Lerone Bennett Jr.: The Historian Who Transformed My Life As A Student At Northwestern University

By Lillian Williams

If you’re a millennial trying to jump-start your plans for success, a Lerone Bennett Jr. history lesson might be just your ticket.

Bennett, the late historian and senior Ebony magazine editor, died on February 14, 2018, at his home in Chicago. He was 89.

His history scholarship holds a treasure trove of life-lessons. “History is knowledge, identity and power,” Bennett once wrote in a February 1982 Ebony essay. “It orders and organizes our world and valorizes our projects.”

Keep reading to understand how his philosophy influenced my earlier years.

Born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, Bennett attended Morehouse College in Atlanta in the 1940s, where one of his classmates was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King went on to study theology. Bennett began his illustrious career in journalism.


Lerone Bennett Jr.       PhotoCredit: Wikipedia

A prolific writer and, later, social historian, Bennett documented the American civil rights movement through a lens reflecting the wholeness of the black experience. His stories captured nuances, examples and explanations that offered crucial insights.

Bennett’s book titles include Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America, and What Manner of Man, A Biography of Martin Luther King.  His latest and likely most controversial book, Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream, was published in 2000. He worked for Ebony magazine for 52 years, producing numerous articles that recorded and analyzed black history.

Described in articles by scholars E. James West and Christopher Tinson, Bennett was a social historian unparalleled. “In life, Bennett had been an eloquent defender of black history and a strident advocate for black rights,” wrote West on February 15 for the Black Perspectives scholarly blog. “His ability to turn a phrase was as obvious on the page as it was on the stage. As the senior editor and in-house historian of Ebony magazine, Bennett’s incisive commentary helped to popularize Black history among millions of dedicated readers.”

Yet, as Africana studies scholar Tinson makes clear, and West agrees, Bennett’s impact goes way beyond the popularizing of history. “His record shows that far from watering down the African American experience in the United States, he sought to forge a reparative, justice-centric, visionary account of past human endeavor and the stakes of social disequilibrium,” Tinson wrote on March 16 for Black Perspectives.

“For Bennett, history looks backwards and forwards simultaneously,” Tinson continued. “A brief survey of Ebony issues over this period reveals several principal social concerns, including: African American struggles over rights, passionate interest in the decolonization of the African continent, the uncovering or rediscovering key contributors to Africana intellectual life and measuring the growing discontent with the prospects of American democracy.”

But Bennett held another place in history for me, an academic connection that transformed my life.

Decades ago at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, Bennett was one of few black professors on campus. As an undergraduate there, I was a student in his African American history course. Black students had urged the university to hire black scholars, and Bennett was among the first.

He was stellar.

“During Bennett’s visiting professorship in the history department, his lectures on African American history were packed, helping to put him atop the students’ wish list as a permanent professor and possible department chair,” historian Martha Biondi wrote in her book, The Black Revolution on Campus.

Later, Bennett served briefly as the first chair of the Department of African American Studies at Northwestern.

Bennett was not only a popular social historian, but a masterful orator. He made history sizzle.

His passion for black history expressed itself in myriad ways, including his storytelling skills. At Northwestern, Bennett would illuminate the lives of African-American figures during lectures. If students were paying attention (and we were), it felt like we had been given a glimpse into his subject’s soul. What observers didn’t see, however, were the long hours that Bennett had certainly poured into research and reflection. The best orators work hard to precisely articulate thoughts and to express concepts. Like Bennett, they take nothing for granted.

I remember that students would remain seated in the Northwestern lecture hall, soaking in what they had heard, after Bennett had walked off the stage. No one rushed to leave.

As a faculty member at Columbia College Chicago decades later, I would see Bennett occasionally on downtown streets of Chicago near the Columbia campus. He was on the board of trustees of Columbia College. I would always thank him for his contributions to my understanding of black history.

Upon hearing of his death, I scanned a few of Bennett’s Ebony magazine articles, in a trip down memory lane. What I found were characteristics that marked his substance and style.

Bennett wrote with a certain rhythm and cadence, much like the pacing of his lectures at Northwestern. His Ebony pieces contain details that evoke feeling. The best writers hope to hit that mark. Bennett did so frequently.

Read aloud these words from his September 2002 Ebony piece on the great educator Mary McLeod Bethune:

“Courage comes in different packages and speaks different languages. There is a courage called defiance, and there is a courage called perseverance. There is a courage that shouts and a courage that whispers.”

Courage, Bennett continues, speaks loudest perhaps “in small acts performed far from the applauding crowd — in the face of doubt, ridicule and disparagement — by a great spirit who refuses to give in or give up.”

Then Bennett goes on to describe how Bethune, daughter of former slaves, started a college with $1.50 in her pocket “raised by selling sandwiches and cakes to railroad construction workers.” Years later, she organized the National Council of Negro Women, and became a close friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt.

