He has had a career that every journalist would dream of: He was the editor of Newsweek, (the first African American to become head of a national newsweekly), the managing editor of CNN Worldwide, and the Washington bureau chief for NBC News. He has authored several books and now comes his latest, and arguably, most important.
Saying It Loud (published by Simon and Schuster) is about the birth of the Black Power movement, which sounds monumental. Whitaker thought so too, at first.
“I figured I would take the story from there to the Angela Davis trial in 1972,” he says. “But a year later, I was still on 1966.” He realized that was the pivotal moment when so many things in the Civil Rights movement were happening.
That is largely due to Stokely Carmichael’s taking over the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from John Lewis, and introducing the determined new cry for power. “It was also the year,” Whitaker says, “when Blacks didn’t want to be called Negroes, when they started sporting Afros, and there was the first push for Black Studies programs.”
Whitaker does not ignore cultural changes happening as well. “Leroi Jones was writing and influencing people like August Wilson,” he says, and ardent jazz fans and artists were proudly singing it loud.”
Familiar names like Carmichael, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and controversial figures get a closer look in Whitaker’s informative take. But so do others who may not have raised fists, but surely raised consciousness. The author said what surprised him in his years of research was discovering people like Jimmy Garrett, a 23-year old who won a bet that he could build a black student movement on a predominantly white campus. Garrett also organized Hollywood fundraisers for civil rights supporters like Jane Fonda and Candice Bergen. Whitaker writes about the night Garrett was planning one at the home of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. It turned out to be the night of the city’s Watts riots. Garrett himself skipped the party and hit the streets.
Whitaker also focuses on a woman named Ruby Doris (Smith) Robinson, who had a long and winding road to ending up as a key player at SNCC. “Several times she brought the baby to the office and breast-fed him during meetings,” writes the author of Robinson’s dedication.
He introduces us to Bob Zellner, a white Southerner who had broken with segregationists. He and his wife gave up their bed in Greenwood, Mississippi so Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte—carrying money to help local activists--had a place to sleep. Kathleen Cleaver comes off much better than her eventual husband named Eldridge.
The book also details three extensive polls from 1963, ‘66 and ‘69 on racial attitudes. Blacks were becoming, as Whitaker says, “more impatient and many whites were spooked by black power, thinking things were moving too fast.”
Whitaker is aware that some readers may feel he is romanticizing those who promoted violence, and others who feel he isn’t tough enough. “There is no one way to be black, and no purity tests work,” he says, “As a bi-racial man myself, (his father was black, mother white) I have always been in flux in terms of identity.”
The best thing about this book is that it may be about one critical year that we should not forget, but feels totally—and sadly-- relevant at this moment. It matters. Let’s hope as many readers as possible pick it up before it hits the BANNED bookshelves these shameful days.
Michele Willens is the author of From Mouseketeers to Menopause.