By Hazel Trice Edney
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (TriceEdneyWire.com)
One minute the congregation was somber and in tears; the next minute they were rocking to choir music in the pews; the next minute they were laughing in fond memory; and then they were shouting and applauding on their feet. That was the range of emotions that marked the packed house during the “Celebration of Life” for legendary journalist George Curry at Weeping Mary Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa, Ala., August. 27.
The Rev. Al Sharpton gave a eulogy of the Black press journalist, columnist, commentator and editor that soared from a touching and sometimes humorous tribute to a fiery sermon that shook the sanctuary. Stately Black journalists and publishers were among those moved by the Spirit as Sharpton’s message pointed largely to how they must now escalate their voices as they continue telling the story.
“There were many Black writers that have gone mainstream. But George Curry made mainstream go Black,” said Sharpton to applause. “He was smart enough to play the game and stay in certain newsrooms. But he chose not to do that because he chose the path of why Black Press started in the first place.” Sharpton was eluding to the first Black Press editorial, published in the 1827 inaugural edition of Freedom’s Journal. That editorial stated, “We wish to plead our own cause. For too long have others spoken for us.”
Curry, who died of heart failure August 20, started his career at Sports Illustrated, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Chicago Tribune. But he died as a hero, having found his calling in the Black Press. He was editor-in-chief of his beloved Emerge Magazine for seven years until it went defunct. Then he took up the banner becoming editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA), the Black Press of America. When he died, he had founded Emergenewsonline.com, a digital version of the hard copy magazine, which he never gave up hope to revive.
“If we love him, we will keep Emerge News Online going,” Sharpton said. “I don’t know what it will cost. I don’t know what it will be, but I want to be the first to help Ann keep that work going … I’m going to write the first check.” Curry’s fiancée, Elizabeth “Ann” Ragland, looked on from the audience. Earlier, she had spoken, saying, how much Curry loved and valued his family, especially his mother, Mrs. Martha Brownlee and she reflected on his contagious sense of humor. Then, recalling his final moments, she said, “On last Saturday, my voice was the last person that George heard as I tried to keep him here with us. But there was a voice much stronger than mine, a voice that no person can say no to, a voice that even George Curry could not say no to … that voice is going to speak to us all.”
Curry’s death hit the journalistic community particularly hard as it came amidst one of the most controversial and heated presidential elections in history. Sharpton made clear where the Black Press must go from here. “George Curry left us in a critical time in history,” Sharpton said. “In five months will be the first time in American history that we will see a White succeed a Black president. We’ve never been here before … which means those of us who write the story are going to have to follow a script that’s never been written before. If we ever needed a strong independent, but ethical Black Press, we’re going to need it now,” he said.
Dozens of Black publishers, writers, photographers, former interns and mentees, mostly from NNPA, took up the first two pews of the church. The sanctuary was also packed with hundreds of people, including his family and Tuscaloosa residents who came to say farewell to their hometown hero. Sharpton attended the funeral despite a march against violence in Washington that he was monitoring by phone. “I said I would be here because no matter what he was doing, George was always here – not just for me – but for all of us.”
Reflecting on his friendship with Curry, who appeared on the last hour of his daily radio show every Friday – including the day before he died – Sharpton said, “George never knew that he was much more of a minister to me than I was to him.” Sharpton said it was Curry’s courage that marked his unique style of reporting and column writing. “Progress has never been as a result of people who didn’t take risks. George knew he wasn’t going to benefit by telling Kemba’s story. He knew he’d lose advertisers. He knew he wouldn’t be on “Face the Nation” if he put a handkerchief on Clarence Thomas’ head.”
The audience applauded vigorously at the recognition of both – the Kemba Smith and Clarence Thomas stories, which appeared on the cover of Emerge. “But he told the truth. He chose his integrity. He chose the roots he got in Tuscaloosa rather than getting a pat on the back from folk that’s going to fire you anyway … George was a man’s man. And a proud man. That’s why George mattered.”
Kemba Smith, who called Curry her “hero,” was among the speakers, which also included journalists Ed Gordon and Roland Martin. NNPA President/CEO Dr. Benjamin Chavis and SCLC President/CEO Dr. Charles Steele also spoke. A childhood friend and Tuscaloosa native, Steele also presided at the funeral and the memorial service the night before, where the keynote speaker was the Rev. Jesse Jackson.