Bennett, the scholar, understood the power of black history. As he stood on that stage at Northwestern University in front of young students, and as he penned those articles and books, no doubt he purposely determined to influence conversations, identities, and images for the better.

Without a doubt, he did so in my case.

Because of Bennett’s course in black history, I began to see myself in the context of historical figures who had paved the way for my success. I understood more clearly an obligation to open doors for others. Bennett adeptly pointed to both trials and triumphs in the lives of black historical figures he described. He wanted students to know that the road would not be easy, but that persistence makes the difference.

My confidence increased dramatically. At Northwestern, I was one of a handful of black students in the journalism program. I competed against students from across the nation who had already published articles and had edited high school news organs. I had not. During Bennett’s course, however, I realized that I could succeed. Why? Bennett identified a cloud of historical black witnesses who had traversed difficult roads, but had thrived. It was an important lesson for an 18-year-old from East St. Louis, Illinois.

The outcome?

I worked hard at three journalism internships (two at my hometown newspaper and one at the Philadelphia Inquirer), and after graduation from Northwestern, I was hired as a reporter by the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper. Later, I worked as a reporter for WKYC-TV, the NBC affiliate in Cleveland. Today I teach at Columbia College Chicago.  I have earned my Ph.D in Higher Education from Loyola University Chicago.

Bennett knew this for sure: None of us is free until each of us is free.

Bennett knew this for sure: To remain silent is to allow others to shape our place in history.

Bennett knew this for sure: History acts as a flashlight for the paths of our future.

“The past is not something back there; it is happening now,” Bennett wrote in his February 1982 Ebony essay. “It is the bet your fathers placed which you must now cover. It is the internal urgency which makes you relate to people and institutions in a certain way. It is the web of relationships into which you were born and for which you must now answer.”

Thank you, Lerone Bennett Jr., for your history scholarship, and so much more.

In 2010, during a National Visionary Leadership project, Bennett expressed gratitude for feedback he had received from Blacks in varied walks of life.

“I’ve been so blessed,” he said during an interview. “So touched by the huge number, large number of brothers all over this country have said to me, thank you, man.  When I was in the joint that book (Before The Mayflower), changed my life. “

Rest in peace, Lerone Bennett Jr.  With the past as an indicator, your work will continue to transform the lives of future generations. Your work offers real-life lessons that stand the test of time.

Editor’s note: This article was first published on the Blavity.com website. 

People across the nation have penned their remembrances of Bennett on Legacy.com., including the following and others:

February 16, 2018

What wonderful man. I have several of his books and a great photo of him. One of my fondest memories of this grand man was that I was driving down Halsted street here in Chicago,and who should I see on the corner but Lerone Bennett. I stopped and introduced myself and asked if he would like a lift that I was on my way to PUSH. He said yes and I took him to HydePark where he was to speak. We had a wonderful conversation and I let him know that I was a friend of Pyll Garland who had worked with him at Ebony. My condolences to his family.

Marianne Jordan, Hazel Crest, Ill


February 16, 2018

What wonderful man. I have several of his books and a great photo of him. One of my fondest memories of this grand man was that I was driving down Halsted street here in Chicago,and who should I see on the corner but Lerone Bennett. I stopped and introduced myself and asked if he would like a lift that I was on my way to PUSH. He said yes and I took him to HydePark where he was to speak. We had a wonderful conversation and I let him know that I was a friend of Pyll Garland who had worked with him at Ebony. My condolences to his family.

Marianne Jordan, Hazel Crest, Ill

February 18, 2018
May God Bless the greatness of Lerone Bennett Jr. Before the Mayflower transformed me into an educated African-American man. We were here before the Mayflower
Detroit Michigan
February 16, 2018
I was an Ebony Magazine reader for years. Mr . Bennett always caught my attention with Articles he had written. He was such an Outstanding Speaker. God has gained an Motivational Hero
Ms. Donna Ward, Tallahassee, FL
February 17, 2018
He was indeed a historian’s historian.
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My Brother, Jimmy E. Williams Jr., Entrepreneur and Ex-Navy Pilot, On An Unusual Key To Success


Jimmy Williams

James E. Williams Jr., entrepreneur in the St. Louis region and brother of the author of this blog site, Dr. Lillian Williams


Editor’s note:  My brother, James E. Williams Jr., penned these thoughts earlier this year during commemorative events marking the 1917 race riot in East St. Louis, Illinois, our hometown.


By James E. Williams Jr.

What is the secret to your success? That’s the question I am frequently asked as an entrepreneur.

First, I work seven days a week! Hard work does pay off. I also study the latest trends in my industry. I’m a McDonald’s owner-operator in the St. Louis metropolitan region. I network constantly with everyone from CEO’s to everyday people. I put customers first, always.

But as a native of East St. Louis, Illinois, the recent commemorative events marking the city’s 1917 race riot remind me of yet another factor contributing to my success.

