Chuck Stone Remembered For More Than His Newspaper Columns
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We'd like to pause now to remember a gifted journalist and activist and journalism professor. Charles Sumner Stone Jr., or Chuck Stone as he was more popularly known, died on Sunday in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He was 89 years old. After serving as a Tuskegee Airman, Stone dedicated himself to journalism, working at many of the influential black newspapers that were prominent during the civil rights era, such as the Chicago Defender and the New York Age.
He was an editor and White House correspondent for the Afro-American and was the first black columnist hired by the Philadelphia Daily News, where in addition to his work as a journalist, he became famous for negotiating tense situations between law enforcement, citizens and sometimes prison inmates.
In addition to being a founding member of the National Association of Black Journalists, Stone also had a long and illustrious career as a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina until he retired in 2005. We've called on Philip Meyer, himself a journalist and professor emeritus at UNC School of Journalism to tell us more about his friend and colleague Chuck Stone.
PHILIP MEYER: Hi.
MARTIN: And we're so sorry for the loss of your friend and colleague.
MEYER: Thank you.
MARTIN: How did you first meet Chuck Stone?
MEYER: Well, it was in a professional way. I was a new Washington correspondent for Knight Newspapers. I actually represented their Ohio paper, the Akron-Beacon Journal. But I got a variety of assignments, and one of them was to try to track down Congressman Adam Clayton Powell. Chuck was his assistant at the time. And Powell had a habit of disappearing, and it was suspected with one of his female staff members. The rumor was that he was in Bimini while important public business was going on. So I dropped in unannounced at Chuck's office and asked him about that.
And he stonewalled me. He said, I don't call him, he calls me. And I didn't get a bit of news. So that was a bad start to our relationship. But soon after that, we became neighbors and colleagues in a remote but an important part of the civil rights movement, fair housing. We both moved into a neighborhood in northwest Washington called Shepherd Park that the real estate industry had decided was going to become an all-black neighborhood.
And some of the whites living there wanted to keep it an integrated neighborhood to make that an opportunity to establish Washington's first well-integrated neighborhood. And that appealed to both Chuck and myself, and we moved there about the same time. And for the next seven years, we helped that outfit organize.
The group was called Neighbors Incorporated, and its purpose was to keep the neighborhood attractive to white buyers to defeat the real estate industry's intention of showing houses only to black buyers.
MARTIN: So your relationship kind of took off from there after that inauspicious beginning. As we mentioned, at the time you recruited him for UNC, he was working at the Philadelphia Daily News. Tell us what he was known for at that time.
MEYER: Well, he was known, as a sociologist would say - would call him a marginal man, which is not a bad thing. It means he's able to operate in the margins of societies that are not closely related. He could operate in the margins in between white society and black society, and he was such a good communicator and had good social and political skills, that he could do amazing things.
In Philadelphia, he was best known as the guy that people who were sought by the police could turn themselves in to and reduce the risk of being mistreated by the police. There was a very tough police chief named Frank Rizzo, and he had such a bad reputation that people who were really wanted felt more comfortable turning themselves in to Chuck.
And then Chuck would either escort them to the police station or invite the police to come pick them up in his office. And just to - establishing that social connection made them feel more confident that the police would treat them with more delicacy. And evidently it worked because it happened dozens of times.
MARTIN: Dozens of times. Interesting. What do you think was it that allowed him to operate that way?
MEYER: It was his empathy for both sides. It got to be so routine that I imagined somebody showing up at the newspaper office and telling the guard, I'm the mass murderer the police are looking for. And the guard would yawn and say, three doors down, Chuck Stone.
MARTIN: At UNC he directed the Rainbow Institute teaching high school seniors about journalism, and as we mentioned, he was a co-founder of the National Association of Black Journalists, serving as the first president of that group. Why do you think those activities were so important to him?
MEYER: It's because his personality and his education and his background made him the perfect person to operate in the margins between those two societies. We were not too far away from the Civil Rights Commission report that America is two societies, one black and one white.
And Chuck was one of the people who had a big role in changing that, and being able to be believed and trusted by both sides was very important in that. And he was smart enough and quick enough to not waste that opportunity.
MARTIN: I understand that he was a bit of a character on campus. True?
MEYER: Oh, yes. A professor has a better chance of being recognized and accepted if there's something different about him. And with Chuck, it was his bow ties and his strange hat. His hat was copied from a character in a movie of about three decades ago called "Billy Jack." Billy Jack was a Native-American who wore this flat-brimmed hat with a symmetrical crown.
And Chuck wore it all the time, and he drove around in his convertible with the hat on in all kinds of weather. And that is - and his bow ties, his Burberry scarf and his crew-cut made him quite distinctive and made it easy to create a caricature of himself, which is a great memory aid for students. And it was part of his branding, his self-branding.
MARTIN: To use a term that we use all the time now, and he probably never used himself. So how will you remember him?
MEYER: Well, I remember him as a good friend who helped me bridge that gap because the Neighbors Incorporated experience was my first intimate connection with the civil rights movement. I'd covered it in Miami for the Herald.
I'd covered the first school desegregation there, but in Washington, I was actually a part of it. And Chuck helped facilitate that. He was very good at making us at ease, and Chuck and Louise became the first close black friends that my wife Sue and I had ever had.
MARTIN: Philip Meyer is professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina. He's the author of several books including "Paper Route: Finding My Way to Precision Journalism." He joined us to remember Chuck Stone, joining us from the studios of UNC School of Journalism. Professor Meyer, thank you so much for joining us.
MEYER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.