Commentary

Mark Zimmerman: Stone told it like it was

April 13, 2014 

He dressed like a yachtsman and could swear like a common sailor. But Chuck Stone spent a lifetime skewering the elite, and there wasn’t anything common about him. As a trailblazing black journalist and columnist from the early 1960s onward, he chronicled the civil rights movement from kindling to blazing inferno. His words as editor of the New York Age, Washington Afro-American and Chicago Daily Age served as sparks for those flames.

Perhaps chronicled is too passive a description for Chuck’s writing. Through sharp satire and blunt criticism, he fearlessly took on those whose power repressed colored, Negro, black, African-Americans (Chuck liked to point out he lived through all those monikers). He was an extremist in his “advocacy of black power.” In his mind, “I could never understand how anyone could be a ‘moderate’ about injustice, poverty and racism.”

So, like most prominent black civil rights leaders of his time, Chuck Stone took on the white establishment and its leadership. He methodically resected Republicans, network news, big business and even the Democratic Party and big labor for denying blacks their rights.

But unlike his comrades, Chuck was an equal opportunity critic. Many of the columns he included in his collection, “Tell It Like It Is,” chastised what he called “phonies” – white liberals who were “preaching good will . . . [while] sitting on their hands,” “ceremonial Negro leaders” who also “prefer talk to action,” and average black men and women who weren’t willing to “be working harder to catch up to the white people.”

Chuck was an old school freedom advocate. He expected fairness and opportunity, but not a free ride. From the start, he saw welfare as a threat. It was “warping our initiative,” “destroying our economic potential” and “sap[ping] our moral fiber.” He lamented how too many folks were “standing around all day and doing nothing but standing.”

None of that made him very popular in certain quarters, but he reveled in his notoriety. “It kept me in constant trouble. But, baby, I had a ball!”

One of Chuck’s most celebrated and influential columns took on Mayor Richard Dailey for plowing the “white snow” that fell on Chicago but not the “colored snow.” It didn’t take long before all neighborhoods were cleared.

Chuck never lost his verve. I met him long after his retirement. He was a fellow member of the East Chapel Hill Rotary Club, and he loved how our weekly meetings were colored by irreverent humor. He told his share of bawdy stories, including how his good friend Martin Luther King would stop by to visit Chuck in his Harlem office, but then leave with Chuck’s secretary for the evening. He never stopped being a journalist; he was the toughest questioner of our program speakers. He also never lost his intolerance for pretense and was not shy about sharing his thoughts. Reverend Jackson was an opportunist; President Obama a pretender. Things were much better, he said, but had a long way to go.

Chuck had many other accomplishments. He was a Tuskegee Airman, founder of the National Association of Black Journalists and a professor in UNC’s School of Journalism. To everyone he met, he was a gentleman in the classic sense of the term. He encouraged and mentored so many over the years, including me in my column writing. He was also good, faithful and fun loving friend.

Through it all, Chuck Stone’s most endearing quality was his faith in our basic goodness and that right would prevail. When asked how he was feeling, he replied: “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad of it.” He also faced adversity, including a long physical and mental decline, with panache. “You have to move on,” Chuck would tell me. After leading a vigorous life, never backing down from fighting for what was right, this week Chuck did move on, just shy of his 90th birthday.

Mark Zimmerman lives and owns a business in Chapel Hill and is president of East Chapel Hill Rotary. You can reach him at at markrzim@gmail.com

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