That factor rings in my ear much like the sound of the bell at Truelight Baptist Church in East St. Louis, which warned residents of imminent harm during that bloody riot.

The East St. Louis riot was one of the worst of the 20th century, with estimates ranging up to 250 African-American deaths, though the official death count was 39 blacks and nine whites. Without a doubt, hundreds of homes owned by blacks were burned to the ground. A U.S. Congressional investigation found that police ignored victims’ pleas for help. Black families fled by the thousands across the Eads Bridge to safety.

Truelight pastor the Rev. Timothy J. Chambers wisely reflected, “That bell wasn’t rung just for the members of Truelight, that bell was rung for an entire city,” adding, “Because of this religious institution, lives were saved.”

And that’s the connection to my success. I’m standing on the shoulders of resilient East St. Louis citizens. Their story is my story. I am who I am, because of who they are. I am a son of East St. Louis. They represent succeeding generations of riot survivors, and others who came later. They refuse to give up. And so do I, whether in business or in any other arena.

Today, East St. Louis residents continue to ring the bell, in response to economic, political, and social challenges. That was clear through the recent 100th anniversary commemorative events. In a wide array of activities, residents sought to bring attention to the city’s needs.

We salute SIUE history professor Rev. Joseph Brown, and historian Anne Walker, for their excellent organization of these anniversary events. Brown served as chairman of a commission which planned anniversary events; and Walker, also a commission member, organized the stunning signature event, a processional from downtown East St. Louis to the Eads Bridge state line on July 2, 2017.

The bell rang symbolically through the artistry of Edna Patterson Petty. Her striking quilt, featuring newspaper articles and images, showed the pain and suffering of riot victims. It’s displayed at the St. Clair County Courthouse.

East St. Louis Poet Laureate Eugene B. Redmond, and the Eugene B. Redmond Writers Club, rang the bell with an ensemble performance about the 1917 riot, employing the renowned Kwansaba poetic form created by Redmond.

Washington University professor Michael Allen, and SIUE professor Dr. Andrew Theising, rang the bell when they led a public discussion of factors leading to the riot and its connections to current events.

The bell continues to ring through speeches by East St. Louis Mayor Emeka Jackson-Hicks and St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, who work to heal racial divides and bridge socio-economic chasms.

In the business arena, Ralph Korte, founder and chairman of the Korte Company, contributes to numerous foundations and boards, and serves as a mentor to many. The bell also rings with mentorship I’ve received from McDonald owner/operators such as Judson Pickard, Dick Bold, and numerous others across the country.

The late Charles H. Lawson III, East St. Louis NAACP president and a fearless advocate for justice; the late Clyde Jordan, publisher of the Monitor newspaper; the late Marian E. Officer of Officer Funeral Home, and the late Frances Nash Terrell of Nash Funeral Home, rang the bell, as do succeeding generations of those families. In 1917, Nash Funeral Home owners were credited with saving lives of East St. Louis riot victims by transporting them across the Eads Bridge.

We hear the bell from afar too. East St. Louis is the launching pad for so many. Its sons and daughters are scattered widely.

The Hudlin brothers, Reginald and Warrington Hudlin of Hollywood film fame, grew up in East St. Louis. They are great-great-grandsons of Peter and Nancy Hudlin, who helped slaves escape in the Underground Railroad. Reginald was a producer of the 2012 film, Django Unchained.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee was the first American to win the Olympic gold for the long jump, and ultimately earned three gold medals during her athletic career.

Today, the Assistant General Manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves basketball team is Noah Croom, the son of the late James W. Croom Sr. who was principal of Jackson Elementary School in East St. Louis. Legions of others also rang the bell for succeeding generations.

One of my earliest mentors was Dr. Ben Davis, the first African-American McDonald’s owner/operator in East St. Louis. He hired me to work on the front counter of his store selling hamburgers as a teenager. The lessons I learned there still serve me well today.

The bell rang powerfully in my parents’ home growing up.

My Dad, the late Attorney James E. Williams Sr., responded to a citizens’ call for an unprecedented grassroots campaign, and in 1971 he became the city’s first African-American mayor. Earlier, he launched the St. Clair County Legal Aid Society to offer free legal advice and services to citizens.

My mother, Mrs. Lillian Williams, rang the bell as an indefatigable first grade teacher at Dunbar Elementary in East St. Louis, and later as a science teacher whose students won top science competitions. She won the Golden Apple Award for excellence in teaching.

At Truelight Baptist Church, the late pastor Henry Nicholson rang the bell each Sunday with sermons that encouraged congregants to step out of their comfort zones. The current pastor, Rev. Chambers, continues that tradition.

In the neighborhood of East St. Louis where I grew up, Mrs. Marie Tarvin rang the bell each morning as she scurried to work at the Obear Nester Glass Company. When she returned in the evening, she would admonish neighborhood children to study hard and to set our sights on college. Countless other adults did the same.

