A Word Warrior for Freedom

Against the Current, No. 181, March/April 2016

John Woodford

Word Warrior:
Richard Durham, Radio and Freedom
By Sonja D. Williams
University of Illinois Press, Champaign, IL, 2015. 181 pages plus notes and images, $26 paperback. Word Warrior is in the University of Illinois’ New Black Studies Series edited by Darlene Clark Hine and Dwight A. McBride.

“There are times when any man may be written as humble, but with the Negro it’s simply overworked — phony — and in some cases a perversion. A good many white people have cushioned themselves into dreaming that Negroes are not self-assertive, confident, and never leave the realm of fear or subservience — to portray them as they are will give a great[er] education than a dozen lectures.”

— Richard Durham letter explaining his vision of his pioneering radio series, “Destination Freedom,” 1948, WMAQ/NBC radio drama. It ran two years.
“This was before [the movie] Serpico. I was always a little bit too ahead of the situation.” — Richard Durham recounting to an interviewer why TV executives killed his 1970 television series after seven weeks. The plot included depictions of some of the brutal and corrupt practices of the Chicago Police Department, practices later exposed in many court cases this century.

“Somewhere in this ocean of Negro life, with its crosscurrents and undercurrents, lies the very soul of America. … It lies there because 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.

THE LIFE, WORK and powerful insights of the writer Richard “Dick” Durham sank quickly into an obscurity that teetered toward near oblivion after his death at age 66 in 1984. He might have remained known chiefly as the man who wrote The Greatest along with that 1975 autobiography’s subject, Muhammad Ali.

But thanks to this biography by Sonja D. Williams, a professor of communications at Howard University, Durham’s contributions to our country’s dramatic arts, journalism, trade unionism and African American political power will begin to earn the appreciation and admiration they deserve.

Durham, who was editor-in-chief of Muhammad Speaks newspaper when I met him in 1968, and where I succeeded him, would have enjoyed the relative brevity, punch and dramatic drive of this text.

Its sweep takes readers from the sharecropping/ small farm life of his native Raymond, Mississippi, where Durham was born “Isadore Richard Durham” in 1917, up north to Chicago in 1923, when his parents joined the long Great Migration of the first half of the 20th century, an era that saw millions of African Americans and other Southerners move north seeking better education, jobs and justice.

For every hapless and tragic-comic Black migrant — the sort selected as representative by Isabel Wilkerson in her captivating 2010 study of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, who fit one or another sort of perverse “humble” stereotype that Durham warns of in the quotation above — there were many others typified by the Durham family.

These were the migrants who saw the importance not just of moving but of building movements, people who prized learning, culture and organized struggle against oppression. All of the seven Durham siblings who reached adulthood were politically astute and active.

The Magic of Radio and Poetry

A bone infection in his leg confined Durham to his bed in the Bronzeville section of Chicago’s South Side when he was 12. Isolated for most of a year, he found solace in radio and literature.

Radio was the most popular mass medium by the end of the 1920s, a source of soap opera, comedy and crime stories written in prose aimed at the ear and emotions. Radio dramas and the works of Dickens, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois and Lillian Hellman fed his imagination.

He began to write poetry and to associate with other young, progressive African-American writers in Chicago’s South Side Writers Group, which included other outstanding writers like Arna Bontemps, Frank Marshall Davis (later to become the young Barack Obama’s “Marxist mentor” in Hawaii), Margaret Walker and Richard Wright, who challenged the group, Jones says, to write about the “Negro masses” from a consciousness “informed by Marxism.”

At age 21, Durham sent his poems “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Death in a Kitchenette” to Langston Hughes in New York. Hughes not only replied but edited some of Durham’s work to show him how to “tighten it up a bit — cut extra words.”

 Durham’s parents and six siblings were proud of his early success and set aside a room in their small home so he could write in seclusion. He also enrolled in a class or two at Northwestern University in Evanston, and got a factory job to earn tuition money. The rigors of the shop floor aggravated his bum leg, however, and he had to abandon both the job and his college plans.

Fortunately for Durham and other socially conscious youths of the Depression era, the New Deal’s jobs-creation programs under the Work’s Progress Administration included Federal Writers Projects in each state. The FWP’s most famous achievement was the American Guide Series, which included state histories, oral histories, histories of towns, waterways, photographs and art works.

Durham was one of the 6,700 or so writers whom the FWP employed and trained. Joining him on the Illinois Writers’ Project were several future prominent literary stars, including Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Studs Terkel and Jack Conroy.

