Civil rights legend celebrating 100 years of the Pulitzer

BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — The Poynter Institute held a 100th anniversary celebration of the Pulitzer Prize March 31 at the Palladium. Thursday nights’ event marked the first of four held across the country.

Tim Franklin, president of The Poynter Institute, welcomed a number of distinguished guests on hand. This included several members of the Pulitzer Prize board, along with Mayor Rick Kriseman; Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin, a former journalist herself and a graduate of the prestigious Poynter Institute; Congresswoman Kathy Castor and Neil Brown, editor and vice president of the Tampa Bay Times.

Paul Tash, chairman and CEO of the Times Publishing Company and chair of the Poynter Board of Trustees, acknowledged 18 past Pulitzer winners in the audience.

“Our purpose here this evening is to say happy birthday to the Pulitzer Prizes. They turn 100 years old this year, which is older than anybody in this room, I believe,” Tash quipped. “This is a great tribute to a robust and resilient American institution.”

Established by provisions of the will of newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer a century ago, the esteemed Pulitzer awards excellence in categories such as journalism, literary arts and music.

The theme for the evening was Voices of Social Justice & Equality and who better else to give the keynote address than United States Representative for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District, Congressman John Lewis.

Lewis delivered a message of pro-activism. He has long been involved in civil rights activism and is the co-author of the graphic novel “March,” a first-hand account of his lifelong struggle for civil and human rights.

“In vivid imagery and memorable language, it captures one of the most astonishing life experiences ever lived by any American of any color,” said Pulitzer Prize winner Cynthia Tucker Haynes of the novel while introducing Lewis.

Lewis was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the mid-1960s, some of the most turbulent times of the Civil Rights Movement, and was succeeded by Stokely Carmichael.

The congressman, whose parents were sharecroppers and whose great-grandfather was a slave, spoke of his early life in Troy, Ala., where as a youth he witnessed all sorts of injustice and segregation between whites and blacks. When he asked his parents and teachers why this was, they would tell him, “‘That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way, don’t get in trouble,’” Lewis recalled.

But as he got older and listening to the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio and hearing about the actions of Rosa Parks, Lewis was inspired to try to “find a way to get in the way.”

Lewis went on to attend American Baptist Theological Seminary and Fisk University, both in Nashville, Tenn., and in 1960 he participated in the Nashville sit-ins, a nonviolent campaign to eliminate racial segregation in downtown Nashville lunch counters. During such nonviolent efforts, Lewis recalled how he and other participants were orderly and peaceful, yet still faced physical attacks, such as having lit cigarettes jammed in their backs. And though they did not retaliate, they were arrested for not vacating the premises.

“The media — reporters, photographers — helped moved the sit in movement around the South and around the nation,” said Lewis.

In 1961, he volunteered to participate in the Freedom Rides, which challenged segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South. During the height of the movement, from 1963 to 1966, Lewis was named Chairman of SNCC, which he helped form. At the age of 23, he was an architect of and keynote speaker at the historic March on Washington in August 1963. That same year he was dubbed one of the “Big Six” leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.

In 1965, he helped spearhead the 600 strong peaceful, orderly march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. The marchers were attacked by Alabama state troopers in a brutal confrontation that became known as “Bloody Sunday.” News broadcast and photographs revealing the senseless cruelty of the segregated South helped hasten the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Lewis thanked journalists, reporters and photographers for finding a way to get in trouble—”good trouble, necessary trouble” and reminded them that they have an “obligation,” a “mission,” even a “mandate” to pick up their pens, their pencils, their cameras to tell a story, to make it “real.”

“You must not give up,” Lewis urged. “Tell the truth, report the truth, disturb the order of things. Find a way to get in the way!”

The program continued by highlighting times of change in America through words and song. The historical retrospective featured more than two dozen winners of the Pulitzer Prize, including Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African American to win a Pulitzer, Moneta Sleet Jr., who captured the iconic photos taken at Dr. Martin Luther Kings’ funeral, Alice Walker for “The Color Purple” and August Wilson for “Fences.”

A dozen editorial writers from 1946 to 1972, the classic period of the Civil Rights Movement, were also honored. These southern editorialist, 11 white men and one white woman, risked life, limb and livelihood to write what they believe that the South must change.

Songs of freedom were performed by The Power of Song, Alex Harris, Sharon Scott and Bill Schustik.

The program will be broadcasted on C-SPAN. Check your local listings.

To reach Frank Drouzas, email fdrouzas@theweeklychallenger.com

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