This spirit lives on. It’s visionary. It’s buoyant. It’s resilient.

That’s why East St. Louis residents led that processional in honor of the 1917 race riot victims. We recognize that the deeper socio-economic wounds have not healed. But we learn from history. As my father would often say: “There is that intangible quality called INSPIRATION which comes from a pride developed by HERITAGE.”

I am grateful to be a son of East St. Louis, Illinois. The message is that the story isn’t over. Our narrative is still being written. We will not give up! We will work together to create better lives for future generations.

James E. Williams Jr. is the president of Estel Foods Inc., and the owner-operator of McDonald’s franchises in the metropolitan St. Louis region. He and his wife, Janet, have two children, Casi and Tre.



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Political Historymaker of Southern Illinois


Attorney James E. Williams Sr., the first African-American mayor of East St. Louis, Illinois


By Lillian Williams

The mayoral election of James E. Williams Sr. marked a political turning point for the city of East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1971.  He was the first African-American mayor of this Southern Illinois municipality.

The April 7, 1971, New York Times headline read: “Negro Wins in E. St Louis.”

His achievement, along with many of the city’s challenges and goals, will be noted this month as the city commemorates the 100th anniversary of the horrific July 2, 1917, race riot there.  The Missouri History Museum will tweet an hour-by-hour timeline of the riot using #ESTLRiot100.  The museum estimates a total of 150 tweets.

What distinguished Williams’ election, too, was his political backing, or a remarkable lack thereof. He ran as an independent on a platform opposing the city’s entrenched political patronage system.

He served as mayor for one term until 1975, and later headed a reform slate that won three seats on the East St. Louis School Board in 1976. During his tenure as both Mayor and School Board President, he was known for integrity, accessibility, and unrelenting hard work.

A 1971 editorial in the Metro-East Journal newspaper captured his dedication to public service: “James Williams has been a public servant all of his adult life, but never before became involved in politics. He alone among the (mayoral) candidates has a college degree, and he also holds a law degree.  Williams has administrative experience, intelligence and unquestioned integrity. Candidates of his quality are an exception in East St. Louis.”

A lawyer, Mayor Williams also opened the first Legal Aid Society of St. Clair County and served as its Executive Director, prior to his mayoral election.  Previously he had operated a private legal practice in East St. Louis, and had worked in civil service at the Granite City Army Depot for many years. At the Depot, he rose through the ranks to become the Federal Compliance Officer and also a member of the Commanding Office Staff.

He grew up poor along the Kentucky-Ohio border, near Maysville, Kentucky.  Mayor Williams received his bachelor’s degree from Wilberforce University in Ohio. He slept in a farmer’s barn for some of his years at Wilberforce. He later earned a master’s degree from Iowa State University.

He credited his wife, Lillian, for encouraging him to fulfill his lifelong dream of attending law school. He received his law degree in 1962 from St. Louis University Law School after attending night classes. Later he would become a founding member of the Metro-East Bar Association.

Mayor Williams was a member of Greater New Hope Baptist Church in East St. Louis, where his wife, a retired school teacher, is still a member.  Early in his church membership there, he was a popular Sunday School teacher known for his exstensive knowledge of the Bible.

Mayor Williams died on Feb. 13, 1983, at the age of 61, after a lengthy illness.

In accomplishments while Williams served as Mayor, the state of Illinois approved the building of the $4.5 million state office complex in downtown East St. Louis. The building represented a physical and emotional boost to the city.  Other accomplishments included the construction of the American Federation Teachers’ Hall, two new fire stations, the Norman Owens Housing Development, the Mary E. Brown Community Center, and the expansion of Union Bank.

But Mayor Williams considered his major accomplishment to be his marriage to Lillian Croom, whom he met at Wilberforce, and their five children.

No doubt Williams would have been proud of events marking the 1917 race riots in East St. Louis.  He would often say to his children:  “There is that intangible quality called inspiration which comes from a pride developed by heritage.”  In other words, if you know your history, you’re more likely to plan for your future.

Editor’s note: Lillian Willliams, the author of this post, is the daughter of James E. Williams Sr.

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A Letter To My Mom

Mother in Chicago in park across from Water Tower in 2012

My Mom, Mrs. Lillian Williams of East St. Louis, Illinois

By Lillian Williams

Mom, thank you for so many things, but most of all for your courage.

Your life exemplifies extraordinary courage.

You never talk about your mountains, your difficulties, your problems.

You just keep going.

But you have a story. A magnificent story. A story that demonstrates what the word, courage, really means.

Growing up in the state of Mississippi, the children teased you because of your dark skin. They called you “Old Black Joe.” The nickname, “Joe,” has stuck throughout the years.

Family members and close friends still affectionately call you “Joe” today.

But, as a child, to be teased because of skin color is no small matter. It hurts.

How did you deal with the emotional scars? How did you summon the courage to stare down this open wound?

