National Press Club

NPC in History: Integration at last

June 3, 2019 | By Gilbert Klein | Gilbert.Klein@me.com

Louis Lautier

Louis Lautier

Photo/Image: Leo Martinez

Like most private professional and social clubs in Washington in the early 1950s, the National Press Club had no African-American members.

No African-Americans were employed by the mainstream press. The rules for the Senate Press Gallery and the White House Correspondents Association, which accredited reporters for the press room, said the reporters had to be working for a daily publication and working in Washington. African-American newspapers supplied the only news of interest to black readers, yet the Atlanta Daily World, the only daily black newspaper, did not have a Washington correspondent until 1944.

As Donald A. Ritchie, historian emeritus of the U.S. Senate, recounted in his book Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps, in February 1944, Harry McAlpin, who wrote for the Atlanta Daily World and the weekly, Chicago Defender, was allowed into the White House press corps. President Frankline D. Roosevelt, greeted him at a press conference in the Oval Office, “I’m glad to see you, McAlpin, and very happy to have you here."

Louis Lautier, who wrote for the Atlanta Daily World and the National Negro Press Association, had to stand in line for a seat in the congressional visitors’ gallery to watch a debate. He fought for, and finally won admittance to the Press Gallery in 1947, and most of his reporting exposed “the injustices and absurdities of racial segregation in the nation’s capital and the federal government,” Ritchie wrote.

As late as the early 1940s, the Club refused service to an African-American judge brought by radical journalist and Club member I.F. Stone. When Stone posted a petition of outrage on the Club’s bulletin board, only one other member, Win Booth of the National Geographic, signed it. Stone quit the Club in protest.

But after the 1954 Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, minds began to change. Frank Holeman, a reporter for the New York Daily News, was vice president of the Club in 1955, when Lautier applied for membership. He tells what happened in a 16-page account he wrote for the Club’s archives in 1988.

In December 1954, Holeman was approached by Alden Todd of the Federated Press. Would he support Lautier’s admission? Yes, Holeman said, but he asked Todd to wait until after the Club’s elections to propose him. That way the issue would not be embroiled in the politics and it would give Holeman time to talk with the membership committee and the Board of Governors to see what Lautier’s chances would be.

Holeman got back to Todd, telling him that Lautier would be accepted by the membership committee and would narrowly pass a vote of the 12-member board. Lautier’s application was signed by three prominent members – Lee Nichols of the United Press, and two columnists, Drew Pearson and Marquis Childs.

On Jan. 10, 1955, the Board voted six to four with one abstention to admit Lautier. That should have ended the matter. However, the Club’s bylaws said that all new member names must be posted for 15 days. If a protest was signed by more than 10 active members, the application could be turned down. Up until that time, only one prospective member approved by the Board had been rejected: Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in 1928.

The petition against Lautier had more than 10 signatures. It was carefully worded not to identify race as the reason for turning him down, but instead challenged his credentials and character.

“To say that ‘all hell broke loose!’ is to understate the case,” Holeman wrote. “Members quickly chose sides, applauding the Board’s decision or condemning it in the strongest terms possible. Angry arguments raged through the day and long into the night in the bar, the dining room, the cardroom and elsewhere. There were even occasional fist fights.”

Two highly respected past presidents – Bascom Timmons, who was head of a large news bureau that represented the Houston Chronicle and many other Southern and Western papers, and Paul Wooton of the New Orleans Times Picayune and secretary of both the White House Correspondents Association and Business Magazine Writers, opposed Lautier’s admission.

But the fight broke down more by age than by geography, Holeman said. Older members tended to oppose the application, whether they were from the North or the South, while younger ones supported it. Holeman himself was from North Carolina.

Lautier did not help his cause by writing two columns expressing his rage and condemning two members by name. The columns circulated around the Club.

That set the stage for an explosive general membership meeting set for Jan. 21. Many board members feared a rancorous public meeting would tarnish the Club’s reputation around the world and damage members’ careers. Holeman went to Timmons and Wooton with a proposition: If a majority of the members accepted Lautier as a member, would they go along? Both said they would. Holeman then got the Board to agree to a special election by secret ballot, and that it would go along with the outcome by however the vote turned out. That took the fight out of a public arena.

“The epic struggle began a new phase,” as the Feb. 4 election approached, Holeman wrote. “Each side made plans to get out its maximum vote. This meant organizing a network of like-minded people who would actively campaign for their side, buttonholing co-workers and telephoning friends.”

The turnout was large by Club standards – 658 active members voted. Big name journalists, some of whom had not been seen around the Club in years, showed up, including columnist Walter Winchell, National Geographic publisher Gilbert Grosvenor, New York Times columnist Arthur Krock and David Lawrence, publisher of U.S. News and World Report. Campaign workers for and against Lautier checked off names of their supporters, hitting the phones later in the day to get out their vote.

After the polls closed, the members gathered in the taproom as votes were tallied. “Beer and liquor flowed freely,” Holeman wrote. “Voices got louder and louder. Bets were made. Some opponents of Lautier announced they would resign immediately if he became a member. His vocal supporters retorted, “good riddance.’”

When Paul McGahan of the Philadelphia Inquirer entered to announce the tally, the taproom went silent.

“The vote in this election was Yes – 377; No – 281.” McGahan announced. “It took a second or two for the hushed crowd in the bar to realize the meaning of the numbers,” Holeman wrote. “Then pandemonium erupted; shouts, curses, excited conversation. One of the men who had worked hard against Lautier, Lorenzo Martin of the Louisville Times, burst into tears.”

But that was the end of it. Only one member resigned – and he was not a journalist.

This is another in a series provided by Club historian Gil Klein. Dig down anywhere in the Club’s 111-year history, and you will find some kind of significant event in the history of the world, the nation, Washington, journalism and the Club itself. Many of these events were caught in illustrations that tell the stories.