Sherwood Ross, ex-Chicago reporter who marched with James Meredith, dead at 85
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In 1966, as civil rights activist James Meredith began his 220-mile “March Against Fear” from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi, jeering white bystanders with Confederate flags taunted him with rebel yells. They called out that they hoped he’d die before he finished.
After Meredith was shot in an ambush on the walk’s second day, Sherwood Ross — a former Chicago journalist handling publicity for the march — tended to the civil rights leader’s wounds. He rode with him to the hospital, telling the ambulance driver to speed things up, or he’d have blood on his hands.
“You will lose your job if you don’t!’’ he warned.
The driver turned on the siren and pushed the speedometer to 90.
“That shows who he was,” Meredith, who integrated the University of Mississippi in 1962, said of Mr. Ross, who died June 21 at a nursing home in North Miami Beach, Florida.
He was 85 and had developed health problems as a result of a 2016 fall.
Meredith told the Chicago Sun-Times he credits Mr. Ross’ efforts to spread the word about the march with helping it gain notice.
“The Mississippi March Against Fear was a big deal primarily because of him,” said Meredith, now 85. “Nobody was paying attention. I told them what I was going to do. . . He took it serious.
“He was sold on me before I knew who he was,” said Meredith, who lives in Jackson.
After Meredith announced his solo March Against Fear, Mr. Ross, who had left journalism to work in politics and for the National Urban League, offered to be the press coordinator, according to Aram Goudsouzian’s 2014 book “Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power and the Meredith March Against Fear.”
According to the book, Mr. Ross, worried about Meredith’s safety, figured, “If he raised the march’s profile, he could surround Meredith with reporters, and then no one would attack him.”
Meredith, who is African-American, enrolled in 1962 at the all-white University of Mississippi. Riots followed in which two people died.
Once Meredith, Mr. Ross and three others stepped off on the 1966 march, Mr. Ross saw the hostility that greeted them. He called National Urban League chief Whitney Young to ask for protection. Goudsouzian wrote that Mr. Ross told Young, “We’re going to get shot tomorrow.”
The gunman was caught, pleaded guilty and went to jail. Meredith recovered from his injuries and rejoined the march, which swelled to 15,000 strong, with participants including the Rev. Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael. It’s been dubbed the “Last Great March of the Civil Rights era.” The Associated Press photo that captured Meredith writhing in pain from the attack was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
The day after the shooting, “I told an NBC ‘Today Show’ audience that his several companions planned to finish his March Against Fear and invited people of good will to join us,” Mr. Ross later wrote. “Thousands from all races responded over the next few weeks so that the renewed march became, literally, a turning point and victory celebration over Jim Crow in Mississippi.”
For decades, Meredith — who has said he still has shotgun pellets under his skin from the attack — stayed in touch with Mr. Ross. “He had more interest in that black-white race thing than most people,” he said.
Mr. Ross spent his early years in Logan Square, where he and other Jewish kids would tussle with Irish Catholic boys in inter-block warfare, according to his son Sean Ross.
Author Shel Silverstein grew up in the neighborhood at the same time. Later, according to Mr. Ross’ son Karl, Silverstein’s mother would ask, “Sherwood, how come you’re not successful like Sheldon?”
Before he finished at Von Steuben High School, the Ross family moved to Florida, where young Sherwood studied race relations at the University of Miami. He joined the university’s debate team, which also included his classmate Gerald Kogan, future chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court.
“If he believed in something,” Kogan said of Mr. Ross, “he was going to do something, and he was going to advocate it.”
Kogan recalled a formative 1953 debate trip at which educator Mary McLeod Bethune invited the team to Bethune-Cookman University to challenge the debate team at her historically black college.
“We probably were the first school that ever went up to eat and debate and sleep in the dormitory with black students in the South,” Kogan said. “That was unheard of.”
Mr. Ross and the other Miami students stayed up all night talking, according to Kogan, who said, “I think we all thought, ‘This is absurd. Segregation — what is the purpose of it?’ The black students are the same as the white students. They had the same desires in life.”
Mr. Ross served in the Air Force, where a declassified FBI memo showed he exposed a scam at San Antonio’s Lackland Air Force Base in which a sergeant was shaking down soldiers in exchange for reduced KP duty.
He worked as a reporter for the old City News Bureau of Chicago, was a speechwriter for Mayor Richard J. Daley from 1958 to 1962 and worked for a time for the Chicago Department of Water and Sewers — for which he once held a news conference in a sewer.
He covered urban affairs for the Chicago Daily News in the early 1960s and wrote speeches for Young at the National Urban League. Later in life, he did a column on workplace news for Reuters news service.
And as a host at WOL-AM radio in Washington, D.C., he was “the boss with the slum sauce.” Callers would phone his “War on Slums” show to report substandard conditions. He’d regularly go out in his WOL “slummobile” to check on buildings, according to a 1967 Washington Post article by Carl Bernstein. Mr. Ross said the show led to repairs at 800 dwellings.
In 1968, he founded Washington-based Sherwood Ross Associates to publicize the content of top magazines including The Atlantic, Essence, The New Yorker, Playboy and Psychology Today.
Mr. Ross also wrote poetry and plays.
His first two children, from his second marriage, were named for historic figures. Karl Altgeld Ross’ middle name came from the reformer Illinois governor, John Peter Altgeld, who pardoned some of the men accused in Chicago’s 1896 Haymarket bombing. Sean Darrow Ross was named for Irish socialist playwright Sean O’Casey and lawyer Clarence Darrow, who worked to defend the Haymarket accused.
He is also survived by two children from his third marriage, Elizabeth and Andrei Ross, his sisters Chaia Ross and Ludmilla Coven, his companion Dolores Curry and five grandchildren. A memorial is pending.
Marching with Meredith “is something he had to do,” said Karl Ross. “He thought America was worth fighting for. There were enemies both internal and external, and he spent his life fighting the enemies within.”