(Updated 8/24/2016) George E. Curry was an unabashed advocate of truth–ensuring it even in the most basic word choice, punctuation, spelling–and was courageous in its telling. It is one of the many attributes that define the legacy of the acclaimed journalist and Black Press champion, who died of a heart attack Aug. 20 at the Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park, Md. He was 69.
“Many of us in the Black media have used and relied on George to provide his impactful journalistic voice on issues that have defined the plight of the Black community over the past 40 years. George was a intellectual hammer in the continuing war to protect and expand the civil rights of Black people around the world. I will miss my dear friend deeply. He cannot be readily replaced,” said Jake Oliver, publisher of the AFRO-American Newspapers, a 125 year-old institution that for years carried Curry’s column and where he served as an interim editor from 2007-2008 during the first Obama presidential campaign.
“George Curry embodied the best traditions of Black journalism. He was committed to speaking truth to power and training future journalists to continue doing that,” said Benjamin Jealous, former executive director of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA or the Black Press of America), former president and CEO of the NAACP, and a former editor of the Jackson Advocate newspaper in Jackson, Miss.
“George Curry was a visionary who set the standard for excellence in Black media,” Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a statement to the AFRO. “We could always count on George to give our community a forum for thoughtful conversation, bold ideas, and incisive reporting. At a time when Black media is at a crossroads, his entrepreneurship and vision will be sorely missed.”
NABJ President Sarah Glove added in a statement, “He has been a beacon for so many and a pivotal voice among Black publishers. His strength and pursuit for the truth will carry on in the lives he touched.”
For Curry that commitment to truth required an excellence in reporting and writing, which he required both of himself and of the journalists who fell under his tutelage.
“He was a journalist’s journalist,” said April Ryan, White House correspondent and Washington Bureau chief for American Urban Radio Networks. “He’s been around and he knew everything and everyone. He stayed in touch with the news and the newsmakers to ensure his readers were well informed.
“He was one of the most well-rounded, well-informed journalists that I had met in nearly 30-something years, especially in articulating matters important to people of color,” said James Farmer, former vice president of General Motors, who had a longtime professional relationship with Curry through the company’s support of the NNPA.
Curry’s undaunted truth-telling, many agree, was best defined in his work as editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, a 1990s-era publication with a no-holds-barred approach to reporting on issues confronting the African Diaspora. Curry, for example, never apologized for the publication’s controversial covers depicting U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in an Aunt Jemima-style head scarf and as a Black-faced, minstrel-looking “lawn jockey” for the Far Right.
“Emerge magazine was the forerunner to every serious Black blog and news site today,” Jealous told the AFRO. “It launched a new era of Black news and commentary much as The Crisis magazine did at the turn of the 20th century and the Freedom’s Journal did back in 1827.”
Curry’s work at Emerge and elsewhere not only provoked thought but also action in policy, politics and activism.
“George’s work on Emerge during the 1990s continues to shape our nation’s policies today,” said Spencer Overton, president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington, D.C.., think tank, in a statement.
Overton cited Emerge’s 1996 cover story on the sentencing of Kemba Smith, a then-22-year-old from Richmond, Va., who was given a 24 ½ year sentence for a minor role in a drug ring. Curry often spoke about how proud he was to publish “Kemba’s Nightmare,” and the story, and several follow-ups, led to Smith’s pardon by President Bill Clinton in 2000. The foundation set by the reporting also led to Congress reducing some of the disparity between crack and cocaine sentencing and continuing reforms.
“Perhaps most important was the impact George had in shaping a whole generation of today’s African-American journalists, elected officials, policy makers, and scholars,” added Overton. “In the 1990s, when many of us were in school or just starting our careers, Emerge validated those of us interested in politics. It educated us and helped teach us how to think, and it also affirmed and encouraged our interests in policy. Commitment to the African-American community and Black institutions, quality writing, critical thought, truth, and integrity were all values instilled in us at a formative period in our lives by George through Emerge.”
