Sunday, April 06, 2014

Good-Bye Dear Friend: Charles Sumner 'Chuck' Stone (1924-2014)

Back when we worked together at the Philadelphia Daily News, I usually could hear and smell Chuck Stone before I saw him.

The city desk, where I worked, was around the corner from a lobby. An elevator door would open with a ceremonial "ding" and I would hear the "click, click, click" of the cleats on the heels of Chuck's wingtips on the marble floor and the aroma of the distinctive Houbigant cologne he wore before he burst into the newsroom. (He later took to wearing fancy cowboy boots with his Brooks Brothers suits and sport coats, but kept the cleats and cologne, as well as his trademark horn-rimmed glasses and bow ties.  And he always used a fine fountain pen, whether editing his column or writing a note, in a brown ink he had specially made.)
Charles Sumner "Chuck" Stone was a legend in his own time and may have been the only journalist who knew or worked with virtually every civil rights leader of consequence.  Chuck, who suffered a major stroke in the summer of 2012, died in his sleep on Sunday morning of congestive heart failure at an assisted-living facility near his longtime home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  He was 89.  

He also was a dear friend whose parting gesture always was a big hug and the words "You know that I love you, brother."

Chuck became a Tuskegee Airman after graduating college during World War II, although he never saw combat.  He wrote speeches for and kept the faith, baby, with powerful U.S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., had a radio show with Malcolm X and worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference headquarters in Atlanta before coming to the Daily News, where as the first African-American columnist wrote a thrice weekly column for 19 years before going to divinity school and getting a theology degree in his late 60s while teaching journalism at the University of Delaware.   He later was a journalism professor the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, retiring from teaching in 2004.
Chuck also wrote several books, including a marvelous children's book, and was a founder and first president of the National Association of Black Journalists. (His son, Charlie, is even better known than was his old man, having crafted and starred in the "Wassup?" Budweiser commercials and directed several pretty fine movies, including the award-winning "Drumline.") 

I was perhaps the only Daily News editor who in editing Chuck's column was not overawed by him or his incredibly rich vocabulary.  (I was, but never let it show.)  I told him if I thought he was off base or being precious, and he was grateful for my candor even if he sometimes did not take my advice.
While Chuck's columns were must-reads (and we'll get to one in particular in a moment), he was best known for negotiating the end to a 1981 hostage siege led by a triple killer in the maximum security unit of a state penitentiary, as well as for the extraordinary number of crime suspects -- 75 by my count -- who turned themselves into him rather than surrender directly to the Philadelphia Police.

Why? Because the suspects, most of them African-Americans, feared being beaten or otherwise mistreated. Having Chuck turn them over to the police, usually in his tiny office or the Daily News conference room, helped guarantee safe passage.  If Chuck wasn't available, I was his "second" and would babysit the suspect until he would arrive.
* * * * *
Newsweek magazine once labeled Chuck "the angry man of the Negro press."   The belligerent and racially divisive Frank Rizzo, a police commissioner and later mayor, was a frequent target.  But Chuck was unsparing in his criticism regardless of race, calling fellow African-Americans W. Wilson Goode, the underachiever who became mayor four years after Rizzo, a "paternalistic ferret," and U.S. Representative William H. Gray III, the powerful longtime North Philadelphia power broker and a longtime nemesis, a "peacock." 
He seriously considered running against Gray, but then-Daily News Editor Gil Spencer told him he would have to give up his column, noting that he was much more influential as a voice for the community than he would be as a mere congressman.  Chuck eventually agreed.
Chuck's reputation as a defender of the downtrodden no matter their color or station in life extended far beyond Philadelphia.

One day in 1981, he received a letter with a piece of toilet tissue that had been smuggled from H Block in Northern Ireland's dreaded Long Kesh Prison.

It had been written on in tiny, cramped printing by Ian Milne, an Irish Republican Army member, and slipped to one of the prisoner's fathers. At Milne's request, the father mailed it to Chuck near the end of Milne's 53-day hunger strike with the better known Bobby Sands and other IRA members to protest their inhumane treatment by the British. Ten men died during the hunger strike.

Now Milne was no choir boy, although he had been one in his youth. In fact, he was in Long Kesh for several political murders, which Chuck did not overlook in a column that captures his blistering disdain for anyone who would deny the most basic of rights to, yes, even a political prisoner who had shed blood for his cause.

An excerpt:

Read Ian Milne's letter and you get another view of Northern Ireland's tragic religious-civil rights war.

First of all, different words for the same thing.

Milne called Long Kesh Prison by its real name. The British renamed it "Maze Prison," hoping to clean up a gruesome concentration camp image.

Milne proudly signed himself as a "Republican POW." British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has defiantly christened him and other prisoners with a nastier epithet.

"A murder is a murder is a murder," she haughtily snarled in refusing to grant their request for P.O.W. status. King George III used to talk like her.

Thatcher's doublespeak way with words is consistent with every problem she attacks.
Then Chuck issued the coup de grĂ¢ce:
Britain is on the verge of becoming an economic basket case. Yet she insists in that attractively passionate way of hers that the waves of Dunkirk lapping at British backsides is actually a bathtub overflowing its sides.
By the way, the British finally released Milne from Long Kesh in 1992 after he did 17 years of hard time. Today he is a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for Mid-Ulster.
Photograph by The Associated Press


Unknown said...

Outstanding piece, Shaun.

scorp said...
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Tom Livingston said...

A fine remembrance, Shaun and pitch perfect. I'm glad the brown ink got a mention.

Unknown said...
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