a fearless champion

I knew nothing of Evelyn Cunningham before her death.  Shame on me.  All I know now is that in the name of Evelyn, in the name of Lena, and in the name of the nameless:  I have got to do better.  I’m posting segments of the New York Times obituary of Ms. Cunningham and what I presume to be one of the last interviews with her that appeared in the NY Daily News in November of 2009.  For whatever reason, today I am particularly struck by what she said about her four husbands.  I feel a feminist kick coming on…

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Evelyn Cunningham, a civil-rights-era journalist and later an aide to Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York, died on Wednesday (April 28th, 2010) in Manhattan. She was 94 and lived in Harlem most of her life.

At a time when few women worked at newspapers — never mind as reporters handling hard news — Ms. Cunningham covered many of the civil rights era’s biggest stories, including the battle over school desegregation in Birmingham, Ala., and the work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

Starting in 1940, she worked for more than 20 years as a reporter and editor for The Pittsburgh Courier, a black newsweekly with nationwide circulation. Much of that time she worked out of the paper’s New York office.

In the newsroom, she was nicknamed “Big East,” partly because of her height, 5-foot-11 in heels. She also became known as the “lynching editor,” a reference to her reporting on such killings in the segregated South.

…Ms. Cunningham entered another realm of public life in the late 1960s, when she took a job as special assistant to Governor Rockefeller, who had been impressed with her when she interviewed him as a candidate.

Governor Rockefeller named her to lead an office on women’s affairs, and she later served on many government panels dealing with women’s rights and community issues. She continued to advise him when he became President Gerald R. Ford’s vice president.

Evelyn Elizabeth Long was born on Jan. 25, 1916, in Elizabeth City, N.C., the daughter of a taxi driver and a dressmaker. She moved with her parents to New York as a child, and earned a bachelor’s degree from Long Island University. She had no children.

…Politically, Ms. Cunningham described herself as a “Rockefeller Republican,” Ms. Bell-Stevens said. “She said, ‘That means I’m a liberal Republican,’ and then she would add in more recent years that there hasn’t been a good one since.”

In a statement, Mayor Michael R Bloomberg, who appointed Ms. Cunningham to a commission on women’s issues in 2002, said, “With the passing of Evelyn Cunningham, all New Yorkers and all Americans who value our ideals of liberty and justice for all have lost a good friend and a fearless champion.”

…Ms. Cunningham married four times, taking the name of her third husband. Her fourth marriage was to Austin Brown, a Juilliard-trained pianist and watchmaker who died last year.

“Each one of my husbands tried to diminish my independence and my work,” Ms. Cunningham said in a profile in The New York Times in 1998. “They all loved me most while I was cooking — and I am not a good cook.”

Well-versed journalist Evelyn Cunningham writing piece on ‘unknown black history’

CLEM RICHARDSON

Monday, November 23rd 2009

VIA

She has interviewed and worked with some of the most historically significant people of the past 60 years; Nelson Rockefeller, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, Sheriff Eugene (Bull) Connor, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

Yet at 93 years old and after a journalism career that began in 1940 with the Pittsburgh Courier, it’s American women of all races who most impress Evelyn Cunningham.

“The women in my country, there does not seem to be anything they cannot be,” she said. “Presidents, heads of banks, millionaires. In the United States, women seem to gain or get practically everything they want.”

Seated on an overstuffed chair in the sunny study of her Riverside Drive apartment in Harlem, the television tuned to CNN, Cunningham said “I’m still a reporter, every inch of me.”

Though she doesn’t get out as much as she used to, Cunningham said she’s busy.

With the help of a group of local college students who do her leg work (“They think I’m this talky old lady,” she said.), she is writing and rewriting a piece on black history.

“I call it unknown black history, and there is a lot of it out there,” she said. “So much of black history is unknown, but even I am shocked to find out how much of it there is.

“Black people don’t even know what’s missing,” said Cunningham, who declined to give examples pending publication of her work. “That intrigues me to no end. Here I am part of a people who do not know much of their history.”

Cunningham honed her reporting skills covering lynchings in the South before and during the civil rights movement.

She was one of the first reporters to identify the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a rising leader in the movement, and once asked Connor, who became infamous for using police dogs and fire hoses on peaceful demonstrators, for an interview.

He walked away.

Cunningham and several members of the Pittsburgh Courier staff of her era were awarded a George Polk Award in 1998 for the paper’s civil rights reporting.

After the civil rights era, Cunningham went on to hold a variety of civic and government positions, including special assistant to New York Gov. Rockefeller and on President Nixon’s Task Force on Women’s Rights and Responsibilities.

Having lived and worked in the segregated South – she was born in Elizabeth, N.C.- Cunningham said Barack Obama’s election “is hard to believe, hard to believe.

“No, I did not see it happening,” she said. “I never saw it, imagined it, or believed it, and here we got a black President.

“I met him right here in this apartment,” she said. “He came up to see me when he first visited the city. I adored him. He was a natural born leader.

“He is the greatest thing to hit our country.”

But if Cunningham could cover one story today it would not be local.

“I would go to Africa,” she said. “There is so much … I can only put it this way, dirty work going on there that even Africans don’t want people to know.

“That bothers me. It’s terrible and sad.”

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2 thoughts on “a fearless champion

  1. I would have loved to sit down and have a conversation with her. Thanks for sharing this. I wonder if that piece on black history that she was working on was ever completed…

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