Yet you kept going.

You didn’t miss a beat, at least outwardly.

You were forced to step off the public sidewalks in the Deep South, when a white person approached. That was the practice during the racially segregated “Jim Crow” era of the South.

How did you keep your dignity in the face of such shame? I’ll never understand.

But, you kept going.

When your family moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in the 1930’s, you were known as the “smart” kid. You wrote poignant essays. You solved math problems that stumped other students. You recited classic poems.

Your favorite poem—one that you still recite today—was written by the famous poet Robert Herrick. One stanza goes like this:

Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

You recite that poem as a warning to your five children: Don’t waste even a moment of your time.

Yet, as the clock in your life ticks away—you’ve noted that some flowers bloom. Others do not, no matter how many seeds you plant.

In the 1930’s, for instance, the libraries, buses, parks, restaurants, and of course, schools, were racially segregated. And, they definitely were NOT EQUAL.

White citizens had more resources, more privileges than blacks.

You could not check out books from the local “whites-only” library.

You could not try on dresses in the fitting rooms of downtown retail shops.

Lynching was a punishment for blacks under the illegal Jim Crow justice system.

Yet, you, and others, just kept going. How? I’m not sure.

In the late 1930’s, you moved North to East St. Louis, Illinois, where you attended the all-black, segregated Lincoln High school. You said teachers there “marveled” that you, a child schooled in the Deep South, could compete so well with children up North. They actually said this to your face.

But you just kept going.

You recount how black children in those days were often “put back” a grade when they moved North. But not you. You graduated on time, and with top honors.

One day, at the high school, you saw a pamphlet featuring Wilberforce University, the nation’s oldest, private historically black college. You said the beautiful campus grounds attracted your attention.

At Wilberforce, you met your husband, James E. Williams Sr., during a college dance. You often tell the story of how he saw you holding the coats of other students, because you couldn’t dance. He taught you to dance, and the rest is history, as they say.

Once again, though, you summoned more courage when World War II pitched you yet more challenges.

In the 1940s, James Williams and other young men would soon join the U.S. Armed Forces in the war effort. Think about that for a moment.

Williams would later receive an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army, though legally-sanctioned segregation prevented blacks from fully participting as citizens in their own country at that time, simply because of their skin color. But he fought for his country anyway.

Though Williams, whom you later married, returned safely from a World War II overseas tour, others did not.

You once described screams students heard when your classmate, Essie, learned of her husband’s death in the war.

Years later, Essie captured that moment in her autobiography, Mama and the Hills of Home:
“I screamed. Dropping the phone. I lurched drunkenly up three flights of stairs crying. “No, no, not Vincent. God, you promised me. How could you break your word? How could you be so cruel, letting him die on my birthday?” For an instant my anger at God overwhelmed my grief. My heart raged while my spirit died.”

You, Essie, and others of that era endured so much pain, from so many sources. Yet you picked up the broken pieces. Essie graduated cum laude from Wilberforce. She was the senior class president, editor of the college newspaper and the yearbook. She organized your college reunions.

Essie was there when you and I traveled together to Wilberforce, Ohio, for one of those reunions. She was holding court. She was regal, well-spoken, everything you had described in conversations about her.

But there’s something else I remember about that reunion day.

That afternoon, your classmates had gathered for an informal reception. You were standing in the front of the room with Essie and a few friends.

I was sitting near the back next to one your classmates. Later I would learn he was a retired dentist from Indiana.

Suddenly, when he spotted you at the front, he exclaimed, “There’s Lillian Croom!”

“She was the smartest person in our biology class. She was the lab assistant. She was smarter than all the guys in the class.”

I looked at him, and proudly said, “Lillian Croom is my mother!” He went on to rave about your keen mind.

You, Mom, are talented in so many ways. But best of all, you’re generous with those talents.

You graduated with honors from Wilberforce University. You returned to East St. Louis, Illinois, where your parents lived. You taught first grade, and later science classes in public schools there. You won the coveted Golden Apple award for teaching excellence. You helped your sisters and brothers get through college.

Your civic contributions are well-known. You volunteered to raise money for the police and fire departments. You’ve held leadership positions on various community boards. You were a founding member of the East St. Louis Women’s Club.

When your husband wanted to attend law school at night, you supported that dream too. He later launched the first Legal Aid Society of St. Clair County, which provided free advice and representation to low-income residents.

After that, he was elected Mayor of East St. Louis in 1971. The Oct. 10, 1971, Metro East Journal quoted you, saying, “It’s been a great adjustment for the children. We just don’t have time for the things we used to do. We’re able to manage breakfast together, but my husband doesn’t get home until late in the evening now.”

Nevertheless, Mom, you kept everything together, as usual.

When your husband died in 1983, you kept the family on track.

You made certain that your two children still in college completed their studies.

