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Trailblazing newspaper publisher William Garth Sr. dies at 78

William Garth Sr., longtime CEO and publisher of the Citizen newspapers, dies at 78. | Provided photo

William Garth Sr. carried on the black press tradition of helping to light the way to freedom and social change.

Mr. Garth was CEO and publisher of the Chicago Citizen, a weekly newspaper chain focusing on African-American communities. It includes the Chatham Southeast Citizen, the South Suburban Citizen, the Chicago Weekend, the Hyde Park Citizen and the South End Citizen. The papers, with an audited circulation of about 121,000, constitute the largest black-owned chain in the Midwest, said his son, Darrell.

In 1996, Mr. Garth was elected chair of the 480-newspaper Illinois Press Association, becoming the country’s first African-American chief of a statewide press organization.

He died Friday at Chicago’s RML Specialty Hospital of complications from diabetes. He was 78.

The IPA, which praised him for helping to revitalize Chatham, called him “one of our longtime leaders and industry giants.”

Mr. Garth was proud of Chatham. During a 1986 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, he said, “Nobody can loiter on the corners. If we were to do this interview out on the sidewalk, you’d see people peering out of windows. And the police would be here in 15 minutes, at the most.”

“Bill’s intrepid approach to newspapering and commitment to his community, combined with his warmth, humor and citizenship made him one of our industry’s finest ambassadors,” said Dennis DeRossett, president and CEO of the Illinois Press Association.

And he was “a longtime champion of social, racial and economic justice,” said the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr., founder of the Rainbow/ PUSH Coalition.

In 1996, William Garth Sr. was elected chair of the 480-newspaper Illinois Press Association, becoming the country’s first African-American chief of a statewide press organization. | Chicago Citizen photo
In 1996, William Garth Sr. was elected chair of the 480-newspaper Illinois Press Association, becoming the country’s first African-American chief of a statewide press organization. | Chicago Citizen photo

“He was a philanthropist and community leader whose legacy will live on in the countless lives he has touched and through the college scholarships he provided,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said.

“He was a mentor, philanthropist and a groundbreaker,” said Cook County Clerk David Orr.

Mr. Garth grew up one of 15 children in rural Bessemer, Alabama, where the siblings had to share clothes and shoes. After migrating to Chicago, he worked as a salesman at the Citizen papers. He bought the chain from U.S. Rep Gus Savage, D-Ill., about 35 years ago, his son said.

In 1990, Mr. Garth editorialized in favor of a Nike boycott, amid concerns that the shoemaker was taking a large amount of money from African-Americans but not giving back. “If corporations did for the black community what they do for the white community, we wouldn’t have the unemployment that we do,” he said.

He also persuaded Chicago-area advertisers to promote their goods in his newspapers. “He always talked about how there were times when they weren’t going to include him in ad campaigns because of [his] color,” his son said. “He was able to convince them that wasn’t a good idea.”

After his younger son, Quentis Bernard Garth, was fatally stabbed in a 1989 domestic dispute, Mr. Garth started a scholarship foundation in his name. It has dispensed more than $1 million to college-bound students, according to the IPA.

“It gave me, of course, the financial push and assistance; the security, knowing that somebody’s in your corner,” said Markeia Jones, a scholarship recipient who used the money to attend Hampton University. “It was very motivational.” She works at a multimedia production company in Atlanta.

He is also survived by his wife, Brenda; his sisters, Geraldine Burgess, Orangie Garth, and Charlie Garth; his brothers, X Rashid, Robert Sr., Roosevelt, Jessie, Larry, Joseph and Richard; six stepchildren, Robin, Marla, Myron, Bobbie, Schuyler and Kimani; nine grandchildren; 20 step-grandchildren and 24 step-great-grandchildren.

Mr. Garth was a member of the Rainbow/PUSH board and publisher of PUSH magazine. He also was a founding member of the Chatham Business Association.

Visitation is at 6 p.m. Friday at AA Rayner Funeral Home, 318 E. 71st St. A horse-led procession is to begin at Rayner’s at 10 a.m. Saturday, heading to New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church, 754 E. 77th St., for an 11:15 a.m. wake. His funeral is planned from 12:15 p.m. to 2:15 p.m., his son said. Burial is at Oak Woods Cemetery.