National Press Club

Black funeral homes knew where you could sleep: Dorothy Butler Gilliam on life as a civil rights journalist

January 25, 2019 | By Joseph Luchok | joseph.luchok@verizon.net

Civil Rights journalist Dorothy Butler Gilliam describes her book “Trailblazer” at an NPC Headliner Event on Jan. 24, 2019.

Civil Rights journalist Dorothy Butler Gilliam describes her book “Trailblazer” at an NPC Headliner Event on Jan. 24, 2019.

Photo/Image: Marshall H. Cohen

Dorothy Butler Gilliam, a legendary civil rights journalist, highlighted the importance of diversity in the media at a National Press Club Headliners Book Event on Thursday, Jan. 24.

She was discussing her new memoir, “Trailblazer: A Pioneering Journalist's Fight to Make the Media Look More Like America," the story of her being the first black female reporter at the Washington Post. Gilliam recalled that when covering stories in the south in the early 1960s she did not use the Green Book but went to black funeral homes because they knew the area. Sometimes she slept in private homes, and sometimes in a funeral home.

After graduating from Lincoln University with a degree in journalism, she decided she didn’t want to work for a black newspaper, so she needed “to get white credentials,” Gilliam said. She applied to Columbia University but was told she needed more liberal arts classes. She went south to take more classes then back to Columbia, where she got a master’s degree. She joined the Post in 1961.

While covering stories in Mississippi and Arkansas in the early 1960s, she needed someone with her to make sure she survived, Gilliam said. She said she later found out that one person who helped her was an FBI agent.

Using herself as an example of why it is important to have diversity in the media, Gilliam said many stories referred to blacks in the south as being fearful, but when she covered James Meredith’s integration of the University of Mississippi she talked to people and found they were proud of Meredith and happy about the situation.

Gilliam also said she is concerned about the decrease in minority reporters today. As some newspapers fold and others cut staff, there are less positions for minorities. She said while it is difficult to get exact numbers, it is clear they're falling.

When Gilliam was asked what makes her smile and what makes her cringe when reading the Washington Post now, she responded that great writing and taking stances on issues make her smile, while not covering important issues like mass incarceration makes her cringe.

She said writing a book about herself was challenging because she was used to writing about others. Her editor suggested Gilliam write about what she felt about things, and that helped her.

Bill Lord of the Club’s Headliners Committee moderated the event and Vanessa Williams of the Washington Post introduced Gilliam.