May Day Tribute Reboot!

A couple of years ago, I posted the tribute below to celebrate May Day – or International Workers Day – and writer Richard Durham.  Since this information is still relevant today, here’s a reboot of that tribute.  Enjoy the day and this significant spring month!

Each year around the world, May Day (also known as International Workers Day) or May 1st, is celebrated as a day to honor workers and spring. During his lifetime (1917-1984), Richard Durham surely made time to herald the day.  He was committed to and involved in labor unions that championed the rights of working men and women.

During the 1950s, one of Durham’s most significant associations was with the Chicago-based United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA). Considered to be one of city’s more progressive unions, the UPWA fought to protect the rights of the thousands of people who toiled in the industries that produced meat and its byproducts.

imagesUndoubtedly, Durham appreciated the union’s logo. A black and a white hand clasped in a handshake went along with the UPWA’s slogan, “Negro and White, Unite and Fight!”

And there was plenty to fight about regarding working conditions in meatpacking plants. The plants’ slaughter assembly lines, for example, were dangerous, blood-soaked environments. Some meatpacking companies didn’t provide insurance to protect injured employees, and workers on some fast-moving assembly lines were treated like prisoners.

In 1952, Durham landed a contract with the union. The organization needed a writer who could translate studies, conducted by Fisk University scholars, about the UPWA’s antidiscrimination activities into a digestible brochure for the rank and file.

Durham eventually produced a twenty-one-page brochure titled Action against Jim Crow: UPWA’s Fight for Equal Rights. The brochure married photos of union members with Durham’s attention-grabbing writing:

At daybreak on November 30, 1950, a young Negro mother left her three children with their grandmother and hurried out into the cold Chicago dawn to catch a street-car.

She was Mrs. Pauline Wilson and she needed a job.

She was an experienced packinghouse worker and she knew they were hiring at Swift and Company.

Swift—like the Wilson, Armour, and Cudahy companies—operated America’s largest meat processing plants. Durham went on to write:

At 7 a.m. [Mrs. Wilson] was rushing unnoticed down the crowded, cobblestone streets of the world’s biggest packing center, and at 7:30 a.m. she was inside the employment office of the biggest packer.

It was the third anxious morning she had raced to be among the first to apply.

“Oh-h-h-h you’re just a little bit too late,” one of the clerks shook a sad head. “We’re not hiring anymore women. Just men.”

Durham then introduced Ruth Merson, a white job seeker who rushed down the same cobblestone streets to the same company on that same November morning. Yet Merson was directed to a back office and hired with every other white woman who applied that day.

Swift foreman Bill Cummings encouraged Merson to send her friends because he thought she “looked like a good worker.” Durham conceded, “He was right. She was even better than he thought. He had hired a field representative of UPWA on assignment for its Anti-Discrimination Department, a symbol of the Negro and white unity which has made the UPWA-CIO, the most important packinghouse union in the world.”

An arbitrator eventually ruled that Mrs. Wilson and twelve other black women “were entitled to reach into Mr. Swift’s pockets for $2,600 in back pay,” Durham wrote. Additionally, Swift had to hire those women with a year’s worth of seniority.

Richard Durham continued working with the UPWA, helping the union organize its workers to support various civil rights struggles – including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

So whatever work you are passionate about and engaged in, have a productive month!

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A Tribute to the Legacy of A Fallen Hero and A Writer

Forty-nine years ago, on April 4, 1968, an assassin’s bullet silenced the eloquent voice of civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

But in the mid-1950s, Dr. King and Richard Durham’s lives intersected in Durham’s Chicago hometown. At the time, Durham served as an organizer and program director with the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) – one of the most progressive labor unions in Chicago.

In mid-February, 1956 Durham attended a UPWA meeting with other union members, a local preacher, and Dr. King – then a 26-year-old Baptist minister described as the “outstanding leader of a ‘passive resistance’ boycott” in its infancy in Montgomery, Alabama.

Dr. King summarized the events leading to the ongoing boycott of Montgomery’s segregated bus system by its African American residents. On December 1, 1955, a respected community member, 42-year-old Rosa Parks, was arrested and jailed after refusing to give up her seat on a city bus to a white person. Her arrest sparked outrage. Black community members and their religious leaders decided to stage a one-day boycott of all city buses on Monday, December 5th.

Dr. King told Richard Durham and his UPWA colleagues that only eight Negroes traveled by bus that day—in a city where roughly 75 percent of Montgomery’s black population, about 47,000 strong, used the bus system. In the city’s Holt Street Baptist Church that Monday evening, Dr. King delivered a fiery speech that electrified the overflowing crowd. Montgomery’s African American citizens resolved to fight on, extending the bus boycott indefinitely.

To support the boycott, some of Montgomery’s Black residents dusted off their shoes and walked everywhere.

Some stayed home.

But for the thousands of other Blacks who needed it, the MIA established an alternate transportation system. Individual car owners and churches volunteered their vehicles; Negro taxi drivers reduced their fares. Dr. King said that the MIA needed about $300 a day just to pay for gas.

