First black fe­male White House re­porter fought to cover civil rights

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - Les­lie Guttman is a jour­nal­ist and non­fic­tion au­thor based in Lex­ing­ton, Ky. She worked at the San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle for over a decade.

It was rare to be a woman or African Amer­i­can cov­er­ing the White House in the 1940s, and Alice Dun­ni­gan was both.

The Ken­tucky-born jour­nal­ist was the first African Amer­i­can woman to be granted ac­cess to cover the White House, as well as Congress, the Supreme Court and the State De­part­ment.

Yet even at the height of her ca­reer in Wash­ing­ton, she had to pawn her watch ev­ery Satur­day night so that she would have enough money to eat un­til her pay­check ar­rived Mon­day morn­ing.

It was a “hu­mil­i­at­ing prac­tice,” she wrote in her 1974 au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, “A Black Woman’s Ex­pe­ri­ence — From School­house to White House.” “I was never al­lowed more than five dol­lars on it, just enough for Sun­day din­ner,” she wrote. Af­ter pawn­ing it, Dun­ni­gan headed home to her one-room base­ment apart­ment in Wash­ing­ton’s Brook­land neigh­bor­hood, where she shov­eled coal for the fur­nace to get a break on rent.

Dun­ni­gan was the Wash­ing­ton bureau chief for the As­so­ci­ated Ne­gro Press for 14 years, be­gin­ning in 1947.

“For black read­ers of the era, the As­so­ci­ated Ne­gro Press was a com­bi­na­tion of CNN, MSNBC and The Wash­ing­ton Post,” says Ger­ald Horne, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Hous­ton and one of the coun­try’s fore­most his­to­ri­ans on racism. “It gen­er­ated protest and en­er­gized or­ga­ni­za­tions in the on­go­ing strug­gle against Jim Crow.”

By 1940, the cir­cu­la­tion of the black press was 1.27 mil­lion read­ers, and that didn’t take into ac­count ev­ery news­pa­per is­sue had mul­ti­ple read­ers, ac­cord­ing to a book by Horne.

“No­body in the white press was cov­er­ing the is­sues im­por­tant to black Amer­i­cans in the 1940s and 1950s. Alice stood up to three pres­i­dents, and some­times they didn’t like what she said,” said Carol McCabe Booker, who edited Dun­ni­gan’s book and re­pub­lished it in 2015.

Shortly af­ter be­com­ing an ac­cred­ited White House re­porter, Dun­ni­gan wanted to ac­com­pany Pres­i­dent Harry S. Tru­man on his tour to the West Coast. No African Amer­i­can re­porter had ever been on such a tour. The cost: $1,000 — over $10,000 in to­day’s dol­lars. As she re­counted in her au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, when Dun­ni­gan asked Claude Bar­nett, founder of the As­so­ci­ated Ne­gro Press, if he would pro­vide the funds, he replied, “Women don’t go on trips like this.”

Dun­ni­gan ended up pay­ing her own way, and it led to one of her first big scoops: “Pajama Clad Pres­i­dent De­fends Civil Rights at Mid­night.”

When the train stopped in Mis­soula, Mont., in the mid­dle of the night, Tru­man came out in his robe to talk to hun­dreds of stu­dents wait­ing for his ar­rival. One shouted, “Mr. Pres­i­dent, what do you say about civil rights?” Tru­man in­di­cated the is­sue would be part of his 1948 plat­form.

Dun­ni­gan later chal­lenged Tru­man for not is­su­ing an or­der ban­ning seg­re­ga­tion in Wash­ing­ton in 1948 so that African Amer­i­cans could at­tend his in­au­gu­ra­tion with­out be­ing barred from ho­tels and res­tau­rants. Tru­man re­fused, “but the idea, like a large stone tossed into a sea of calm, gen­er­ated a huge rip­ple of dis­con­tent that never sub­sided un­til in­te­gra­tion in Wash­ing­ton came to fruition years later,” Dun­ni­gan wrote in her book.

When Dwight D. Eisen­hower be­came pres­i­dent, he stopped call­ing on Dun­ni­gan dur­ing news con­fer­ences for two years be­cause of her ques­tions on civil rights. She would jump up and down, yelling, “Mr. Pres­i­dent! Mr. Pres­i­dent!” to get Eisen­hower’s at­ten­tion but to no avail. “She was iced,” Booker said. “But she kept go­ing. She didn’t just give up. She went to ev­ery news con­fer­ence.”

When John F. Kennedy took of­fice, the silent treat­ment of Dun­ni­gan ended. About eight min­utes into his first news con­fer­ence on Jan. 25, 1961, Kennedy called on Dun­ni­gan. She asked the pres­i­dent about a dra­matic vot­ing rights con­flict in Fayette County, Tenn. White land­lords had evicted black share­crop­pers for vot­ing, prompted by their rights to do so un­der the Civil Rights Act of 1957. The sit­u­a­tion es­ca­lated af­ter the blacks won a law­suit over the sit­u­a­tion.

Kennedy re­sponded to Dun­ni­gan’s ques­tion by say­ing, “. . . the Congress of course en­acted leg­is­la­tion which very clearly placed re­spon­si­bil­ity on the ex­ec­u­tive branch to pro­tect the right of vot­ing. I . . . sup­ported that leg­is­la­tion. I am ex­tremely in­ter­ested in mak­ing sure that ev­ery Amer­i­can is given the right to cast his vote with­out prej­u­dice to his rights as a cit­i­zen, and there­fore I can state that this ad­min­is­tra­tion will pur­sue the prob­lem of pro­vid­ing that pro­tec­tion with all vigor.”

Dun­ni­gan was born in 1906 in Rus­sel­lville, Ky. — two years be­fore the lynch­ing of four black men in her home­town. His­to­rian Michael Mor­row says the ter­ror of the lynch­ing hung over the small town for decades.

“I think this com­mu­nity put a lot of fight in Alice,” Mor­row said. “You al­most had to jump out the womb fight­ing here if you hoped to make it. She un­der­stood young enough that she would have to chart her own course.”

The his­to­rian said that even though peo­ple in Wash­ing­ton did not ac­cept her, Dun­ni­gan per­sisted no mat­ter what be­cause “she knew she was fight­ing bat­tles for her en­tire race.”

Mor­row has spent three decades at­tempt­ing to make her as well known as other civil rights fig­ures, and those ef­forts are pay­ing off.

A bronze statue of Dun­ni­gan will ap­pear from Sept. 21 to Dec. 16 in Wash­ing­ton at the New­seum. The 6-foot-tall, 500pound bronze statue, made by Ken­tucky sculp­tor Amanda Matthews, por­trays the re­porter

“She was fight­ing . . . for her en­tire race.” Michael Mor­row, his­to­rian

clad in one of a hand­ful of her good dresses and scuffed pumps. She holds a 1947 copy of The Wash­ing­ton Post with head­lines about civil rights. The statue is based on a photo of Dun­ni­gan stand­ing on the steps of the U.S. Capi­tol in 1947.

“It is my fond­est hope,” Dun­ni­gan wrote in her book’s pref­ace, “that the story of my life and work will . . . en­cour­age more young writ­ers to use their tal­ents as a mov­ing force in the for­ward march of progress and that their ef­forts will soon re­sult in giv­ing Amer­i­cans the kind of na­tion that those of my gen­er­a­tion so long hoped and worked for.”


Alice Dun­ni­gan, who also cov­ered Congress, on the steps of the U.S. Capi­tol in 1947.

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