to make sense to them too. Because the black experience is an entity, a sociological, psychological and spiritual entity within itself.

And I had to re-word and re-word re-word over and over what I was really trying to say. You couldn't throw around incidents for an analogy like I could on a black newspaper.

One example, I couldn't say, like the Scotchberg boys (ph) of the 1930s. A lot of white people didn't know what I was talking about -- the Scotchberg boys. Some of them wouldn't even know today. They don't know that was one of the celebrated cases in history of some young people who were going to be legally lynched for a crime that most of us felt they didn't even remotely commit.

GROSS: So you'd been used to the sense of shared experience which you didn't have when you were writing for a readership that was probably a majority of white readers.

JARRETT: The temptation when you first get a job at the "Chicago Tribune" was to tell off white folks. See, the temptation, if you're not careful, is to get to have a public forum -- a microphone, a megaphone as it were, where you could finally get a chance to straighten out white people as well as black people.

I have to add that on because there are a lot of black people who didn't have my experiences and who are probably more ignorant of their own history than I grew up being. Now that may say like a contradiction, but you have a vast wasteland of ignorance here on what the black experience has been -- even among black youths. Because most black youths today never had the experience that I had as a child in Tennessee.

GROSS: I just want to get back to something you said before. Did you use a lot of your columns to tell off the white folks, so to speak?

JARRETT: Yeah, well you had to. And also, do what I learned from the old black press, that is to straighten out some black people. I don't want to be to specific here, but I was highly critical of certain black leaders in my columns. And the black press -- don't think that they didn't do it too. We've never had any black leader in our history who was entirely immune or vaccinated from criticism in the black newspapers.

The black newspapers helped keep them straight. That goes all the way back from Booker T. Washington, Dubois -- all of them had to pass muster before the black editors. And it was good. And some of them had their own personal reasons. Some of our black editors were just like everybody else. They could be bought. They played politics.

GROSS: Does the "Chicago Defender" still published?

JARRETT: Oh, yes. It's a daily newspaper here. It's not anywhere near what it was, but it's still being published here. Is the only black -- truly black daily newspaper that we have in the country.

GROSS: Do you still read it?

JARRETT: Of course. I subscribe to it.

GROSS: And how would you say it compares to what it was like when you wrote there in the mid '40s?

JARRETT: Oh, there's no comparison. You see, at one time the black newspapers had an absolutely captive audience. The white papers acted as though we didn't exist. There were exceptions. The white papers insulted us by what they left out.

Let me give you an example. When I was -- getting back to the Joe Lewis period -- we're talking about the '30s. The biggest newspapers in Tennessee were the "Memphis Commercial Appeal," the "Nashville Tennessean," the "Nashville Banner," and the "Memphis Press Senator." Most of those newspapers, I'm not to sure about the "Tennessean," but most of those newspapers didn't carry any photographs of Joe Louis' fights.

Remember, Joe Louis was the Michael Jordan of his period. But he didn't -- he hardly existed in the minds of these people. They wrote the word "Negro" with a small "n." One of the great newspapers in Chicago was the focal point of protest because they used the word "Negro" behind all crime stories committed by blacks.

In other words, "Jack Jones, Negro was arrested." That sort of thing. No other ethnic identities for any other ethnic group but us. They wouldn't refer to us says "Mr." or "Mrs." in any way unless you were a venerable, lovable, acceptable, accommodating type of black person you didn't get in the newspaper.

GROSS: Vernon Jarrett, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

JARRETT: All right.

GROSS: Vernon Jarrett is one of the interviewees in the new documentary "The Black Press," which will be shown Monday night on many public TV stations.

I'm Terry Gross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Vernon Jarrett
High: Vernon Jarrett discusses his career as a journalist. Jarrett wrote for the African-American newspaper, "Chicago Defender."
Spec: Lifestyle; Culture; Race Relations; Vernon Jarrett

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Vernon Jarrett
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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