Mar. 29, 2015  

We The Journalists: Charles E. Cobb

Charles E. Cobb, Jr. is the author of This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible. He is scheduled to speak about it at Books & Books (265 Aragon Ave, Coral Gables, FL 33134) on Monday, March 30, 2015 at 8 p.m.

By Dina Weinstein

Charles-CobbIn This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed, the Jacksonville, Florida-based journalist describes the vital role that armed self-defense played in the survival and liberation of black communities in America during the Southern Freedom Movement of the 1960s.

From 1962-1967 Cobb served as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi. He began his journalism career in 1974 as a reporter for WHUR Radio in Washington, D.C. In 1976 he joined the staff of National Public Radio as a foreign affairs reporter, bringing to that network its first regular coverage of Africa. From 1985 to 1997, Cobb was a National Geographic staff member, traveling the globe to write stories on places from Eritrea to Russia’s Kuril Islands. He is a  Senior Writer and Diplomatic Correspondent for AllAfrica.com, the leading online provider of news from and about Africa. He is the co-author, with civil rights organizer and educator Robert P. Moses, of Radical Equations, Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project. His book, published in January 2008, is On the Road to Freedom, a Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail. In 2008 the National Association of Black Journalists honored Cobb’s work by inducting him into their Hall of Fame.

 

SPJ Florida: How did you make the transition from activist to journalist?

Charles Cobb: I had been thinking long term about reporting and journalism. I had a friend in TV news, an anchor in Washington DC, Max Robinson. He was the first black anchor on national TV based in Chicago. It was a time when NBC had three anchors in three cities. I was complaining about the news and what I didn’t like about it at Max’s house. He said: “Why don’t you do it if you can?”

In the late 1960s and 1970s I wound up on Capitol Hill working for a congressman and I hated it. Howard University started a radio station, WHUR.

Milton Coleman was there in Washington, he had just graduated from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism school and had joined the station. There was a vacancy and he suggested I apply. I became a reporter at the station. Howard University was one of the only universities with a commercial station on a campus. I was there for a couple of years. From there I went to NPR.

When I left NPR I wound up as a reporter/correspondent for Frontline hosted by Jessica Savitch. In 1980 I wound up doing freelance work for National Geographic magazine and then they offered me a job. I was then a writer for National Geographic.

In 1970 Africa News was an organization started with an interest in Africa. And I lived in Africa shortly after I left SNCC. Africa New Service transformed to the internet as allafrica.com. So in the early 1970s I helped develop it. I became a diplomatic correspondent, which meant keeping track of diplomatic activity and foreign policy issues.

I did that through 2005 when I began to write books. My first one I wrote with Bob Moses. It was a travel book of guided tours. I also co-edited a book on Africa by American activists. When I retired from National Geographic, I organized allAfrica.com

We could see right away that we could reach a larger audience with the internet. Africa news service is the largest such news organization of its kind. It is news oriented not feature oriented. It is the largest with 3000 subscribers and we also do radio. AllAfrica.com gets a couple hundred thousand  page hits. It’s a much wider audience and more international. It’s the largest news service concerned with Africa. Changing to internet was not difficult.

Cobb-This Nonviolent

What were the most memorable stories covered?

In general Africa coverage is poor in the mainstream media. A number of outlets have good reporters – The New York Times, Detroit Free Press, The Wall Street Journal… But they only had bureaus in Kenya, Johannesburg and Lagos. It’s hard to persuade newspaper editors to pay attention, unless there’s a crisis or a drought.

There was the coverage of the Biafra war in the 1960s. Africa coverage has expanded. Now there are more U.S. reporters in Africa.I lived in Africa in the 1970s. Then the coverage was poor. With the coverage of Ebola on NPR, they rarely had an African experts discussing the issues. African experts in Africa have been ignored by the American media.

What were the most memorable stories that you have covered?

War in Rhodesia for NPR. When Mandela was released from prison I did a series of reports for National Geographic where for months I lived with a number of families interviewing them about how people felt about his release. I did thousands of stories from all over Africa. I interviewed former presidents Bush and Obama. I don’t know if the stories I liked had the biggest impact. I did a major story on the blues as a part of American culture for National Geographic. At NPR and National Geographic I provided access to black life and thought. I was not thought of as abBlack reporter. I was a foreign affairs reporter for NPR and a writer for National Geographic covering topics like rising lakes to Haiti.

You were given a major award by the National Association of Black Journalists. What does that mean to you?

I was one of the founders of the NABJ. I was inducted into the hall of fame in 2008. I was flattered.

How did you transition to book writing and what is your approach to book writing?

I have specific concerns as a book writer. I am committed to writing about the Southern civil right movement during the 1960s and 1970s and the struggle for civil rights. I am not a scholar. I am a journalist. I’m not going to spend years rooting around archives. I interview people, particularly in the Southern movement. There is a weakness in the historiography of the Southern civil rights movement, much of it does not get into the thinking of the people who were in the movement. There is a focus on events – a march in Washington or in Selma. It does not get into the thinking. I try to do that. There’s a thought underlying my work: “Here are people you should know.” I take a storyteller’s approach.

My advice to journalists who want to write books: Go ahead and give it a try.

You say you are not an academic but you have been involved in archives. What have you been doing?

At Brown University I have been teaching a seminar in the organizing tradition of the civil rights movement. At Duke a group emerged out of the SNCC legacy project with a mission to make available to anyone documents on the internet pertaining to SNCC and the movement. We have a collaborative agreement with Duke. We are piloting a website about SNCC and voting rights onevotesncc.org. I was not there to teach. I was on campus as a scholar and activist. Neither had much to do with books. For the SNCC legacy project (http://www.sncclegacyproject.org/) activists work with scholars.

What role has social media played in your life as a journalist?

It’s not that important to me. I don’t twit or whatever. I recognize its value to communicate speedily and the ability to generate alternative sources of news. I don’t think of All Africa (http://allafrica.com/) as social media. I recognize Twitter and all that stuff is helpful to spread information.

Why do you reside in Jacksonville, Florida?

I wanted to be back in the South. Jacksonville is an interesting place for black history. I wanted to be back in the deep South.  Jacksonville is convenient for me. It’s an interesting place  to be if you want to travel and write about the South. Also, it’s on the ocean so it’s nice. It’s small in population so it’s quiet. It’s a good place to write.

How has your book This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed been received?

No surprises. It’s been interesting because the gun people — the anti-gun control people — have picked up on it. In the book it says that for self defense guns were important part of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The other story is not generally told – the community organizing story  in the rural South.

What advice do you have for young journalists?

A lot of young journalists want to go to Washington DC, New York or Los Angeles. I encourage young journalists to more than focus on living in a particular place, be subject-oriented and pursue writing about that. You’ll get better at writing. A lot of things that you are interested in, no one else is interested in and there’s room for that in newspapers.

I’m not a huge fan of journalism schools. There’s little that can’t be taught in eight to nine weeks. Working in the field is better than going to college. I didn’t finish college. I only did one year.

You went to work in the civil rights movement instead?

Yes.

 

Charles E. Cobb, Jr. is the author of This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible. He is scheduled to speak about it at Books & Books (265 Aragon Ave, Coral Gables, FL 33134) on Monday, March 30, 2015 at 8 p.m.


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