Some funds to support the boycott came from donations received at mass meetings. Prominent souls such as Montgomery pharmacist Richard Harris and internationally acclaimed entertainer Harry Belafonte also contributed. Still, Dr. King told Durham and his UPWA colleagues that unless additional aid flowed in “to boost the morale of the people,” the two-month-old boycott might soon have to end.

Richard Durham asked Dr. King if similar boycotts in cities like Mobile, Alabama, or Sioux City, Iowa, would help this boycott effort. Durham’s suggestion was based on research which revealed that the corporate owners of Montgomery’s bus line owned subsidiaries in several other cities throughout the United States.

In solidarity with the boycott and Durham’s Program Department, union members “committed ourselves to [raising] $20,000,” UPWA district president Addie Wyatt recalled. “They divided that [amount] up between the districts so that each one of our [nine] districts had responsibility to raise funds and send it into the international union.” According to Wyatt, her district led the way by raising about $12,000 for the boycott.

For almost one year, Montgomery’s Black residents stayed away from and nearly bankrupted the city’s bus system. Finally, on November 13, 1956, victory reigned. The United States Supreme Court declared Alabama’s law mandating segregated buses unconstitutional.

I hope that you enjoyed this excerpt from Word Warrior and this brief tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Richard Durham’s legacy.

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Betty “BeBop” Carter: A Women’s History Month Tribute

This Women’s History Month, I’d like to celebrate the life and ingenuity of jazz singer/songwriter Betty Carter.

A musical force of nature, Carter was an inventive musician and bandleader. She also mentored generations of younger musicians.

Born Lillie Mae Jones in 1929, Carter grew up in Detroit. Early in her career she was influenced by and performed with saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, eventually touring with the band of vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. Because of her ability to improvise and scat sing, Hampton called her Betty “BeBop” – a nickname that stuck.

Carter went onto to perform with Ray Charles before charting her own course by leading her own bands and launching a successful record label.

Betty Carter was one fearless – inspired and talented – musician/business woman!

Before her death in 1998, she would inspire a host of band members including pianists Mulgrew Miller and Cyrus Chestnut, bassists Curtis Lundy and Buster Williams and drummers Lewis Nash and Jack DeJohnette.  And Carter influenced the careers of many other aspiring young jazz musicians.

So click here to hear my piece about Betty Carter’s incredible musical journey. This documentary was an episode in NPR’s Jazz Profiles series, an award winning weekly program hosted by another phenomenal singer, Nancy Wilson.

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A Black History Month TV Special

On Tuesday, February 21st, noted author/poet E. Ethelbert Miller interviewed me on his TV show The Scholars.  Our wide ranging discussion examined the history of the Black press and Black radio, the significance of writer Richard Durham and the impact of legendary figures like boxing champion Muhammad Ali, novelist Toni Morrison and Chicago mayor Harold Washington.

Click below to see this Black History Month show and enjoy!


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Activism & Self-Determination

Well, it’s begun.

We’re in the second month of a new year that has slapped many of us in the face with its obvious challenges and almost unbelievable developments. The key word however is almost, since many of the events of the past few weeks will continue to percolate and reverberate throughout America and the world in the months to come.

In the midst of these serious societal changes, The Burning Spear newspaper paid tribute to a Chicago-born entertainer who used his art as a weapon against injustice. His name was Oscar Brown Jr. – a talented actor, captivating singer and dedicated activist.

The Burning Spear article examined Brown’s life (1926-2005) and his link to a mentor/friend who inspired him – Chicago writer Richard Durham.  In a review of my book Word Warrior one writer called Durham “a post World War II literary action figure.

To read and be inspired by this fascinating Burning Spear article, click on the title below:

Oscar Brown Jr. Walked and Talked Self-Determination


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Season’s Greetings: Heading Into A New Year

This month, many of us may find ourselves sitting on the edge a virtual cliff,

staring into the vast unknown of the coming new calendar year. While we sit there, anticipating what feats we plan to tackle and the challenges to be slayed, we might first want to take stock of where we’ve been in 2016.

For me, this year has been a whirlwind of teaching, learning and sharing. Since December 2015…just three months after the publication of my first book Word Warrior: Richard Durham, Radio, and Freedom…I’ve traveled between America’s East and West coasts, enjoying the warmth of southern hospitality and the kinetic energy of book lovers in northern, midwestern and western cities. I’ve even crossed the Atlantic “pond” to experience the sights and insights of new friends and associates in London and Oxford, England.

Blessings all.

Of course there have also been setbacks, not the least of which has been living through an extremely ugly and divisive election year. Yet I will remain vigilant and cautiously hopeful as 2017 approaches.

I want to thank everyone who read any of my web posts, attended a book reading/signing event or just shared words of encouragement. I’m so happy that Word Warrior was identified as a one of the top ten books by journalists-of-color last December by My book also made the Washington, DC-based Teaching for Change organization’s recommended reading list, and Word Warrior was a 2016 Phyllis Wheatley Book Awards finalist.

How wonderful it has been to talk about writer Richard Durham’s life and pioneering work in private homes, theatrical venues, colleges, libraries and museums. So please feel free to click on the following links to view my featured appearances at the Museum of the African Diaspora (San Francisco, CA) and the Library of Congress (Washington, DC).

