Saturday, May 30, 2009


Thursday, May 29, 2008

Carl Rowan (1925-2000) was a federal cabinet member, international ambassador and one of the most prominent black journalists of the 20th century.

Born in Ravenscroft, Tennessee, to Thomas David and Johnnie B. Rowan on August 11, 1925, Rowan grew up during the Great Depression. As a young boy, Rowan worked hoeing bulb grass for 10 cents an hour, later performing hard manual labor for 25 cents an hour when there was work available. In his autobiography, Rowan told of living with “no electricity, no running water, no toothbrushes … no telephone, no radio and no regular inflow of money.”

He graduated in 1942 from Bernard High as valedictorian and class president. Rowan moved to Nashville with 77 cents in his pocket and the dream of a college education. In order to earn his tuition for college, he moved in with his grandparents and got a job in a tuberculosis hospital the summer before enrolling in the Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College (now Tennessee State University) in Nashville in the fall of 1942. Two years later, during World War II, Rowan passed a competitive exam to become one of the first blacks in Naval officer training.

After his stint in the U.S. Navy, Rowan graduated from Oberlin College majoring in mathematics and earned a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota in 1948. He began his career in journalism as a copywriter for The Minneapolis Tribune, and within two years, he had become a staff writer with special emphasis on the Civil Rights Movement. In 1950, Rowan married Vivien Louise Murphy, a public health nurse.

At the time, “no more than five blacks could claim to be general assignment reporters and few were writing anything serious about the American social, political or economic scene,” Rowan wrote in his autobiography, Breaking Barriers.

Among his early pieces were a series of columns entitled How Far from Slavery?, which he wrote after returning to the South to study issues of race. The articles contributed to Rowan being the first black to receive the Minneapolis “Outstanding Young Man” award. They also served as the basis for his first book, South of Freedom.

Rowan spent 1954 writing columns from India, Pakistan and Southeast Asia. These led to a second book, The Pitiful and the Proud. A third book, Go South to Sorrow, was published in 1957. Rowan was the only journalist to receive the Sigma Delta Chi award for newspaper reporting in three straight years: for general reporting in 1954, for best foreign correspondence in 1955, and for his coverage of the political unrest in Southeast Asia in 1956.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Rowan Deputy Secretary of State and he became the U.S. Ambassador to Finland in 1963. The following year, Rowan was appointed director of the United States Information Agency by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Rowan became the first black to hold a seat on the National Security Council and oversaw a staff of thirteen thousand. In 1965, Rowan resigned and began writing a national column for the Field Newspaper Service Syndicate and doing three weekly radio commentaries for the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company.

Rowan developed a reputation for being independent and often controversial. He urged Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to change his anti-war stance because he felt it was hurting the Civil Rights Movement, and he called for J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), to resign citing abuses of power and corruption that brought him criticism. While Rowan had always been a spokesperson for civil and economic rights for blacks, he was also critical of those he felt should more aggressively addressing those issues affecting themselves.

Rowan received the Peabody Award for his television special “Race War in Rhodesia” and was awarded an Emmy for his documentary “Drug Abuse: America’s 64 Billion Dollar Curse.” His newspaper column was syndicated by the Chicago Sun-Times and reached nearly half of homes receiving newspapers in the United States. He was on numerous public affairs television programs and was a permanent panelist on “Agronsky and Company.” He also aired “The Rowan Report,” a daily series of commentaries on radio stations heard across the nation. He served as a roving reporter for the Reader’s Digest and regularly published articles in the magazine. He was one of the most sought-after lecturers in the United States, speaking on college campuses and at conventions of teachers, business people, civil rights leaders and community groups.

Rowan once told Publisher’s Weekly, “You gotta get tired before you retire,” and he went on to publish several more books, including Dream Makers, Dream Breakers: The World of Thurgood Marshall and The Coming Race War in America: A Wake-Up Call.

In 1987, after reading about a high school where black students were embarrassed to stand as their names were called during an honor roll ceremony, he created Project Excellence to help black youth to finish school and go on to college. Since then, the organization has awarded more than $58 million to over 2,400 young people.

In 1988, Rowan, who had advocated strict handgun control, found himself in the center of a gun controversy when he was arrested and charged with using an unregistered weapon to wound a teenager who intruded into his backyard. Rowan argued that he had the right to use whatever means necessary to protect himself and his family. The jury deadlocked and the judge declared a mistrial.

Rowan was a 1995 Pulitzer Prize finalist for his commentaries. In 1999, The National Press Club gave Rowan its Fourth Estate Award for lifetime achievement. On January 9, 2001, United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright dedicated the press briefing room at the State Department as the Carl T. Rowan Briefing Room. Rowan is one of the most honored journalists in American history. He has 44 honorary degrees and is in both the Black Journalists Hall of Fame and the Sigma Delta Chi Hall of Fame. He holds the “Missouri Medal,” the highest honor given by the University of Missouri School of Journalism and has received the E.I. Du Pont-Columbia University Silver Baton.

Rowan died of natural causes on September 23, 2000, at Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C. He was 75. He had been hospitalized for various illnesses, including diabetes, in the weeks prior to his death. He is survived by his wife, Vivien; two sons, Carl Rowan Jr., a lawyer; Jeffrey, a clinical psychologist, and one daughter, Barbara, a former journalist.

RELATED LINKS / REFERENCES: Wikipedia, CNN, AARegistry, Notable Biographies
Encyclopedia of World Biography, Reader Jill


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