Tony Brown: “Television’s Civil Rights Crusader”

Show served as time capsule of pioneering days of black journalists

HUMANITIES, November/December 2013, Volume 34, Number 6

Perched at her modish white desk, the petite newscaster buoyantly takes her turn during the broadcast to deliver the segment called “Grapevine.” She offers details about an upcoming dinner dance sponsored by the Detroit Association for Retarded Children, the city’s plans for a new day-care center, a donation from a businesswoman to the Boys Club, and an item about expectant parents Eldrigde Cleaver and his wife. At that moment, the Black Panther minister of information and author of Soul on Ice was in parts unknown, after having jumped bail following a shootout with Oakland, California, police (the fugitive eventually wound up in Algeria before returning to the United States many years later), but the reporter’s tone is upbeat and positive, inviting viewers to share, simply, in the parents’ anticipated joyful arrival.

Digital copies of the broadcast—CPT as it was originally called, an abbreviation of the infamous phrase “colored people’s time”—now serve as a time capsule for how pioneering black journalists selected and presented issues of importance to the black community. This particular program was, and is, part of a long legacy begun by Tony Brown, the award-winning broadcast journalist who has been called “Television’s Civil Rights Crusader.” Michigan State University, with funding from NEH, has been preserving the tapes of the shows that still exist, providing an archive for scholars and public access to many of the shows online.

After its time as a pilot program, CPT tightened its format, became known as Detroit Black Journal, and eventually settled on the name American Black Journal. Throughout its broadcast history, it took up issues often sidestepped by mainstream media, devoting generous air time to such topics as reparations, black colleges, the first black Miss USA, the black revolution, and white separatists (this one with two white men in Nazi-inspired uniforms somewhat uncomfortably and awkwardly trying to explain their views in the studio to a black reporter). Interviews with other guests were always vibrant, with the likes of James Brown, Louis Farrakhan, Danny Glover, Alex Haley, and Bobby Seale. Surprisingly, perhaps, seed money for CPT came from the Junior League of Detroit Women. Brown thanked them on air during CPT’s next-to-final show. “They never made any condition for their aid, and we like that very much,” he said of “the honorary sisters.”

The show began at a time of social and racial turmoil with a mission “to increase the availability and accessibility of media relating to African-American experiences in order to encourage greater involvement from Detroit citizens in working to resolve community problems.”