Others in the political sphere attested to Curry’s influence.
“George E. Curry was a pioneering journalist, a tireless crusader for justice, and a true agent of change,” former Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said in a statement. “With quality reporting, creativity, and skillful persuasion he influenced countless people, including me, to think beyond their narrow experience and expand their understanding. George may be gone, but he will not be forgotten.”
Curry’s journalistic chutzpah went hand-in-hand with his advocacy on matters relating to civil rights, particularly in the Black community.
“My friendship with George spanned 40 years. He was a race man and gumshoe journalist in the tradition of Vernon Jarrett and Mal Goode,” said NABJ founder DeWayne Wickham, also dean of Morgan’s School of Global Journalism and Communication, in a statement.
“George E. Curry was a giant in journalism and he stood on the front lines of the Civil Rights era and used his voice to tell our stories when others would not,” said Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), who also called Curry the “dean of Black journalists.”
“His pen was a pen of justice. He told our story and he told it eloquently,” added Ryan.
Born to Martha Brownlee and the late Homer Curry on Feb. 23, 1947, Curry was raised by William Polk, his stepfather, and mother. Curry grew up in the McKenzie Court public housing community and attended Druid High School in Tuscaloosa, Ala., two institutions he often mentioned in his writings. While there he played football and was an active class member. He graduated in 1965.
In 1966, Curry moved to New York and joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, where he stayed for a year. He then attended and graduated from Knoxville College in Knoxville, Tenn. While there he attended summer institutes at Harvard University and Yale University, was editor of the school paper, quarterback and co-captain of the football team and a member of the school’s Board of Trustees.
His first job in journalism after college was at Sports Illustrated. He then became a reporter for the St. Louis Post Dispatch for 11 years. While there he covered the 1984 presidential campaign of Jessie Jackson, the vice presidential campaign of Geraldine Ferraro and the presidential campaign of George H. W. Bush. In addition, he covered the presidential campaign of Bill Clinton.
In 1983, Curry joined the Chicago Tribune where he served as New York bureau chief and Washington correspondent. In 1993 Curry became the editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine. While there the magazine won numerous awards and published stories asking “Is Jesus Black?,” detailing the “Rape of a Spelman Coed” and examining other provocative and timely issues.
In 2000, after the magazine folded, Curry left Emerge to become the editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service and Blackpressusa.com. He wrote a weekly column that was syndicated to more than 200 Black newspapers, including the AFRO.
Curry joined the AFRO’s board in 2013, a position he held until his death.
Curry also co-founded the Greater St. Louis Association of Black Journalists, and was the first African-American president of the American Society of Magazine Editors. In 2003, Curry was named Journalist of the Year by the National Association of Black Journalists and was on their list of Most Influential Black Journalists of the 20th Century.
In recent years, Curry started the George E. Curry Newswire and was in the midst of reviving an online version of Emerge at the time of his death.
Curry leaves behind his beloved life partner Elizabeth “Ann” Ragland, son Edward Curry, adopted son Derek Ragland (wife April), grandchildren Autumn Ragland and Austin Ragland, sisters Charlotte (Fred), Sylvia Polk and Susan Gandy (Iverson Hr.). He was preceded in death by his maternal grandparents Sylvia Harris and Willie Cherry.
“He was most happy when he was around family and he blossomed when he was around his family. He loved family,” said Elizabeth Ragland.
His sister, Charlotte, added, “The intersection of journalism and social action was important to him. One of my last text messages from him was about having a platform and using it for good. He was very devoted to his sisters and his family. He was always encouraging us and pushing us.”
Curry will be laid to rest Saturday, Aug. 27 in his hometown, with the Rev. Al Sharpton, founder and president of the National Action Network, delivering the eulogy at Weeping Mary Baptist Church, 2701-20th St., Tuscaloosa, Ala.
AFRO Managing Editor Kamau’s High contributed to this article.