By Chris Levister
It's what I call the full circle moment Ardess E. Lilly, Jr. the founding father of the Black Voice News sits across from me during his weekly farmer's market in west San Bernardino. The white-haired one is full of zest and chutzpah much like his activist days at UC Riverside.
Back in the early 70's long before his vision to bring fresh produce to the city's underserved community Lilly had another vision.
"I wanted Black people to have their own newspaper. Naive as that may sound I believed we had the right to plead our own cause."
When Mr. Lilly, then the president of UCR's Black Student Union, grabbed a handful of flyers, Malcolm X speeches, newspapers and other publications during a Pan-African conference in Santa Barbara, little did he know he was about to spark a revolution and birth the venerable voice for the voiceless: The Black Voice News.
"I read Nommo the newspaper published by Black students at UCLA, and my first thought was, why can't we have that at UCR?"
Lilly who grew up in West Virginia reading trailblazing Black newspapers like the Pittsburgh Courier and the New York Amsterdam News, with three BSU students took his ambitious if not naive proposal to the editor of The Highlander, UCR's student newspaper.
"This was at the height of Black student activism. We wanted a platform for social justice and Black pride. We asked the Highlander to give us a page – a Black page. Eventually Latinos, Asians, gays and lesbian students would have a page."
What Lilly and his classmates got was a polite no thanks and $1,000.
"They didn't want a Black page in the Highlander. They didn't have Black people writing for them. They weren't interested in reporting about our community. Essentially they said here's a thousand dollars – go create your own newspaper."
Lilly and his BSU members did just that but with a lot of help from road tested local activists like M. Jackie Simpson, Gwen Streeter, Luther Gooden field rep for Congressman George Brown, and Riverside's first Black publisher Reggie Strickland among others.
"A thousand dollars in those days was a nice chunk of change for a fledgling Black student organization on a UC campus so we paid Reggie a visit to see how much we could get for that money. He said this is what you're up against, he laid it all out from the printing and paper costs to the political and social heat we could expect. I guess we were pretty native, but we weren't willing to give up."
Enter Sam Martin, publisher of the American Newspaper the region's oldest legally adjudicated Black news publication. "Sam liked the idea."
In 1972 Mr. Martin gave Mr. Lilly's vision wings and The Black Voice News was born.
"A group of us went to the American and just starting writing. We shined the spotlight where there had been darkness. Articles, columns and editorials questioned wrong and praised right. We wrote about Black community events, church and social life." The Black Voice News now well received by the Riverside business community Mr. Lilly and crew were ready to take on the world. But he wasn't ready for what would become his most surprise antagonist: Black folk.
"We never thought it would be Black folks who would try to keep us from going forward. The Black establishment in Riverside would not even read the paper. They would write to the Press Enterprise criticizing typos and dispute our facts anything to keep the waters troubled."
Understandably shocked and disappointed Mr. Lilly and his now Black Voice Newspaper solidered on without swords.
"We weren't going to fight our own people. What we wrote was not through the eyes of the Press Enterprise we were there". Eventually the newspaper won the trust of the Black community. "That's the beauty of empowerment." Mr. Lilly and crew kept churning out the paper until 1978 when the responsibility for family nudged him to take a job with the California Conservation Corps, a move that took him to 400 miles from home and the American News.
"I had a family and I had to work. There's an old saying in the newspaper business if you could eat what you print you'd be wealthy." Mr. Lilly seeing his vision soar trusted the newspaper to it's patriarch Sam Martin.
"Looking back we were pretty bold but I'm proud to say I had a hand in giving voice to the people" says Mr. Lilly now executive director of the non-profit foundation Inland Empire Conservation Corps. "God is with those who patiently persevere."
THE BROWN DYNASTY: Journey Into the 21st Century
Taking the Black Voice News to the streets, closets, boardrooms and beyond
Working at the American newspaper in the 70's aspiring political activist and seasoned community leader Cheryl Brown and husband Hardy, then a Kaiser Medical Care executive wanted to help Mr. Sam Martin with his vision.
After working with the American, Black Voice and their new printing business, Mr. gave them the opportunity to buy the Black Voice. Buying the newspaper from publisher Mr. Martin in 1980 launched the Brown dynasty, and kicked off a new era of activism and reporting that would propel The Black Voice News from a small Black community publication to a powerful unapologetic voice for the voiceless.
