By Hazel Trice Edney
That was the range of emotions that marked the packed house during the “Celebration of Life” for legendary journalist George Curry at Weeping Mary Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa, Ala., August. 27.
The Rev. Al Sharpton gave a eulogy of the Black press journalist, columnist, commentator and editor that soared from a touching and sometimes humorous tribute to a fiery sermon that shook the sanctuary. Stately Black journalists and publishers were among those moved by the Spirit as Sharpton’s message pointed largely to how they must now escalate their voices as they continue telling the story.
“There were many Black writers that have gone mainstream. But George Curry made mainstream go Black,” said Sharpton to applause. “He was smart enough to play the game and stay in certain newsrooms. But he chose not to do that because he chose the path of why Black Press started in the first place.”
Sharpton was eluding to the first Black Press editorial, published in the 1827 inaugural edition of Freedom’s Journal. That editorial stated, “We wish to plead our own cause. For too long have others spoken for us.”
Curry, who died of heart failure August 20, started his career at Sports Illustrated, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Chicago Tribune. But he died as a hero, having found his calling in the Black Press. He was editor-in-chief of his beloved Emerge Magazine for seven years until it went defunct. Then he took up the banner becoming editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA), the Black Press of America. When he died, he had founded Emergenewsonline.com, a digital version of the hard copy magazine, which he never gave up hope to revive.
“If we love him, we will keep Emerge News Online going,” Sharpton said. “I don’t know what it will cost. I don’t know what it will be, but I want to be the first to help Ann keep that work going…I’m going to write the first check.”
Curry’s fiancée, Elizabeth “Ann” Ragland, looked on from the audience. Earlier, she had spoken, saying, how much Curry loved and valued his family, especially his mother, Mrs. Martha Brownlee and she reflected on his contagious sense of humor. Then, recalling his final moments, she said, “On last Saturday, my voice was the last person that George heard as I tried to keep him here with us. But there was a voice much stronger than mine, a voice that no person can say no to, a voice that even George Curry could not say no to…That voice is going to speak to us all.”
Curry’s death hit the journalistic community particularly hard as it came amidst one of the most controversial and heated presidential elections in history. Sharpton made clear where the Black Press must go from here.
“George Curry left us in a critical time in history,” Sharpton said. “In five months will be the first time in American history that we will see a White succeed a Black president. We’ve never been here before…which means those of us who write the story are going to have to follow a script that’s never been written before. If we ever needed a strong independent, but ethical Black Press, we’re going to need it now,” he said.
Dozens of Black publishers, writers, photographers, former interns and mentees, mostly from NNPA, took up the first two pews of the church. The sanctuary was also packed with hundreds of people, including his family and Tuscaloosa residents who came to say farewell to their hometown hero.
Sharpton attended the funeral despite a march against violence in Washington that he was monitoring by phone. “I said I would be here because no matter what he was doing, George was always here – not just for me – but for all of us.”
Reflecting on his friendship with Curry, who appeared on the last hour of his daily radio show every Friday – including the day before he died – Sharpton said, “George never knew that he was much more of a minister to me than I was to him.”
He said among the encouraging principles that Curry taught him was, “It’s not what everybody else thinks of you. It’s about what you think of yourself. And if you grab a hold to what your calling is and believe what you think you can be, everybody else’s judgement won’t matter.”
Still, Curry held even his political and civil rights friends accountable.
“He never let his friendship interview with his journalism. He would write against us and praise us the next week if we earned it,” Sharpton said. “At the end of the day the ones that really respect you are the ones that respect you enough to correct you because they don’t give you a cheap way out. And that’s what George would do.”
Sharpton said it was Curry’s courage that marked his unique style of reporting and column writing.
“Progress has never been as a result of people who didn’t take risks. George knew he wasn’t going to benefit by telling Kemba’s story. He knew he’d lose advertisers. He knew he wouldn’t be on “Face the Nation” if he put a handkerchief on Clarence Thomas’ head.”
The audience applauded vigorously at the recognition of both – the Kemba Smith and Clarence Thomas stories, which appeared on the cover of Emerge.
“But he told the truth. He chose his integrity. He chose the roots he got in Tuscaloosa rather than getting a pat on the back from folk that’s going to fire you anyway…George was a man’s man. And a proud man. That’s why George mattered.”
Smith, who called Curry her “hero”, was among the speakers, which also included journalists Ed Gordon and Roland Martin. NNPA President/CEO Dr. Benjamin Chavis and SCLC President/CEO Dr. Charles Steele also spoke. A childhood friend and Tuscaloosa native, Steele also presided at the funeral and the memorial service the night before, where the keynote speaker was the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Driving home his point, Sharpton humorously rebuked journalists and activists who claim they have a new way of covering or protesting injustices, giving a scenario of one person who tried to convince him that the times had changed and there are new strategies for speaking truth to power.
He told of one person who said this, yet could not answer when asked what new strategies? Dismissing the person’s excuse for not taking a stand, Sharpton said he answered the question for him:
“If you don’t have a strategy, don’t act like you’ve got a different plan,” he said. “If you’re scared, say you’re scared!…And sit down and shut up and let somebody that’s not scared say what needs to be said.”
Ultimately, it was the Biblical text of the eulogy that brought the congregation to their feet at the end of the three-hour service.
Sharpton preached from II Timothy 4:6-7, 11-13 when Paul, knowing his death was near, said, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith!”
But, then Paul told Timothy to bring certain things to the jail, including “parchments”, which interpreted, means his writings.
“Bring my books and bring my papers because I did what the rest of the Apostles didn’t do. I wrote the story. And the story would be distorted unless we that lived the story, wrote the story!” Sharpton preached.
He admonished Black journalists and publishers, “Keep telling the story…George never stopped. Until the very end, he never backed up and he never compromised. And he never negotiated his dignity for a contract or for a favor. That’s why when we say ‘so-long’, we’ve lost something that we’ll never see that way again. George Curry was part of a long tradition. But he was one of a kind.'”
Mrs. Martha Brownlee, Curry’s beloved mother, who had wept in mourning for her only son as she visited the casket, ended the service dancing in his honor as Sharpton preached and the organ punctuated his message:
“I come to Tuscaloosa to tell you that George won’t be laying in the cemetery. George has got to go through the cemetery. But, George is on his way home now. He fought a good fight! He kept the faith! He finished his course!”
As a final reflection and recognition of the continued struggle at hand, the congregation locked arms and sang the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”