Word Warrior

Called “marvelously written and completely captivating,” this 2016 Phyllis Wheatley Book Awards finalist documents the life of gifted broadcast dramatist, journalist and political strategist, Richard Durham. Artists like Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, Oscar Brown, Jr. and Studs Terkel – along with Heavyweight Boxing Champion Muhammad Ali and Chicago Mayor Harold Washington – collaborated with and sang Durham’s praises.

And Durham’s lyrical, politically outspoken and compelling dramas earned him posthumous induction into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2007.

Throughout Durham’s lifetime (1917-1984) this Mississippi-born, Chicago-based African American writer used his eloquent literary voice to fight for freedom, equality and justice for all. He may be best known for his award-winning radio series, Destination Freedom. It aired on NBC affiliate WMAQ from 1948 to 1950, taking listeners on a weekly, half hour long journey through the lives and accomplishments of African American history makers and heroes – a truly unique series on a medium that usually negatively stereotyped black citizens in a highly discriminatory America.

Richard Durham with Muhammad Ali

Durham also earned honors as an investigative reporter for the Chicago Defender, and he lent his writing and organizational mastery to the Chicago labor union movement. During the 1960s, he edited the Nation of Islam’s Muhammad Speaks newspaper and served as the lead writer for Bird of the Iron Feather – a pioneering public television series about black life. Durham traveled the world with Muhammad Ali in order to write the champ’s 1975 autobiography, The Greatest. And Durham was a valued speechwriter/strategist for the volatile yet successful campaign of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor.

Richard Durham was a versatile writer and a complicated, influential soul destined for creative genius and freedom.

Click here to read a brief preview of Word Warrior – one of the theroot.com‘s Top Ten Nonfiction Books of 2015 written by journalists-of-color.

To order your copy of the book, please visit the University of Illinois Press website or your favorite bookseller.


Below are photos of my first view of the book, posing with Durham’s wife Mrs. Clarice Davis Durham, and Mrs. Durham with her son Mark.

SW W:WW II  Harsch LibraryMARK & MOM

Praise for Word Warrior

Word Warrior: Richard Durham, Radio, and Freedom, by Sonja Williams, is a soaring, essential, generous addition to our historical literature.

Williams depicts Durham in the colorfully vivid contrasts of a dashiki. He was a committed writer, who often missed deadlines. He was a gifted collaborator, who failed to follow through. He was an effective political writer, whose courage surpassed those who would use his words… If ever there was a character worthy of a movie narrative to blend his mosaic edges, it is Richard Durham. And the best sources to get to know this important American figure are Word Warrior and Sonja Williams.

Thomas A. Mascaro, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Vol. 94, Issue 2, June 2017    

“Word Warrior…was marvelously written and completely captivating…Durham was a rare person to be sure and your portrait of him did him justice. I’m hoping that it will be made into a feature film or documentary. It deserves to be experienced by a broad public.”

Michael C. Keith, author of Norman Corwin’s ‘One World Flight’: The Lost Journal of Radio’s Greatest Writer

“Richard Durham was a post-World War II literary action figure. This biography of him, written by a professor in the Howard University School of Communication who became captivated by his work, is well up to the task of showcasing Durham’s exploits…By fleshing out Durham and his career, Williams rescues this mass media adventurer of the segregated and modern eras from the fate of remaining a one-paragraph entry in the history of US black media.”

Todd Steven Burroughs, American Journalism, Vol. 33, Issue 1, 2016

Williams’s Word Warrior is an engrossing, at times poetic excavation of one man’s dealing with life and learning as an African American man. Durham answered the call to arms through the artistry of storytelling, advocacy, agency, and learning. He swirled those elements together throughout his inquisitive life.

Ida Jones, JHistory, H-Net Online Reviews, 2016

Williams does a sophisticated job of letting the reader in on Durham’s personal life through the use of interviews with close friends and family members, including Durham’s one-time editor Toni Morrison, close friend Oscar Brown Jr. and son Mark…[T]his highly readable narrative offers rich insights into a major contributor to Chicago’s civil rights and labor movements.

Carrie Teresa, Journalism History, Vol. 42, No. 1, 2016

With this book, Williams (Howard Univ.) rescues a forgotten but important voice in the Civil Rights Movement.  Whether Durham (1917–84) was writing poetry, reporting, or creating radio and television scripts, his subjects remained the same: justice for the African American community and the injustice of segregation…Williams details all this in this well-written analytical profile of this important, versatile writer.

D.O. Cullen, Choice Connect, Vol. 53 No. 9, 2016

“Williams’ book is a major contribution to media studies. Williams, who has won three Peabody awards for her work with the Smithsonian and National Public Radio, addressed Durham’s life as an example of how African Americans navigated substantial challenges in the media industry…Hopefully, Williams’ description of multiple social phenomena, packaged as a biography of an important civil rights figure in Chicago, will pack a strong enough punch to set a precedent for similar work.”

Josh Shepperd, Journal of Radio & Audio Media, Vol. 23, Issue 1, 2016


“The enigmatic life of writer and radio dramatist Richard Durham has, for years, cried out for probing and understanding. Sonja D. Williams has answered the call with this fiercely smart and important book. It is an important achievement.”

Wil Haygood, author of The Butler: A Witness to History

“Sonja Williams’ exhaustively researched biography of Richard Durham sheds valuable light on an inexcusably neglected historical figure. Throughout his many lives, including activism, writing, and broadcasting, Durham demonstrated the importance of narrative in the struggle for justice. As Williams proves, the right to tell the story is a critical part of the quest for equality and power–and those who fought for that right should be remembered with gratitude.”

Jabari Asim, author of What Obama Means:…For Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Future

“Sonja Williams artfully links broadcasting pioneer Richard Durham to the key social, cultural, and political movements of mid-Twentieth-century America. In Word Warrior, Durham’s fierce spirit, strategic mind, and creative genius leap to life as he navigates the streets, boardrooms, and radio studios of Chicago. Without this book, this very important story surely would have been lost.”

A’Lelia Bundles, author of On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker


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3 thoughts on “Word Warrior

  • January 18, 2016 at 6:14 pm

    Dear Ms. Williams, I listened to an interview with you today on C-SPAN, and I was so enthralled and inspired, I had to send you a thank you for your research and publication of this book on Richard Durham. I plan to purchase the book and read it immediately.
    I am inspired because I have an affinity for Mr. Durham’s era, his goals, and his voice; I was a history major between 1976 and 1980, at the University of Kansas, a time when African American studies were nascently beginning, and not present at many institutions. Thankfully, that has changed. Even though I am recently-turned 57, deep in my soul I still long to teach and write history. Your work is beyond inspiring. Listening to you while at work today, I was aware of all the trials people bear to be true to their own voice, to follow their talents, undaunted and meaningfully. Thank you for your own voice and hard work. It is Martin Luther King Day, and while white and only a child in his days, I remember him with a grateful heart as representative of “my America,” the best of it. God bless you! Can’t wait to read, and you made me think of many further questions to pursue.

    Carol D. Tobey
    Portland, OR

  • January 19, 2016 at 9:25 pm

    Dear Ms. Tobey,

    Thank you so much for your touching comments and reflections. I truly appreciate the fact that you took the time to watch the interview and share your thoughts about it. I hope that you’ll enjoy Word Warrior and all the best to you.



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