Your grandchildren today follow in your footsteps. One granddaughter will graduate from Stanford University’s medical school next year. A grandson is studying computer science at Stanford. Another granddaughter is working as an entertainment show producer for Fox TV network. Another granddaughter is a project manager for a Silicon Valley firm. Another grandson is studying to become a documentary producer.

No doubt, they won’t give up.

You are the sterling example.

Happy Mother’s Day 2017!

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TV News Producer Shares Broadcast Style Writing Tips

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Dan Zar, a news producer for WXMI-TV FOX17 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Zar has also worked for the Post-Tribune in Northwest Indiana covering municipal government, breaking news, and feature stories. Previously he was an intern for WGN Morning News and a producer/reporter for Blue Island TV. He is a 2015 graduate of Columbia College Chicago.


Dan Zar

Dan Zar, news producer for WXMI-TV Fox 17, Grand Rapids, Michigan


By Dan Zar

OK, for all of you aspiring writers out there, here’s some concrete advice on how to write memorable scripts for those video projects.

As a news producer for Fox17 TV in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I’ve learned that audiences appreciate accurate scripts, with clear and simple language. Certain writing guidelines help to achieve that end. I’d like to share some of those guidelines here.

Note: These aren’t original ideas. In fact, I learned most of them in Professor Lillian Williams’ broadcast news writing course at Columbia College Chicago.

Even years later, I remember one of the first broadcast-style stories I wrote in that course. It was about how Ellen DeGeneres became even more famous overnight for taking a selfie at an awards ceremony. The writing challenge was to keep the story relatively short (compared to a newspaper article), to share the meaning of that transformational moment (rather than simply tell viewers what happened), and to by all means keep it conversational.

Since then, I’ve moved on the write hundreds of stories in broadcast style—everything from breaking news stories with serious implications for local residents to softer features with heart-tugging angles. All of them shared some common elements, designed to attract and to keep audiences glued to our station’s news shows. These tips work well for video scripts, and could be useful for almost any writing genre:


When you listen to TV news anchors, you’re hearing lots of examples of active voice writing. That’s one of the first things I learned in Professor Williams’ course.

In active voice, the subject of the sentence is performing the action. Here’s an example: The girl hit the object.(active) The object hit the girl. (passive) Notice that active voice is straightforward. It’s simpler. It’s transparent.


In my writing for the Fox station, I aim to write conversationally. Why? Because I want the audience to stay with us! I want people to feel like we’re talking with them, and not lecturing them. Therefore, I aim to write accurately, but simply.

How? I’ve disciplined myself to I write short sentences (with a little help from Professor Williams!). I avoid those long sentences with fancy subordinate clauses and mile-long prepositional phrases. That might work for the English teacher, but not for my everyday TV audience. I translate technical jargon into simple language. I round off numbers, unless the exact numbers tell the story better.


I remember that in Professor Williams’ course, we learned how to turn the “police talk” of press conferences into easy-to-understand-script. It’s not that difficult to do. An important step is to select the right sound bites, or short interview clips.

For example, let’s say that I’ve just finished listening to Chicago police describe what happened at the scene of a shooting. I’m racing to make the deadline for my script.

Should I select the following interview sound clip for my story? “Chicago Police Department was dispatched to the 400 block of State Street on reports of shots fired.” Absolutely Not! Why? The anchor/narrator tell you where the shooting happened in fewer words.

On the other hand, the audience would rather hear from a person affected by the shooting. Here’s a better sound clip: “My son just got out of the hospital for a kidney transplant and now he’s gone, I just can’t believe someone would do this to him!”

I could go on with dozens of other writing tips, but this trio gets you off to a good start.

As a news producer I try to think outside of the box. I don’t have an 8 to 5 job. I’m constantly looking for fresh story ideas, fresh angles. I’m also a fixer, too. I’m always solving problems, whether finding news sources or scouring for appropriate visuals. Also, I can have a show ready to go with just ten minutes to air, even though I must insert breaking news of an unforeseen nature. That’s what a news junkie does – roll with the punches, embrace the unforeseen.

But there’s one thing I’ve learned: Nothing works if the script isn’t written well. The same writing rules I described in this post can be adapted to your writing genre as well. And if I could add one more tip: Read your copy aloud. Your ear will catch awkward words and transitions in the script. Have fun!

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What Do Children Think of The News Media?

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By Lillian Williams

Ever wonder what today’s kids think of the news media–how the news makes them feel, or even whether they trust the news?

A new report commissioned by Common Sense Media finds that kids today—like some adults—have mixed reactions to the news ecosystem.

The report, News and America’s Kids: How Young People Perceive and Are Impacted by the News, finds that children value news but often feel media misrepresents them. Kids have difficulty recognizing fake news, and they perceive racial and gender bias in news reports, the survey found.

The findings are based on an online survey of 853 children age 10–18 from January 10 to January 22.