And have a bountiful, peaceful, book-filled and joyous holiday season!

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Studs Terkel, Richard Durham, Oscar Brown Jr. & Radio Inventions

Last month I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with the director and staff of the Studs Terkel Radio Archives based at WFMT in Chicago. While sharing good food and stimulating conversation, we talked about Terkel’s decades long contributions to the art of radio interviewing and writing, as well as his long-term friendship with fellow radio scriptwriter Richard Durham.

Interested in hearing my conversation with Director Tony Macaluso?

If so, click on the image below. There you can also hear Durham’s Destination Freedom episode about baseball great Jackie Robinson, featuring Studs Terkel as the drama’s narrator and actor Oscar Brown Jr. as Robinson.  Enjoy!



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Calling All Book Lovers to Baltimore!

Do you live in or near Baltimore, Maryland? If so, please join me on Friday, November 18, 2016 at Morgan State University.

The University’s School of Global Journalism & Communication, along with the Women’s National Book Association of Washington, D.C., will sponsor an evening of dialogue and celebration of new works by dynamic authors. Three African American authors will offer their diverse insights on life, professional enrichment, networking and overcoming career obstacles.

So on Nov. 18th from 5:00-8:00p.m., come to the MSU School of Global Journalism & Communication, 4905 Perring Parkway (at corner of Hartsdale Road) in Baltimore. To RSVP or get more details, email or Majeedah Johnson,

And just who are these guest authors? They are:

Marja Lee Freeman, an award-winning, professional employment coach and author of Career Building: How to Stand Out, Get Ahead & Get Noticed!

Valerie Graves, a major advertising exec, and author of the memoir, Pressure Makes Diamonds: Becoming the Woman I Pretended to Be.

And yes, I’ll talk about Word Warrior: Richard Durham, Radio and Freedom.

Hope to see you there!

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A Presidential Election and Worldwide Concern

I have just returned from England, where the temperatures were mild, the sun was bright and umbrellas were necessary for only part of one day. This was the first time I spent several days in the U.K. img_2346

My other trips to London were quick airport stopovers before making my way to Africa or other parts of Europe.

This time however, London and Oxford called me to explore their sights, history and people.


I attended an international biographers symposium where writers from France, The Netherlands, the Czech Republic, England and the United States gathered to share their insights about what it means to shine an intensive light on the lives of other people – whether well known or not. Fellow biographers’ smiles were warm and congeniality was high.



But while we talked and laughed and shared, one thing was on everyone’s minds and invaded discussions daily – the upcoming American presidential election.

This critical, often nonsensical and even frightening election season has captured the attention of much of the world’s population. People around the world are watching, analyzing and nervously waiting for this election’s outcome.


Of course, we’ll all soon know who will move into the White House in January 2017. In the meantime, I am reminded of what media writer Richard Durham said some 67 years ago. In looking at the crucial importance of voting for all people – especially African Americans – who yearn for freedom, justice, and equality, Durham noted:

the real-life story of a single Negro in Alabama walking into a voting booth across a Ku Klux Klan line has more drama and world implications than all the stereotypes Hollywood or radio can turn out in a thousand years.  (Richard Durham, 1949)

While actual Ku Klux Klan lines may not be apparent in 2016, it’s clear that this election has worldwide implications. I hope that everyone will vote, through the drama and all, on November 8th.

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Inspiring Comments from Recent Word Warrior Readers

October 6, 2016

Dear Sonja Williams,

I just read WORD WARRIOR and I learned so much! I have been really interested in Durham’s work and his distinctive voice because of his work in radio, and wrote about his work and his significance in VISIONS OF BELONGING (Judith E. Smith, 2004) as you know!

The wonderfully generous and collegial J. Fred MacDonald directed me to his own book on Destination Freedom, sent me (then all there was) tapes of a number of the broadcasts, and directed me to interview Clarice Durham, which I did. When Barbara Savage’s book (BROADCASTING FREEDOM: RADIO, WAR, AND THE POLITICS OF RACE, 1938-1948) came out, I grabbed it, and made use of her work, also.

I’ve followed every clue I could find about him in the years since, and was just so thrilled to be able to have your beautifully researched account of his WHOLE LIFE and all his work. I am happily in your debt.

Best from Judith E. Smith


September 30, 2016

Dear Ms. Williams,

Your book “Word Warrior” is fabulous!

Learning about Richard Durham is invaluable. It is so encouraging to learn of his path. Your book on Durham’s life also provided an opportunity to learn about a time period that I experienced as a child/young adult. My father was the first African-American hired at WTTW. I will be asking him about his recollections on “Bird of the Iron Feather” show. I attended the Harold Washington Rally at the Pavilion. It was a truly electric.

I am in awe of your ability to concisely encapsulate situations/time periods. I will be using your book as a textbook!

I noticed that you thanked the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library and the Vivian G. Harsh Collection staff for their assistance. They are truly a jewel. The Library will be closing November 10, 2016 for a major renovation. Researchers were encouraged to try to come in before that time.

Congratulations on your great book.

Cecilia Horde

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