Vernon Jarrett: a partisan journalistic giant

Opinion

Readers like me can be extremely selective of the journalists we read habitually. We do not have to agree with every word or be humored by diversionary jokes and meaningless anecdotes. We want simplicity that unravels complexity in one swoop. We want to be invigorated and learn something from a passion that is real and irrepressible. We want anecdotes that elucidate and inspire. We do not read your stuff just because you write it. We are selective about the journalists to whom we become insatiably addicted, and once hooked we develop a constructive love affair without the romance.

The love affair thrives on the partisan knowledge of the writer, which is captured and freely shared through the skillful development of the craft and then directed with personal passionate affinity toward the reader. The affair becomes addictive: they write, we read; it’s as simple as that. Every day we want more, curious as to their take on this or that issue whether we agree with their point of view or not. Such was my experience with Vernon Jarrett, an African American journalist in Chicago who died at the age of 86 on May 23. I became a Vernon Jarrett addict, and I am proud of it!

Vernon Jarrett’s career as a journalist in Chicago began and ended at the Chicago Defender, the African American daily paper. In between, he was the first Black journalist at the Chicago Tribune, and I first began to read his articles during his tenure at the Chicago Sun-Times

Jarrett’s claim to fame is that he was a partisan of the cause of African Americans in the broad democratic tradition of Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois. Through his articles, he often lectured fondly on the contributions and sacrifices of Robeson and DuBois as well as Frederick Douglass and others. Vernon Jarrett would not let up; he would always try to produce an angle of analysis that had some relationship to the African American experience. His persona was that of an ordinary man who became extraordinary because of a passionate partisanship to the struggles of his people. He exuded a love and caring for Black people, Black Chicagoans in particular, that was tangible through his activity. I was a humble witness of his profoundness.

He was a southerner from Paris, Tenn., and always told stories of his learning to love Negro history and culture under the tutelage of his proud Black teachers in their humble surroundings. He promoted race consciousness, pride, dignity, and responsibility.

He also promoted an aspiration toward academic excellence in African American youth, and he hammered adults about the need to remember the gems of the ocean, as August Wilson would say. That is a reference to the history of struggle of Black people beginning with the torturous passage over from Africa.

Jarrett was fanatical about African Americans registering and voting in mass for socially conscious candidates. He championed Harold Washington like a great warrior, and this March, from his hospital bed, wrote an article appealing to Black Chicago to turn out to vote for Barack Obama in the Illinois primaries. Obama astounded everyone with an incredible landslide victory as the progressive, Black candidate for the Democratic Party nomination for the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois. From his sickbed, Vernon Jarrett issued a clarion call, and the people responded.

I think Black Chicago was passionately in love with Vernon Jarrett. He talked the talk and walked the walk. We wallowed in the joy of his being through reading his articles. His unrelenting drive kept us reminded of a sense of purpose and helped to instill the courage of our convictions in struggle as a people. We will forever be indebted; we will never forget.



Dee Myles is a Chicago activist and chair of the education commission of the Communist Party USA. She can be reached at pww@pww.org.