“The more we know about how kids get news and how the news makes them feel, the more effective we can be in helping them navigate this new, very tumultuous media landscape,” said James P. Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense.

“We need the next generation to be engaged citizens, and consumption of information is a big part of that,” Steyer said. “We all have a responsibility — parents, educators, media companies, and policymakers — to listen to what kids have to say and to take actions that will improve the way they consume news and information in the future.”

The purpose of the study was to examine children’s involvement with news in the following key areas:

• Preferred news sources
• Which social media sites children use to source news
• Level of trust in different information sources
• Perceived accuracy of news from different sources
• Feelings about the news
• Perceived importance of the issue

Top findings are:

  • Kids find news to be a valuable resource. Forty-eight percent say that staying abreast of the news is vital; seventy percent say following the news makes them feel smart and knowledgeable; and half feel as a result they are ready to make a difference.
  • Kids think that the media should do a better job of covering them. Seventy-four percent say the news media should show more people their age, rather than adults talking about them; and only 42 percent think news media cover issues that matter to them.
  • Kids perceive gender and racial bias in the news. Half of kids say that when they see nonwhite kids in the news, it’s negative and/or related to crime and violence. Children also point to what they see as gender bias. Only 34 percent agree that the news treats women and men equally fairly.
  • Kids are often misled by fake news. Only 44 percent agree that they can recognize fake news stories from real ones. And, 31 percent reported sharing a story within the last six months that they later discovered was wrong or inaccurate.
  • Kids trust their teachers and families for news more than any other source, but they prefer to get news from social media. Facebook is the most popular social media site for news and headlines.

Read the entire report here.

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Carter G. Woodson: Founder of Black History Month

By Lillian Williams

Black History Month is the annual February celebration of the achievements of African Americans in U.S. life and culture, though sadly it appears President Trump is rather confused about it. Read about that here.

Just to set the record straight, Black History Month was proclaimed officially by the U.S. government in 1976 when President Gerald Ford issued the presidential proclamation. Prior to that, African-American heritage was celebrated informally during the second week in February.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture, as well as community centers, libraries, and schools have scheduled special events this month to discuss African-American achievements and goals.


Carter G. Woodson

The famous historian, Carter G. Woodson, began this special celebration in 1926. Born in 1875, he was the son of freed slaves from Virginia and one of the first African Americans to receive a doctorate from Harvard University. Later he taught and became a dean at Howard University, as well as West Virginia Collegiate Institute.  He believed that younger generations often fail to appreciate their history.  He died in 1950.

Woodson also founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. He wrote, or co-wrote, more than 20 books, including “The Mis-Education of the Negro,” and “Negro Makers of History,” a copy of which I have in my living room in Chicago.

I’d like to share some of Woodson’s most memorable quotes:

  • “No man knows what he can do until he tries.”
  • “If you make a man feel that he is inferior, you do not have to compel him to accept an inferior status, for he will seek it himself.”
  • “I am a radical.”
  • “The oppressor has always indoctrinated the weak with his interpretation of the crimes of the strong.”
  • “In our so-called democracy, we are accustomed to give the majority what they want rather than educate them to understand what is best for them.”
  • “Cooperation implies equality of the participants in the particular task at hand.”
  • “Real education means to inspire people to live more abundantly, to learn to begin with life as they find it and make it better.”
  • “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.”
  • “History shows that it does not matter who is in power or what revolutionary forces take over the government, those who have not learned to do for themselves and have to depend solely on others never obtain any more rights or privileges in the end than they had in the beginning.”
  • “They are anxious to have everything the white man has even if it is harmful.”
  • “When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his “proper place” and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit.”

If you have a favorite Carter G. Woodson quote, share it in the comment section below.

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Key Success Factors For College Students


by Lillian Williams


Dr. Shaun Harper of the University of Pennsylvania, one of the nation’s leading educational researchers, created the “anti-deficit achievement framework” to study college persistence issues among students of color in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Harper’s framework emphasizes factors that influence achievement, rather than deficits. In other words, Harper’s model looks for contributors to success, rather than barriers to success. His work has been beneficial, particularly in the face of persistent racial gaps in U.S. college and university graduation rates.

As an Education Trust study shows, U.S. colleges and universities have improved graduation rates in recent years, but a significant gap still exists between black and white students. See results of that study here.

“Just like many of the campus activists suggest, our data show that university leaders can and should do more to create a more supportive and welcoming environment that allows black students to thrive,” said Andrew Nichols, Ed Trust research director and co-author of that graduation rate report.

“We have serious concerns that at too many institutions, equitable student success is an afterthought instead of a top-of-mind priority,” Nichols said.

Last year, adapting researcher Harper’s framework, I interviewed 12 successful graduates of the Journalism Program at Columbia College Chicago. Specifically, I explored factors these graduates believe led to their success at Columbia, a private college specializing in arts and media disciplines.

