“We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us.” These words were a part of the first editorial in Freedom’s Journal on March 16, 1827. Freedom’s Journal was this nation’s first Black newspaper and it was started in New York City before New York had abolished slavery. This was also before David Walker published his pamphlet “Walker’s Appeal to the Colored People of the World” in Boston on Sept. 28, 1829. He was the distribution agent for Freedom’s Journal in New England. Walker advocated violence to overthrow slavery. White abolitionists stayed clear of him.
The governor of Georgia placed a price on Walker’s head and Louisiana ordered all free Blacks to leave the state. Walker had been born a “free” Black in Wilmington, N.C. He was assassinated in 1830 after he had refused to flee the United States and seek sanctuary in Canada.
Black journalism advocating the abolition of slavery was the forerunner to Blacks in politics and Blacks in law. Macon B. Allen became he first person of African ancestry to secure a license to practice law in the United States. Maine admitted him to its bar in 1844. In 1847, Allen became the nation’s first Black lawyer to secure a judicial appointment.
John Mercer Langston was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1854. The following year he would become the first Black elected official in the United States, thanks to his association with Ohio’s Liberty Party. Langston organized Howard Law School and became the first Black congressman from Virginia.
Frederick Douglass understood the potency of the First Amendment, including the rights of free press and free speech. He and Martin Delany copublished the North Star. From this platform, Douglass became the most vocal advocate for the emancipation of persons of African ancestry. One year after the formation of the North Star, Douglass would headline the first Women Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, N.Y. in 1848. In connecting the dots, a comparative analysis of Wilbert “Bill” Tatum with Robert Williams, author of “Negroes with Guns,” is appropriate. These fellow North Carolinians joined the military to defend the Constitution and spent a lifetime enforcing it. For Blacks, this is still a capital crime. They supported the NAACP. Both men would prove that “the pen is mightier than the sword.”
Against this backdrop and including but not limited to the journalistic pens of T. Thomas Fortune, Ida B. Wells, Monroe Trotter, W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey, Tatum had some big shoes to fill when he seized control of the New York Amsterdam News in 1983. It was founded in 1909. Three years later, Tatum would enjoy his finest hour in journalism when he launched his weekly “Koch Must Go” campaign in the New York Amsterdam News. Despite his civil rights credentials, Mayor Edward I. Koch expressed utter contempt for persons of African ancestry. Tatum’s column would ignite the end of Koch’s political career. United African Movement’s weekly marches in Bensonhurst, after the assassination of Yusuf Hawkins, would be the final nail in Koch’s political coffin. Koch fell to the political mat in September 1989 and he was unable to bounce back in time to beat the vote count.
David N. Dinkins’ mayoralty stood on the shoulders of Bill Tatum and the United African Movement. Within 72 hours of Hawkins’ assassination, United African Movement was in the streets of Bensonhurst. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani would retaliatorily unleash his bloodhounds against United African Movement and the Freedom Party in 1994.
Tatum had already been warming up, however. On Nov. 28, 1987,Tawana Brawley was found after she had been kidnapped and raped in Dutchess County by law enforcement agents, including Steven Pagones and Harry Crist Jr. Dutchess County had compromised its authority to investigate Brawley’s complaint.
When State Attorney General Robert Abrams, instead of a Dutchess County grand jury, declared Brawley’s claim a “hoax,” many Blacks jumped ship, including all Black politicians. Tatum remained steadfast in his belief that the investigation into Brawley’s complaint was a state-sponsored cover-up. His pen did the talking for him. “Scottsboro Boys” would revisit New York City in April 1989.Six Black and Latino youth would be indicted for the rape of the Central Park jogger. The news media had refused to publish the name of this white rape victim although the news media had no qualms about publishing the full name of 15-year-old Tawana Brawley.
Since Bill was never “too swift” and was unable to understand or obey white commands, he let the cat out of the bag. The name of the Central Park jogger was “Patricia Meili. “Tatum made this revelation even though his newspaper depended on white ads.
For all other Black leaders and politicians in New York City, “he who pays the piper calls the tune”is the mantra. Tatum was a breath of fresh air. No Black politicians would stand with me in my struggle to secure reinstatement to practice law by showing that I had been framed and rail-roaded.
Black-oriented commercial radio has admitted that I am persona non grata in New York City, even though no other Black person has been more openly defiant against white supremacy since Cong. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. In recent times, no other person has shown greater sacrifice. Knowing that my association with any media outlet would be a threat to white advertising, Tatum, nonetheless, believed that my voice should be a part of any discussion in the public square. This was a man who could admire the courage in others to fight white supremacy.
No other commercial media organization in New York City would touch me with a 10-foot pole. It is of greater interest that Tatum and I never discussed any of my writings in his newspaper. He simply promised that as long as he was alive, I had space in his newspaper to express my unadulterated opinions. He kept his promise. Even before Bill made his promise that my voice should be heard in the public square, he had asked me to assist his daughter, Elinor Tatum, the heir of the paper. Bill was about to embark on a trip to Europe for a major operation. For more than a decade afterwards, he was able to help his beloved daughter. Fathers especially love their daughters, and Bill was no exception.
Interracial marriage is a touchy subject in the Black community. Many Blacks admire President Barack Hussein Obama simply ecause he took the hand of Michelle Robinson in matrimony. Personally, I never entertained the notion of either dating or marrying a white woman. Yet, I witnessed something special in the marriage between Wilbert “Bill” Tatum and Susan Kohn. Bill married a loyal woman.
I visited Bill as frequently as anyone when he was hospitalized for an extended period of time. He was paralyzed. My hospital visits–day or night–were unannounced. On every visit, Susan was beside his hospital bed. This was more than “jungle fever.” Unlike politicians, Tatum never made a decision based on a public opinion poll. Any verdict about Tatum’s commitment to fighting racial injustice should not be based on his marriage. This would have been a white jury’s reaction to him in North Carolina in 1959.
Of course, it would have been of no moment to Bill. He stuck to his guns to the end of his life. This is a rare quality in the Black community today. I need your support and letters for filing a petition for writ of certiorari in Maddox v. Prudenti et al in the U.S. Supreme Court on the questions of two-tone justice in the United States and denial of free speech for Blacks. Send letters and support to Alton Maddox, 16 Court Street, Ste.1901. Brooklyn, N.Y.11241. March 11, UAM Weekly Forum at Elks Plaza, 1068 Harriet Tubman (Fulton Street) near Classon Avenue in Brooklyn at 7:30 p.m. Take the C train to Franklin Avenue. Three blocks to Elks Plaza. Admission is free. April 25-26, UAM’s “Egypt on the Potomac” field trip in Washington, D.C., and Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore, M.D. May 22-25, UAM sponsors bus trip to the Gullah Festival in Beaufort, S.C.
July 5-August 1, Freedom Retreat for Boys and Girls for children ages 7-15 in the Catskill Mountains. Call UAM at (718) 834-9034 for further information. See:www.reinstatealtonmaddox.net for “Blacks Say No to the 13th Amendment,” “Who Was the Real Bill Tatum?” “Putting New York on its Financial Knees,” “Solving the Riddle of Freedom and Emancipation,” “Requiem for Black Activism” and “Freedom Retreat Explores the Underground Railroad.”