A Marxist Outlook

Alarmed by fascism and racism, and seeing the links between the two, Durham joined the Communist Party sometime in the late 1930s, Sonja Williams says, because he “likely found the party’s aggressive attempts to stop housing evictions, organize workers and integrate labor unions to be what historian Mary Helen Washington called ‘beacons of light’ for Chicago’s struggling Black population.”

Although it’s not clear how long he was in the CP, Williams notes that he retained a Marxist-Leninist point of view while focusing it on the particular needs and interests of African-Americans.

American progressives stressed the battle against the foreign champions of violence and hatred, and overlooked the fact, Durham wrote, that “[f]or Bronzeville inhabitants, fascism is not ‘coming,’ is already here and Negroes are looking for a time when it will ‘leave.’ The economic position into which [Black Americans] are forced makes a mockery of American democracy.”

Durham concluded early on that the African-American press was “the strongest advocate of economic rights” in America, and that newspapers like the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier were the “advance guard in the warfare against economic injustice,” especially when mobilizing mass community resistance through boycotts such as the 1929-32 “Don’t Spend Your Money Where You Can’t Work” campaign.

Fighting back with words and actions is the thread running through the remainder of Durham’s career — always staunchly supported by his wife Clarice, an equally progressive neighbor who was two years younger than he. It is thanks to Clarice Durham’s preservation of Durham’s published and unpublished writings that Williams, other scholars and the public have access to his career today.

Destination Freedom

Quite early on, Durham saw that he could reach and move vast audiences through radio drama. His talents in that field earned the respect of Irna Phillips, the queen of daytime radio, and he was soon scriptwriting and script-doctoring for programs like “The Lone Ranger,” “Suspense” and “Old Ma Perkins,” while also developing his own progressive scripts for “Democracy USA” and his path-breaking series “Here Comes Tomorrow” (dubbed “the first authentic radio serial of an American Negro family”) and “Destination Freedom.”

Corporate censorship in the “land of the free” meant that it was hard to tackle segregation head-on. Durham couldn’t target segregation directly, the network honchos told him. But he learned how to convey the value of militancy, courage and dignity in scripts whose protagonists ranged from Crispus Attucks and Sojourner Truth to Francisco Goya and pioneering African-American physicians and soldiers.

By 1947, according to a study of radio by the National Negro Congress, Durham seemed to have been the only African-American writer working fulltime in radio, the country’s most far-reaching mass medium of that day.

America’s reactionary McCarthyite witchhunt gained increasing support from big business from the early ‘50s on. Like many other progressive writers, Durham found himself squeezed out of his radio jobs — especially after he sued NBC for underpaying him and other Black writers, producers, directors and actors while simultaneously capitalizing on his scripts without his approval.

Adding to his stress was the need after June 3, 1949, to care for his and Clarice’s newborn son Mark, who was born premature and required extra care. (Mark survived to become an outstanding student at Columbia University as well as a fine jazz musician.)

Durham’s case against NBC made its very slow way through the courts (ultimately being settled in 1955, after five years, with terms not made public), forcing Durham to seek a paying job elsewhere. He found it in 1952 in the publications department of one of Chicago’s biggest and most progressive unions, the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA), which had 500,000 members nationwide and 45,000 in Chicago.

Under its president Ralph Helstein, the UPWA was among the first unions to have an antidiscrimination clause in its contracts that barred employers from discriminating against its employees in hiring, pay or other ways. Durham began as a contract employee but gained staff status in the union’s Anti-Discrimination Department.

Durham constantly maneuvered the editor of the Packinghouse Worker newspaper to make it an unusually strong weapon against racism. After meeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago in 1955, Durham enlisted the union to give strong material support to the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56. He also invented an effective “sting” tactic of sending a white job applicant to an advertised job after the hirers had told a qualified Black applicant that there was no job.

Addie Wyatt, who rose from the meatpacking floor to be a UPWA vice president, said Durham led union efforts to fight for equal pay and rights for its women members. She recalled that Durham “was there to encourage you, but also to feed you with information that you’d need so that when you spoke or you wrote, you’d have the facts and figures to work with . . . he was not fearful of our struggle. He embraced it.”

When the CIO-linked packinghouse union prepared to merge with the larger but less progressive American Federation of Labor, Durham arranged a Black Caucus meeting that effectively pushed to preserve the jobs of several African-American union officers as the merger went through. Other unions were not so principled.