Among the interviewees were eight African-Americans and four Hispanics, 10 females and two males. Each had graduated within the past 10 years. Five were employed in TV news; two in public relations; two as freelancers; one as a web producer, and one as a magazine editor. Themes that emerged from their interviews contained valuable advice for incoming students.

Here’s some of that advice from Columbia College Chicago graduates:

Student/Faculty Interaction: As widely affirmed in literature, these graduates found that interactions with faculty helped them to persist through to graduation. These interactions with faculty – both formal and informal – boosted confidence levels; led to mentorships, and sparked connections to internships. Years later they recalled these meaningful interactions.

One graduate said: “During my senior year, I did a story on the Chicago bid for the 2016 Olympic games. When the professor saw my piece she said it was good enough to be aired on NBC5. I knew then I was good enough to do what I am doing now.”

Another graduate said: “Faculty members…definitely instilled in us that we could, and we would, go out into the journalism world and conquer it.”

Internships: Students should meet their internship/career advisers as quickly as possible, the graduates advised. Internships offer the opportunity to clarify and sharpen career interests; make professional connections, and expand upon competencies gained in the classroom.

Commenting on the value of internships, one graduate said: “There I was able to mingle with professionals already in the industry. All of that motivated me to pursue a career in journalism. I was excited about the type of life I could have becoming a news reporter.”

Another noted the skill-building advantages: “Internships at the news station really forced me to fact check and make sure that all of my ducks were in a row to avoid inaccuracies.”

Student Organizations: Students should get involved in campus-based organizations as a way to network and to build leadership skills, the graduates advised. Right from the start, students should seek to attend meetings of student-run organizations in their disciplines, and/or college-wide organizations.

Here’s how one graduate put it: “Being a part of a student-organization was a great networking tool. It gave me an opportunity to meet new people, be a part of creating exciting events and programs on campus and build my communication and planning skills. As a member of a student organization it also connected me to other power-players on campus-both adults and students. Being a student-leader on campus held me accountable, helped me master time management and allowed me to find my voice. The experiences prepared me well for becoming a leader in the newsroom; someone who sets a positive tone and leads by example.”

In this exploration of factors leading to their success, these graduates pointed to three key factors: significant relationships with faculty, internships, and involvement in student organizations.

In implications, incoming and current students should immediately get to know faculty in their disciplines, as well as participate in student organizations. They should connect with college internship coordinators as early as possible, to understand institutional guidelines for experiential education.

Lastly, though interviewees did not mention them by name, academic advisers serve as a key bridge between various college programs and disciplines. Therefore, students should connect frequently with academic advisers for information about popular campus bridge programs that prepare students for college, tutoring and peer mentorship programs.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article was published on Dec. 19, 2016 in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education
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University of Michigan Launches Diversity Plan

By Lillian Williams

The University of Michigan recently unveiled a $85 million five-year plan to make its campus more diverse, equitable and inclusive.

The plan comes after a year-long, grassroots planning process, and two key studies of the campus environment and its stakeholders.

Here are the plan’s three key goals:

  • Create a more inclusive campus environment. To reach that goal, staff and others will be trained in cultural awareness and inclusiveness skills.
  • Recruit, retain and develop a more diverse college community. The school plans to develop a pipeline of diverse undergraduate and graduate students, as well as improve its hiring and search processes.
  • Support and encourage diversity in teaching and scholarship. The school will launch programs to recruit and financially support faculty wuniversity-of-michiganho study diversity, equity, and inclusion issues.

In underscoring the plan’s importance, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel said, “To live up to our full potential as a university, everyone must have the opportunity to contribute and to benefit, and our community can be complete only when all members feel welcome.”

Read the entire Diversity, Equity & Inclusion strategic plan here.


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Stunning Images at National Museum of African American History and Culture

By Lillian Williams

As widely reported, President Obama dedicated the new National Museum of African American History and Culture on Sept. 25 with poet Langston Hughes’ words:”I, too, am America.”

The president spoke before some 7,000 persons gathered on the National Mall, exhorting: “African American history is not somehow separate than the American story. It is not the underside of the American story. It is central to the American story.”

But besides his speech, what captured my attention were the stunning images on the museum’s website!

The museum houses more than  36,000 artifacts that help to document African-American history and culture. Many images of those artifacts, however, can be found here.  Among the stunning visuals I found include the following two:



A photo of a voter registration motorcade of the San Francisco Chapter of the National Council of Negro Women. It was dated September 8, 1956.


2010_71_14_2001Photo of ticket issued by Southern Railway Company.  This was used by Joan Trumpauer Mulholland for the Washington, DC to Montgomery, Alabama, “Freedom Train”  ride for the historic Selma-Montgomery March in March 1965.

Other images can be found here, separated by categories of people, subjects and exhibition highlights.

The museum is open 364 days a year, however, free timed passes are needed to gain entry. Look here for information on ticket availability. The museum is generally open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

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