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George Curry, champion of civil rights, black press, dead at 69

George Curry sits in a classroom at Howard University in Washington, in 2005.(AP Photo/Kevin Wolf, File)

The Rev. Jesse Jackson describes legendary commentator, author and black press champion George Curry, as “talented, tough, tenacious.”

Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton adds to that: “a tireless crusader for justice, and a true agent of change.”

And Congressional Black Caucus Chairman G.K. Butterfield calls him  “a giant in journalism [who] stood on the front lines of the Civil Rights era and used his voice to tell our stories when others would not.”

Accolades poured in with news of the sudden passing of Mr. Curry, of Laurel, Md., who died of heart failure on Saturday. He was 69.

“It is with deep regret to inform everyone that my brother, George, passed away earlier today. It was a shock to our family,” Mr. Curry’s sister, Christie Love, posted on Facebook just after midnight Sunday.

During a more than 45-year career spent in both mainstream and black press, Mr. Curry built a reputation for no-holds barred coverage of America’s race issues and commentary on the black experience.

“Black America, and in fact millions of African people all over the world, had come to know George Curry as a fearless scholar and writer who used his pen and wit to aggressively advance the cause of freedom, justice and equality for Black people and for the whole of humanity,” said Dr. Benjamin Chavis, president of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) where Mr. Curry devoted much of the past 15 years.

The award-winning veteran began his career in 1970 at Sports Illustrated, where he was the second African American hired by the magazine. At the tail end of his career, he’d been working to re-launch Emerge — the edgy magazine he’d shepherded from 1993-2000. His work there rocketed him into the ranks of national thought leaders.

“Journalism has lost a giant. I have lost a dear friend,” said Rainbow PUSH Founder Jackson, whose 1984 presidential campaign Mr. Curry covered while working at the Chicago Tribune.

“George was part of the first wave of African-American journalists to finally be allowed to cover a presidential campaign for the so-called mainstream press,” Jackson recalled. “His dispatches did not sit well with some of his white colleagues. They challenged his objectivity and integrity. But George did not back down. He helped pave the way for other journalists of color to do their jobs without questions and doubts.”

George Curry. Provided photo.

George Curry. Provided photo.

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Born Feb. 23, 1947 in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Mr. Curry grew up under segregation. His childhood friend was Dr. Charles Steele, now president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Both became involved in the civil rights movement; Mr. Curry, through journalism, Steele, through politics.

Mr. Curry graduated in 1965 from Druid High School, where he was on the football team and sports editor of the school newspaper. He moved to New York in 1966, and worked a year for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He then attended Knoxville College in Tennessee, where he was editor of the college newspaper; quarterback and co-captain of the football team; and a student member of the college’s board of trustees. He attended Harvard and Yale on summer history scholarships, earning his bachelor’s degree in history in 1970.

He was hired by The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1972, and in St. Louis began his years of service with the National Association of Black Journalists. In 1977, he founded the St. Louis Minority Journalism Workshop, a training program for high school students he would later replicate in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York City. Much later, as a trustee of the National Press Foundation, he chaired a committee that would fund more than 15 such programs nationally.

He joined the Chicago Tribune as Washington Correspondent from 1983-1989; then served as New York bureau chief until 1993.

“George was the guy you wanted to emulate in the newsroom. He was fearless. He worked and walked with confidence,” said friend and former Tribune reporter Jerry Thomas, now head of a public relations firm. “It was an era when our cities were in an uproar over racial disparities, and newsrooms were finally starting to open up and hire African-Americans. We needed people who could navigate the newsroom terrain and get our stories told. It wasn’t an easy thing to do. But that was George Curry.”

Art Norman, a board member of The National Association of Black Journalists-Chicago, recalls Mr. Curry helping launch a lauded mentoring program for Chicago Public Schools teens.

“He asked us to write a grant proposal to the Tribune Foundation. He said, ‘We must identify and nurture potential journalists before college.’ With George’s help, we were awarded a $10,000 grant for our Exposure Program. He then asked Tribune reporter Alan Johnson to lead it. Many of us will never forget his commitment to those high-school students,” Norman said.

Mr. Curry left in 1993 to helm Emerge, a political magazine known for its avant-garde covers; long-form stories; and tackling topics few would discuss openly. Mr. Curry steered Emerge to more than 40 national journalism awards, becoming the first African-American president of the American Society of Magazine Editors.

Mr. Curry was most proud of Emerge’s four-year campaign to win the release of Kemba Smith, a 22-year-old who under mandatory sentencing got 24 1/2 years in prison for a minor role in her boyfriend’s drug ring. President Bill Clinton pardoned Smith in December 2000 — six months after Emerge folded.

“I am saddened by the loss of an outstanding journalist and supportive friend. With quality reporting, creativity, and skillful persuasion he influenced countless people, including me, to think beyond their narrow experience and expand their understanding. George may be gone, but he will not be forgotten,” Hillary Clinton said.

Mr. Curry became editor-in-chief of the NNPA News Service in 2001, a position he held until 2007; then returning to steer it from 2012-2015. He left in October to launch EmergeNewsOnline.com. A GoFundMe campaign he started had raised $16,438 of a $100,000 goal. Up until his death, his syndicated column appeared weekly in more than 200 newspapers, including Chicago Publisher Dorothy Leavell’s Crusader newspapers.

“We shall miss this voice of reason and thought-provoking columns,” Leavell said in a Crusader tribute. “It was just the week of Aug. 13th that George wrote a column titled ‘Even Funerals Are Not Family Reunions Anymore.’ He used his family as an example of the loss of closeness that he had enjoyed during his childhood and early adult life. He pledged that he would try to get his family back together by saying, ‘Neither Big Mama nor Aunt Julia Mae would be pleased that our once close-knit family is in shambles.’ We miss you already, George.”

Mr. Curry was immediate past chairman of the Knoxville College board of trustees. In 2000, the University of Missouri awarded him its Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism, an honor shared with such luminaries as Joseph Pulitzer, Walter Cronkite, John H. Johnson, and Winston Churchill. He also was awarded a Doctor of Humane Letters by Kentucky State University, and an honorary doctorate from Lane College in Jackson, Tenn. NABJ named him Journalist of the Year in 2003, and he is on the organization’s list of Most Influential Black Journalists of the 20th Century.

Besides his sister, survivors include his son, Edward Curry, and a granddaughter.

Visitation will be from noon to 7 p.m. Friday at Weeping Mary Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa, Ala., followed by a community service officiated by Rev. Jackson. Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at the church, with Rev. Al Sharpton delivering the eulogy.