Journalist championed civil rights|
By Ron Grossman
Tribune staff reporter
Published May 24, 2004
Vernon Jarrett was a pioneering black journalist who used his syndicated newspaper columns and long-running radio and television shows to educate Americans about the nation's legacy of slavery and segregation.
It was in his family tradition. He liked to recall for readers and viewers how his parents, the children of slaves, overcame poverty and discrimination to become schoolteachers in rural Tennessee.
Mr. Jarrett came to Chicago in 1946 during the heyday of the Great Migration, a mass movement of African-Americans hoping to escape Jim Crow.
"I was one of the thousands of dreamers who had left the South and journeyed to the big cities of the North," he once wrote.
For Mr. Jarrett, the dream came true.
Mr. Jarrett, 82, who died Sunday in the University of Chicago Hospitals of cancer, won dozens of journalism and humanitarian awards. He also nurtured a political movement that culminated in the 1983 election of Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor.
"Vernon came out of Tennessee determined to go the distance and to go the distance his way," said Lerone Bennett Jr., executive editor of Ebony magazine and author of "Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America."
"He had a strong sense of history and felt intellectuals ought to be involved in politics," Bennett said. "He thought people, of all races, needed to be involved in a struggle to take control of their own lives."
Mr. Jarrett began his career at the Chicago Defender in the 1940s, started contributing to the Chicago Tribune in 1970 and became the Tribune's first African-American syndicated columnist. In 1983 he moved to the Chicago Sun-Times and remained there until 1994.
He broke into broadcasting in 1948 with Negro Newsfront, radio's first daily newscast produced by African-Americans. For many years, he hosted a Sunday-morning talk show on WLS-Ch. 7.
He was a senior fellow at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and taught history and journalism at other local colleges.
In 1977 he founded the Afro-Academic Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO), an intellectual competition for high school students. Under the sponsorship of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, ACT-SO has awarded tens of thousands of dollars in college scholarships.
"My father lived for that ACT-SO program," said his son Thomas, a longtime photojournalist at Channel 7. "Of all his accomplishments, he was proudest of that."
He was an inspiration for a younger generation of black journalists who followed him into mainstream newsrooms, recalled Tribune columnist Clarence Page. He noted that Mr. Jarrett's columns could be scathing but that he dished out criticism on an equal-opportunity basis.
"To white readers he could seem like a firebrand, but Vernon was equally tough on blacks," Page said. "After an election with a low voter turnout, he'd remind them of the struggles Southern blacks had gone through to get a vote."
In one column, Mr. Jarrett noted how, shortly after arriving in Chicago, he had attended a political rally where a black judge was introduced.
"I recall wishing that my mother and father could have been in Chicago that night," he wrote, "because neither of them had ever seen a black judge either."
During the bitterly contested 1983 mayoral contest, Mr. Jarrett shared a point-counterpoint feature on Channel 7 with then-Sun-Times political editor Basil Talbott. Talbott, who is white, recalled that election season, which brought Washington to the mayor's office, as a time of racial division in the city.
"Vernon was an old-fashioned gentlemanly sort who rose to the spirit of debate but always retained his civility," Talbott said. "I think he saw himself as essentially an educator."
Mr. Jarrett had helped lay the groundwork for Washington's victory on two fronts, noted U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.). He recalled that Mr. Jarrett was part of a core group of black leaders who urged Washington to run for mayor. He had long editorially cajoled and hectored the black community to claim a greater presence in Chicago politics.
Davis and a few other independents had struggled to free the city's South and West Side wards from control by white politicians and the old Chicago machine. At the beginning of that effort, Davis recalled, Election Day victories were few and the group's efforts went largely unnoticed in the media, except in Mr. Jarrett's columns.
"One mention by Vernon was enough to keep us going emotionally for weeks," Davis said. "We'd photocopy his column, passing them out at `L' stops and to people coming out of church on Sunday."
Mr. Jarrett was a founding member of the National Association of Black Journalists and currently president of the NABJ-Chicago. As he once told a group of students at Northwestern, independence was the key concept in his personal definition of what a working journalist's philosophy ought to be.
"You are going to have to see through your eyes, not through some editor's eyes," Mr. Jarrett said. "What's wrong with having some integrity and taking a chance of being fired?"
Mr. Jarrett is also survived by his wife, Fernetta.
Services are pending.
Published in Chicago Tribune on May 24, 2004