By Ariel Worthy
The Birmingham Times
Growing up in Tuscaloosa, Ala., George Curry read newspapers and knew then that African-Americans needed a stronger voice in journalism.
“He said he had never seen a black journalist, and the only stories he had read [about black people] in the Tuscaloosa News were for a white person needing a black person to clean their house or something that was negative,” recalled Ann Ragland, Curry’s lifelong companion. “He was determined that he was going to write something more positive for black people. He wanted the generation that followed him to know that there are black journalists out there.”
Curry, who died of heart failure on Aug. 20, 2016, at age 69, was truly a media giant. He was a driving force behind African-American-focused newspapers and magazines. And he was renowned as the dean of black press columnists because of his riveting weekly commentary that was featured in black newspapers across the country, including the Birmingham Times.
On Friday, Feb. 10, the Foundation for Progress in Journalism (FPJ) will celebrate the exemplary achievements of Curry and other Alabama-born media luminaries—broadcaster Rickey Smiley and businessman Don Logan—during its Second Annual Medal of Honor Awards Reception at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex Concert Hall. The event will be capped off with a public concert headlined by Grammy Award–nominated singer-songwriter Brian McKnight.
Sam Martin, executive director of the FPJ and publisher of the Birmingham Times, said Curry’s columns and the content he compiled for his news service were integral to the mission of the Times.
“We knew that a critical piece of executing our vision was to develop a deep well of content sources—content that was consistent with our mission; content that provided perspectives on a broad range of topics, including politics, education, health, religion, and more,” said Martin.
While coverage of the African-American community has come a long way in the last 50 years, said Martin, there is still a lack of diversity in newsrooms nationwide and a lack of insight about matters that affect black people.
“Content from Curry’s sources fit perfectly in [the Birmingham Times] because it offered perspectives with depth and understanding, and provided insight that helped people of color navigate complex issues.”
Ragland said Curry thoroughly researched those complex issues, which allowed him a perspective on topics that many didn’t have.
“George would always say, ‘This is what the Washington Post is going to write,’ but he would find things specific to our community,” said Ragland. “He was an excellent researcher, too, and he had no fear of holding [former] President Barack Obama or [then presidential candidate] Donald Trump accountable based on the facts he found. You wouldn’t believe the amount of research he did before he would write anything. He would do hours, sometimes days, of research.”
Ragland said Curry always encouraged young journalists “to not believe that black newspapers and the black press are going out of business and that there is no place for them anymore. He was adamant that there is a place for our voice. He said, ‘No one can tell our stories better than we can,’ and we have to be the ones to do that.”
Curry did all he could to nurture the next generation of journalists, Ragland said.
“We would go to conferences and, instead of being at parties drinking and associating with other journalists, he would be in the corner talking to young people, trying to encourage them, trying to help them find internships, trying to steer them in the right direction. He would do that sometimes until about four or five in the morning.”
Curry still has an impact today, Ragland said: “I’ve had so many publishers call me and say, ‘We miss his voice.’ We miss him right now because there is a void. Nobody is writing about the things that are happening with the conviction that George would.”
About the other honorees:
Top-rated syndicated radio personality Rickey Smiley has earned a reputation for delivering boundless laughter on radio and television, from the stand-up comedy stage and on the movie screen. Every morning, millions of Americans in nearly 60 cities listen to Smiley and his cast members on “The Rickey Smiley Morning Show.” His interviews with major celebrities and newsmakers, commentary on matters of social and political importance and trademark humor in his prank phone calls have made Smiley one of the nation’s most popular media personalities. The Birmingham native is an alumnus of Alabama State University and member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc.
Don Logan is the former chairman of the board of Time Warner Cable and former chairman of Time Warner Inc.’s Media and Communications Group. Throughout his career, he held a number of executive leadership positions with Time Warner, Time Inc. and Southern Progress. The Hartselle native currently invests in media and sports enterprises, including the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S.), the Birmingham Barons and Seek Publishing. Logan graduated from Auburn University and earned an M.S. from Clemson University. He has received honorary doctorates from Auburn, Clemson and the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Logan has been inducted into the Alabama Academy of Honor and The University of Alabama College of Communication and Information Sciences Hall of Fame. In 2001, he received the Henry Johnson Fisher Award, the magazine industry’s highest honor.
The Foundation for the Progress in Journalism (FPJ) is a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization based in Birmingham, Alabama, that believes a strong media presence is an essential part of a healthy democratic society. FPJ was formed to promote journalism specifically, but not exclusively, to minority college and high school students who have expressed interest in the field.