to the Cause:
A Salute to NABJ's Presidents"
Betty Winston Baye
Vanessa Williams confounded her critics by doing her homework,
by steeping herself in NABJ's history and by understanding, deep in her
soul, that while it's impossible to win every battle, when the cause
is right, a leader must not be afraid to fight for what she believes
may be remembered not simply for taking NABJ to a higher level in a variety of concrete ways, but for taking the
position that the strongest defense that journalists of color
could make of affirmative action in 1999 was to rip a page out of the
sacred book of Montgomery 1955.
NABJ president, Williams fought to convince the troops to withdraw from the second Unity Convention in 1999. It was to
be held in Seattle, the largest city in a state that had voted only a
few months before to outlaw the use of affirmative action in government
hiring, state contracts and university admissions. She argued that the
$20 million that the four largest associations that represent journalists
of color would spend at the convention was not just nickels and dimes,
their money from an anti-affirmative action state would send a
message to the people of Washington, Williams reasoned - the same message
that Montgomery's black masses delivered when they walked rather than
be forced to ride in the back of the bus. It was a lesson she had absorbed
since childhood in segregated St. Petersburg, Fla.
battled over the Unity Convention as if she could hear the Rev. Martin
Luther King Jr. whispering in her ear something he was heard to say many times: "Some
of us must bear the burden of trying to save the soul of America."
In the end, Williams lost the battle over Unity.
some members of her board and the other journalists' associations agreed
that protesting Washington State's anti-affirmative action stance was
important, they felt it was too late to withdraw from the
convention. They didn't want to risk the association's hard-earned money,
and potentially provoke lawsuits for broken contracts.
who has served more years on the national board than any other NABJ member,
never wavered in her views. But she gracefully accepted defeat.
And why wouldn't she?
reminded all of us that NABJ was born in the spirit of protest, to speak truth to the powers that be in the news media,
not accommodate itself to injustice. By taking a principled position,
Williams performed an invaluable service to NABJ and the industry
in general. She provoked discussions, debates and history lessons
that many younger journalists never knew, and that some veterans
seem to have forgotten.
The battle of Seattle was the climax of William's term,
but far from her only achievement.
Articulate and forceful, she was one of NABJ's most visible
first convention of her term, in Washington, D.C., in 1998, wasn't only
a financial success, but with 3,500 registrations set a new attendance
was a strong fund raiser, who pushed NABJ's scholarship endowment
to nearly $1 million. Donors included The Philip Graham Foundation, associated
with The Washington Post, which gave $50,000. But she also hit up close
friends in the association when she knew that they could afford
to dig a little deeper. Several members generated even more for
scholarships by paying $1,500 each for special editions of a print by the
legendary Jacob Lawrence.
NABJ Media Institute also prospered on Williams' watch, thanks to substantial
gifts, such as $150,000 from the Knight Foundation, as well as grants
from the Pew Center for Civil Journalism and The New York Times.
was also plenty of controversy, especially on NABJ's board. Williams
wasn't one to rant and rave, and when others did, she'd listen for a
time, and then say what became famous last words, "Put
it in writing!"
were complaints that Williams lacked patience with people who weren't
quick to grasp her vision. Indeed, as one member put it, "Vanessa was
Some board members felt alienated by her brusque style.
"If Vanessa respected your abilities, there was never
a problem, but if she didn't respect you, you were dead," one
The complaints were off-target.
didn't shape her visions in isolation, but in collaboration with a "kitchen cabinet" of past presidents,
national officers and rank-and-file members. They didn't always
share her views, but their cogent arguments in opposition, in fact,
helped Williams to sharpen her own thoughts.
NABJ member Roy Campbell, of The Philadelphia Inquirer, where Williams was a reporter for many years before joining
The Washington Post in 1996, admits that he wasn't always "taken" with
her. However, he's since discovered, "She stands for something."
he said, "I learned from Vanessa that you
don't always have to agree, and don't always have to share someone's
vision, but you do have to have the ability to see beyond your
The funny thing is that Williams - a former chapter president,
regional director, secretary and vice president - never aspired to be
"I was content to be a member,'' she said, "because
I know that I don't have a lot of patience, and I don't suffer fools
gladly. But I care a lot about NABJ, and people came to me and said,
'You can do this.'"
As they say, the rest is history.
back on her term, Williams says: "I took
my task seriously and I learned a lot about myself. The whole experience
with Unity was the most painful thing that happened. I know that I upset
some people. I know it hurt, but I felt that we couldn't say nothing.
I guess the thing that hurt me most was that initially some people seemed
afraid to deal with it, and that hurt because we have no business being
afraid - not with all our ancestors have risked so that we could
work for these news organizations.
"Whatever I did," she continues, "I was
always aware that I was representing black journalists, and I always
wanted to do so with dignity and excellence. I was always concerned about
how my actions and words reflected on the membership, and I think that
is what leadership is about; it's about elevating the organization."
Williams did more than that.
She lifted us all.
Betty Baye, a columnist for The Courier Journal in
Louisville, served as NABJ vice president-print from 1985-1987.