June 5, 2024

The first Pulitzer Prizes were presented in 1917. It took 33 years of prizes for a Black artist — the poet Gwendolyn Brooks — to be declared a winner. It took 52 years for the first Black man — photojournalist Moneta Sleet — to win as an individual.

During the first seven decades of Pulitzer Prizes, the likes of W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston produced work equal or superior to their white counterparts. Reporters, editors and columnists from dozens of influential Black newspapers were doing a better job of covering the race beat in America than papers like The Washington Post and The New York Times.

But the color line would not be crossed for many of those American institutions, including the Pulitzer Prizes, for most of the first half-century of their existence. The great Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947 for Major League Baseball — three years before Brooks won her prize.

The MLB just announced that baseball statistics of players from the various Negro Leagues would be officially included in the records of all Major League players. That means, for example, that the great Josh Gibson will become the all-time leader for career batting average, surpassing that great player, and notorious racist, Ty Cobb.

Has baseball shown the Pulitzers the way?

A proposal for a new legacy

Here’s my proposal: The Pulitzer Prize Board, one of the great standard bearers in journalism and the arts, should create a new category of Pulitzer Prizes.

For the moment, let’s call it the Pulitzer Legacy Prizes. The board need not take the entire effort upon itself. It would work better with congenial partners. I don’t see this as a single award, but one that would go to three to five winners each year, quickly building a virtual hall of honor, with a curriculum that might go with it.

I don’t mean these honors to be regarded as “reparations,” because a century ago great work was already being created by Black journalists and artists.

Nor do I think of this as a reexamination of history, such as the powerful reframing of America’s own history in “.” The work I seek to honor is already a part of history, but almost invisible, eclipsed by the traditionally white celebrations of excellence, such as the Pulitzers.

Who might win a Pulitzer Legacy Prize? A couple of examples will suffice. DuBois, perhaps the greatest Black editorialist of the 20th century, a scholar and writer who in an alternate universe might have won a handful of Pulitzer Prizes, wrote this in 1919 in the aftermath of World War I:

This is the country to which we Soldiers of Democracy return. This is the fatherland for which we fought! But it is our fatherland. It was right for us to fight. The faults of our country are our faults. Under similar circumstances, we would fight again. But by the god of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if now that the war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land.

We return.

We return from fighting.

We return fighting. 

Make way for Democracy! We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why.

Another example comes from the book “The Race Beat,” by Hank Klibanoff and Gene Roberts, which won its own Pulitzer Prize.

The authors tell the story of a reporter named L. Alex Wilson. He worked for the Memphis Tri-State Defender, an influential Black newspaper. In 1957, he was sent to Little Rock to cover the desegregation crisis in the public schools, including the rioting of violent mobs.

The white mob on the outskirts of Central High School took out their anger on the reporters and photographers, Black and white, who were covering the event.

According to “The Race Beat”:

Alex Wilson … was suddenly rushed from behind by a man who planted one foot, swung the other as hard as he could in the manner of a field goal kicker and slammed his shoe into the base of Wilson’s spine.

Another man kicked Wilson so hard that the reporter’s lanky frame looked as if it would fold. Still, he lurched forward. Seeing that his hat had been knocked to the ground, Wilson stopped. Slowly, almost casually, as if to give them no credit for altering his course, he bent down to pick it up. In that moment, he had the chance to run, and he might well have been able to get away. But he had made that vow, long before, in Florida. I decided not to run, he wrote later. If I were to be beaten, I’d take it walking if I could, not running.

As the mob darted in and out at him, throwing punches and kicks, Wilson picked up his hat, stood erect and took some time to run his hand along the crease. His refusal to show fear infuriated the mob. Run, damn you, run, one man yelled. More punches came. Wilson, though surrounded, moved ahead …

Wilson, still holding his hat even as he fell to the ground, raised himself up, re-creased his hat and kept walking. He looked straight ahead. Then he took one last powerful blow to the head — some witnesses later said it was a brick this time — before being pushed away by the crowd. The nine Negro students had quietly slipped into the high school.

As the mob went wild with the realization that the school had been integrated, Wilson walked to his car. He still had not unfastened the middle button of his suit coat.

The epilogue:

Wilson died young, on October 11, 1960, at age 51, no doubt from the long-term effects of the beating he took in Little Rock. The Tri-State Defender ran a photograph across the top of its front page showing Wilson lying in state. Above it was the headline:

“Editor Wilson Back Home — To Stay.”

Such a story, such an example, such a legacy belongs among the work honored by the Pulitzer Prizes forever.

A history of recognition

For someone who is not a winner, I owe a lot to the Pulitzer Prizes.

As a writing coach, I have benefited from the Pulitzer spotlight on some of the best practitioners and practices in American journalism.

On four occasions, I have been asked to serve as a Pulitzer juror, on two occasions acting as chair in the bulky category of nonfiction books.

Several times now — I have lost count — the board has given prizes to friends and colleagues from news organizations I know well, especially the Tampa Bay Times, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

You can imagine my pride when my own students began to win: for Commentary and for Beat Reporting.

For a decade, I have read every Pulitzer winner and finalist in search for the best Pulitzer lead (or lead) of the year.

I wrote an , who captured the video of the killing of George Floyd.

When a new category — Memoir — was announced, I suggested a set of standards for the Pulitzer Board to consider.

But my most significant connection with the Prizes came in 2016 during the celebration of the Pulitzer Prize Centennial. Poynter was chosen as one of four institutions to host a special event to honor an important expression of the Pulitzer legacy. Our focus was on prizes in support of social justice efforts, especially those that concerned race.

I was in charge of an event in St. Petersburg that would attract almost a thousand people. Present were more than two dozen Pulitzer winners. A scripted program took more than two hours, a celebration that included a gospel choir and a keynote address by the great John Lewis. Using one of his catchphrases, he encouraged journalists everywhere to make “good trouble.”

Former Poynter archivist David Shedden produced a . From the early days of the prizes, we counted more than 100 from almost every category.

An early prize went to coverage of a brutal mob lynching in Omaha, Nebraska. Another went to crusading coverage of the growth of the Klan across America.

From 1946 to 1972 — the classic period of the Civil Rights Movement — a dozen Southern editorial writers (11 men and one woman) would risk life, limb, and livelihood to write what they believed: The South must change, legal barriers to equality must be torn down, and violence and hatred must give way to peace, tolerance and justice. All of those winners were white.

Most signified, in one way or another, a form of humility that understood the plain truth: That the greatest expressions of physical and moral courage were not those exercised by white men and women sitting in offices. They were expressed by young Black men and women who put their bodies on the line in buses, lunch counters, churches, voting lines and marches and protests across the South.

They won no Pulitzer Prizes, but their names are part of history: King, Lewis, Young, Colvin, Parks, Nash, and so many more.

Now and then since 1974, the Pulitzer Prize Board has offered special citations to figures, mostly in music and the arts. These have included Black artists such as Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Scott Joplin and Aretha Franklin, who joined white honorees such as George Gershwin, Bob Dylan and Hank Williams.

The work of those Black artists could certainly be joined with future Pulitzer Legacy Prize winners which, over time, would create a coherent historical, literary, cultural, and journalistic record that would fill out the story of America’s greatness.

The Pulitzer Board might choose, down the road, to use such a prize to honor the work of others who were boxed out by the constraints and biases of earlier generations.

Baseball made the most obvious choice in its move to inclusion. Journalism would do well to follow.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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