“Freedom, Justice and Equality”

But Durham also participated in a failed coup to unseat the union president. The losers got their walking papers. So he started a novel and plugged away at scripts from 1958 into the early 1960s. Then he again found a way to use his story-telling skills to reach and inspire a mass audience, this time through journalism.

When he learned that the Nation of Islam’s (NOI) national newspaper Muhammad Speaks was reaching more than 150,000 readers a month in mid-1962, he seized the opportunity to succeed the paper’s first editor, Dan Burley, who had died unexpectedly. Within a year the paper was reaching almost 300,000 readers a week.

Neither Burley nor Durham was a Muslim, but they valued the paper’s financial independence and its fighting spirit expressed in its dedication not to publish “All the News That’s Fit to Print” a la The New York Times, but “to Freedom, Justice and Equality for the so-called Negro.”

Durham made the paper one of the most hard-hitting anti-racist and internationalist news organs in the world. Many prominent figures from Third World governments and national liberation movements met with him in Chicago at their embassies.

The paper was staunchly pro-labor (including regular support of the United Farmworkers Organization), pro-women’s rights, anti-police brutality, anti-Jim Crow and an opponent of imperialist wars, especially the ongoing one in Vietnam.

Among his many domestic mentoring roles, he was also guiding Black policemen in Chicago as they formed the Afro-America Patrolmen’s League, which sought to improve relations between Black police and the community they served and to combat police brutality and corruption in general.

When the league’s founders Edward “Buzz” Palmer and Renault Robinson recounted to him some of the goofy but embittering ways the white cops treated their African-American colleagues, Durham remarked that such stories “might make a hell of a serial program.”

So they did. By early 1969, already having begun to work on radio scripts, Durham was ready to leave Muhammad Speaks and branch into television. So he developed the first Black daily soap opera, “Bird of the Iron Feather,” for Chicago’s public TV station WTTW.

Durham titled the drama after an 1847 assertion by the abolitionist Frederick Douglass that “the sons and daughters of Africa in the United States” had been “a bird for the hunter’s grasp, but a bird of iron feathers, unable to fly to freedom.”

Of the 100 planned Bird episodes, only 21 ran from January 1970 into spring. Station management used second-class budgeting and other methods to stifle the program, perhaps bowing to pressure from Mayor Richard J. Daley, corporate donors and the police department. Unrealistic job demands and other forms of interference by Black nationalist opportunists and ultraradicals also contributed to the program’s demise.

Championing Muhammad Ali

But Durham already had another way to contact the world’s public: he was writing The Greatest along with the world’s most recognizable personality, heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali.

Ali was in the process not only of losing and regaining his boxing title but also losing and winning his Constitutional rights after rightwingers punished him by convicting him for refusing to enter the military. He had famously told his draft board, “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”

Durham traveled with Ali, whom he’d met at Muhammad Speaks, from 1970 to the book’s release by Random House, under the guidance of Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, in 1975. “I think I was able to identify with Ali at the deepest point of what makes him tick,” Durham told a reporter. “A boxer is all alone in the ring, and a writer is all alone at the typewriter.”

A mild heart attack, coupled with other health issues, began to slow Durham down in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He also pursued some shaky business schemes with Rukmini Sukarno, a daughter of the Indonesian leader Akhmad Sukarno, who had been unseated during a genocidal “anti-Communist” coup masterminded and stage-managed by the CIA and other imperialist intelligence agencies.

Nevertheless, he husbanded his energy to serve as a key adviser behind the scenes for Harold Washington, in Washington’s hard-fought, successful 1983 campaign to become the first African-American mayor of Chicago.

The following year saw him again seeking to use his story-telling prowess, this time to write Rukmini Sukarno’s autobiography while also perhaps making a bundle in business deals with her. He flew to New York on April 27, 1984, to discuss matters with Rukmini and her husband Franklin Latimore Kline, a former soap opera actor.

Durham fell dead that very day while exiting a Manhattan theater. He was 66 years old.

His career was highly various yet marked by a powerful unity. That unity may be seen in his response to a reviewer who had questioned him about his scripts, a reply that should be repeatedly re-echoed today to people of European, African, Latino, Asian and other backgrounds:

“Racial animosity is essentially an artificial thing. … There has to be a constant resupplying of some motivation for the animosity, or for the separation, or for the isolation of a particular group. Otherwise it will break down.”

Dick Durham was always breaking it down.

March-April 2016, ATC 181