Fearless! The life and legacy of Wilbert A. Tatum

Herb Boyd | 4/12/2011, 4:40 p.m.

But before this eventuality there were other activist stops along the way, including his leadership of the Cooper Square Community Development Committee. By the late '50s, he was the executive director of this Lower Eastside housing organization whose objective was to impede Robert Moses' Slum Clearance Committee and its plan of so-called urban renewal, which was in reality the displacement of the poor and the homeless.

Tatum's defiance not only brought him into the public spotlight, his determination altered the views of Congressman John Lindsay, who had once supported Moses' plan, forcing him to reconsider his position and to create an alternate plan that led Cooper Square to become a model urban renewal area.

The community activism only renewed the journalistic itch, and soon Tatum was off to Europe, where he hoped to find less discrimination and racism in his craft.

In Stockholm, Sweden, where he and his family would visit frequently in the coming years, Tatum worked as a reporter and columnist for Stockholm's TIDNIGEN as well as AKUELT in Copenhagen, Denmark, before returning to the states. In 1971, Tatum's dream of owning a newspaper became a reality when he and several partners, including Percy Sutton and H. Carl McCall, purchased the Amsterdam News, one of the nation's largest and oldest continuously Black newspapers for $2.3 million.

"Bill Tatum is one of the smartest men I've ever met," Sutton told a reporter several years ago when asked about Tatum as a businessman. "I never would have gone into business with him if I didn't respect and admire him." The partners would subsequently purchase WLIB and WBLS radio stations, which later became part of Sutton's Inner City Broadcasting Corporation.

Three years before Tatum and his associates bought the Amsterdam News, it had already begun to take a more radical perspective in its coverage, dropping the word "Negro" in preference to "African-American" or "Black." With Tatum in charge, the paper's content also underwent a more progressive outlook, and it would be this hard-hitting, take-no- prisoners style that would characterize the paper as he assumed total control in 1984. Tatum wasted no time building on the paper's vaunted history and prestige. As the paper expanded, he was able to employ a larger staff, more editors and reporters.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised Tatum's ingenuity and vision, especially his ability to make the paper a major business and tribune. The paper "really was heard across the city -- and, on many occasions, around the world," the mayor said in a statement to the press. "He covered issues of concern to African-Americans in ways that other media outlets did not, and he gave many young writers opportunities they might not otherwise have had."

All of this was done without Tatum sacrificing any of his customary savvy and bravado. On more than one occasion his mettle was tested and he refused to capitulate to either the status quo or the powers that be. When Tawana Brawley claimed she was raped in 1987, Tatum believed her, and his position remained unchanged even when an investigation concluded it was all a hoax. "The white press was bad enough, but Black reporters on white newspapers were even worse, believing that they had to legitimize their presence as reporters on white newspapers by becoming the meanest, toughest, most critical reporters on and about this sordid case that has shaken Black America," Tatum wrote in an editorial. He never identified the reporters. "I think something terrible happened to Tawana Brawley. I believe her when she said she was raped. But there is no proof one way or the other."