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Rest In Peace

George Curry was indeed a black journalist

Former Emerge editor-in-chief was a crusader for black causes and people

George Curry would have gotten a good laugh out of this.

Shortly after the 69-year-old crusading journalist died Saturday of a heart attack, a low-intensity debate erupted on Facebook about how to use the word “black” when referring to Curry, who is probably best known for his work as editor-in-chief of Emerge, a black news magazine that shut down in 2000.

It was during his seven years at the helm of Emerge that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was disparagingly portrayed on the magazine’s cover in 1993 as a handkerchief head Negro. Three years later, Curry put Thomas back on the magazine’s cover. This time he depicted the conservative jurist as a lawn jockey, a caricature of a subservient black.

In the editor’s note for that November 1996 issue, Curry apologized for not treating Thomas even more harshly. “Even our latest depiction is too compassionate for a person who has done so much to turn back the clock on civil rights, all the way back to the pre-Civil War lawn jockey days,” he wrote.

So how do you eulogize a man like that?

When The Associated Press published an obituary on Curry just a day after he died, Sonya Ross, the wire service’s race and ethnicity editor, posted it on her Facebook page. But the headline the AP put on the obit – “Prominent black journalist, publisher George Curry has died” – caused Washington Post reporter Keith Alexander to post this comment on her page: “I wish the headline on the story didn’t identify him [Curry] as a ‘black’ journalist. Just limits him so, IMO.”

When Ross asked “Why is Blackness a limitation,” Alexander answered, “to me he was a journalist. If he were white would the headline read, ‘Prominent White Journalist’ … I don’t think race is relevant, especially when a picture accompanies the story. We can see he’s black. If anything, maybe ‘Black Issue’ Journalist, ‘Civil Rights’ Journalist would be more clear.”

Like I said, Curry would have gotten a good laugh out of all of this.

He was a champion of black people and black causes; a defender of blacks who had been wronged, and an uplifter of blacks who were oppressed. When the civil rights advocate in him saw a civil wrong, the journalist in him found a compelling story.

“Helping free Kemba Smith is the highlight of my 30 years in journalism,” Curry wrote in an online posting for The Final Call about the 24-page package of stories Emerge ran about a Hampton University student who fell victim to domestic abuse and a warped criminal justice system.

Guilty of little more than being the naïve girlfriend of a manipulative drug dealer, Smith landed in federal prison with a 24-year sentence and no chance of parole. The 11,000-word story that journalist Reginald Stuart wrote about her for Curry got the attention of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund – and Smith eventually became a cause célèbre.

In December 2000, President Bill Clinton granted clemency to Smith, who by then had served nearly seven years of her sentence. One of the people pushing for her release was Curry.

“I remember George approaching me during the National Association of Black Journalists convention in the summer of that year,” said Ben Johnson, who was then a presidential assistant and director of Clinton’s Initiative for One America, an effort to solve some of the nation’s racial problems. One of the things at the top of that list for Curry was righting the wrong that the federal sentencing guidelines had imposed on Smith.

While he did the work of a journalist in seeing to it that Smith’s story got told, Curry spent years doing the advocacy work of a civil rights activist in his behind-the-scenes efforts to get Smith out of prison.

So if you’re looking for a good label to pin in front of his name, I think we should say that George Curry was a race man.

DeWayne Wickham is dean of the School of Global Journalism and Communication at Morgan State University. For 30 years, until his retirement in 2015 , his syndicated column appeared weekly in USA TODAY.