First Black Female Network TV Reporter Debuted 40 Years Ago

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Alice Bonner
September 18, 2012

Michele ClarkDuring the peak season of presidential politics 40 years ago, a striking young newswoman appeared in the World Room of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Her visit was much anticipated, and she was rightly introduced as a star, fresh from campaign coverage.

Michele Clark was a newly named network television correspondent, the first black woman to achieve that distinction. Stealing time from election reporting, she had come to New York to advise and encourage newsroom trainees in Columbia’s program for minorities. She herself had been trained in that boot camp-style initiative just two years earlier.

Former CBS News President Fred Friendly, once Edward R. Murrow’s closest colleague, created the program in 1968, days after Martin Luther King was killed, to hasten racial integration of the news media. A Columbia faculty member since 1966, Friendly integrated the program’s top faculty in 1972 by recruiting veteran journalists Bob Maynard of The Washington Post and Earl Caldwell of The New York Times, as co-directors.

Clark, a poised and confident woman of 29, was already earning accolades for her broadcast work from some of the top leaders in a profession that remained almost exclusively white and male. Don Hewitt, who created “60 Minutes” for CBS, had tagged her as a potential correspondent for that news magazine show, he later said.

Getting Clark to Morningside Heights that summer day was as important as it was difficult. She and the professionals training the class of 1972 knew that her insights from the front lines would go far to help gird the neophytes for coming newsroom challenges.

Self-confidence and fearlessness in the face of adversity would be critical assets, Clark advised the trainees —12 in broadcast and 12 in print. She had exhibited both traits in abundance, undoubtedly drawing on her early exposure to the spotlight and her parents’ courageous example when they integrated all-white Cicero, Ill., in 1951. Since elementary school, she had been staring into news cameras and engaging journalists and public figures.

Alas, this was the last class Clark would address. She died that December in a plane crash in Chicago, her hometown.

Her bright promise survived to inspire two subsequent summer classes at Columbia. Formally titled the Summer Program for Minority Journalists (SPMJ), the course was renamed for Clark in 1973. It reverted to SPMJ in 1975 and was relocated to the University of California at Berkeley.

Caldwell, Maynard and a multiracial group of journalists built it into the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, today a leading force in media diversity.

The fatal United Airlines crash near snowy Midway Airport is an incident linked in history to that year’s Watergate break-in. Among 45 others killed in the crash was Dorothy Hunt, wife of E. Howard Hunt, who planned the burglary of the Democratic Party headquarters. Clark had been reporting on her. Some people have questioned the two women’s connection and the accident as more than coincidence.

Chicago honored Clark in naming her former grade school the Michele Clark Academic Preparatory Magnet High School. Born in nearby Gary, Ind., she graduated from Roosevelt University and worked as a model and in airline reservations and other jobs before her journalism opportunity arose. She spent her childhood in Chicago.

Her parents had met as students at Fisk University in Nashville. The war took Harvey E. Clark Jr., to Alabama, where he served as an aviation instructor, training Tuskeegee Airmen. He graduated from Fisk and after the war joined the black exodus heading north. He worked in insurance and was a Chicago bus driver when the Cicero riot erupted.

At age 8, Clark saw her parents, backed by the NAACP, defy the color line to rent an apartment in all-white Cicero, provoking days of white violence. Before they could move in, a mob burned the building and smashed all of the family’s belongings. Police did little other than detain her father.

The rioters destroyed Michele’s new piano, a purchase that symbolized her parents’ aspirations for their daughter and son, Harvey III, as they sought to raise them outside the cramped, segregated housing of South Side Chicago. Finally, Gov. Adlai Stevenson called out the National Guard to end the rampage.

By the time Friendly’s brave experiment at Columbia opened a newsroom door for her, Clark had developed an eloquent and thorough philosophy of why the profession needed more women and people of color. She listed her values in her Columbia application as including:

“Truth and accuracy of reporting and writing, courage to expose unpleasant realities where necessary, good judgment to determine where to draw the line and to separate the thought-provoking from the merely dramatic and sensational, are all more effective ways of stimulating change and are ways I have chosen.”

From Columbia, Clark went to work at CBS station WBBM-TV in Chicago. She quickly caught the attention of network executives in New York and was assigned to cover presidential primaries in several states. She landed a coveted assignment reporting on both 1972 national political conventions. Soon she was working in the Washington bureau as part-time anchor of the “CBS Morning News.”

At her funeral, Friendly praised Clark for consistent support of the program that launched her news career. Reflecting on her last visit, he cited the “wonder and pride in the faces of the Class of 1972 at this star of the Class of ’70” as a portent that one day editors would no longer be able to say, “We couldn’t find anyone [non-white] qualified.”

CBS News President Richard Salant compared Clark to Murrow as one who “confirmed that the best of journalists are born and not made, and that they await only self-discovery and an opportunity from others.”

Four decades later, Clark’s legacy remains that of a star, but it is the bright, brief arc of a shooting star. Her abbreviated career still exemplifies how far and fast a talented, determined journalist could rise once she cleared the hurdles of prejudice and exclusion.

Alice Bonner, Ph.D., was a 1972 graduate of the Columbia University Summer Program for Minority Journalists, forerunner of the Robert Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. She was sponsored by The Washington Post, where she worked as a reporter and editor until 1985. A former Nieman Fellow, she has been an editor at USA Today, a newsroom recruiter for Gannett newspapers and journalism education director of the Freedom Forum. She has taught journalism at several major universities for 12 years.



Wow ... Alice's insightful piece brought to mind my days in the1977 Summer Program for Minority Journalists, shortly after the program had moved to UC Berkeley. I remember us hearing about Michele Clark and her contribution to advancing the cause of racial diversity in the news industry. I also flashed back on Robert Maynard, Nancy Hicks and Steve Montiel, among others, with their sleeves rolled up and their editing tools at the ready. (No computers in those days!) Roy Aarons, who we called "the silver fox" because of his shock of gray-white hair, would literally lip the tip of his pencil before he crouched over a story and proceed to scratch out line after line of unsatisfactory copy. Bob would peer over his specs and then gently push the story back across the table, with several steps for how to make it better. Steve would scare you to death with his long pauses between words, as if he were searching for the right one to say "not good enough." And Nancy would just very quietly enunciate the need to go back and do it again. We who went through the program were called to journalism, but we were also called to excellence. It was a foundational brick that has served me well lo those 35 years -- from six newspapers in five states and a string of lasting friendships along the way. I have always been and remain forever grateful to the Maynard Institute for SPMJ and the jump-start to a fantastic career. -- Denise Holt Williams Bridges, SPMJ Class of '77

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