When I first walk into the Brown's San Bernardino office, I know I've stepped into the world of two of our most prophetic and healing voices. Uncompromising and unconventional, Mr. and Mrs. Brown are eloquent prophets with attitude.
Their portrait gallery of failure and triumph – detailing racial struggle and progress, corporate excess, limp courtier government as well as Washington's imperial arrogance and bungling in Sacramento – illustrates their vital argument: that the Black press is vital and that its survival and proliferation does indeed matter.
"When we bought the Black Voice we saw a crucial opportunity to transfer influence over to a mostly voiceless Black community at the same time cutting a path to shaping political policy," recalls Mrs. Brown.
Not to be confused with reporting mere ice cream and apple pie, the Brown's foray into the world of publishing challenged the conventional wisdom that Blacks did not question majority abuse of power.
In 1979 weeks before the Tournament of Rose Parade somebody put a letter in Hardy's mailbox," explained Mrs. Brown. "It said Miss Black San Bernardino would not be invited to ride on San Bernardino's highly visible ‘All America City' float."
"Here we were about to be viewed by upwards of a million spectators on the parade route and by millions more on television with Miss San Bernardino who was White, Miss Hispanic San Bernardino, and a host of White dignitaries riding that float while Miss Black San Bernardino sat on the sidelines for the first time in the three years
of participation" remembers Mrs. Brown. "We had to take a stand," added Mr. Brown.
That stand was against the San Bernardino Sun newspaper.
We demanded answers, says Mr. Brown. Sun editor Bill Honeysett's response was nothing short of a shot across the bow.
"He said I raised the money. I choose who rides." Unaware of the letter Honeysett dug in. Mr. Brown explains, "He refused to budge so we promptly printed that letter on the front page for everyone to see. Then we took the gloves off and threatened to shut the parade down with a court injunction and when the dust cleared we called the Sun's former parent Gannett and demanded Mr. Honeysett's resignation."
On the morning of the parade, Miss Black San Bernardino climbed aboard the float, smiled and road off into history.
That was just for starters says Mrs. Brown "We opened a lot of closets and ruffled a lot of feathers along the way," says Mr. Brown whose weekly editorials often have the effect of razor burn.
Perhaps the paper's most defining moment came on the morning of December 28. 1998, hours after Riverside police officers killed a 19-year old Black girl while she was lying unresponsive in the front seat of her car. Tyisha Miller died after police fired 24 gunshots at her, striking the young woman 12 times, including four times in the head.
The Riverside community leaders were brought in by the police chief and told there was a problem with the shooting and then forbade them from talking about it until the investigation was complete. The community was up in arms and the leaders answers were not forthcoming. That made the issue even worse.
"After Riverside district attorney Grover Trask refused to file charges against the officers even the BBC British Broadcasting Company would report boldly "All hell broke loose."
The shooting and aftermath sparked widespread protests and thousands demonstrated including Rev. Jesse Jackson, Brotherhood Crusade's Danny Bakewell, singing artist Babyface and his wife. Police arrested Rev. Al Sharpton, Dr. Martin Luther King III, comedian Dick Gregory, actress Kim Fields, Rev. Alvin Smith of St. Paul AME Church, Rev. Ron Gibson of Life Church of God in Christ, Pastor Jesse Wilson of Kansas Ave. Seventh Day Adventist Church, Dr. Carolyn Murray of the University of California, Riverside and many others after they blocked the steps of the Riverside Police Department during an act of civil disobedience. The paper's coverage of the incident and subsequent activities became widely read by various segments of the community because it published the news from a different perspective.
Over the course of days and months the Black Voice News went from community to world stage. The BBC called from London to get frequent updates remembers Mr. Brown. The Attorney General Bill Lockyer, FBI and the Justice Department got involved ultimately the city was slapped with a five year consent decree.
"How do you justify shooting a sick unconscious person in the back of the head," said Mr. Brown. We had to stand up and be counted.
Thirty six years after Ardess Lilly sparked a revolution the Black Voice News is still pleading its own cause.
The Black Voice News online at www.blackvoicenews.com opened vistas unheard of in 1972. A recent article depicting young Black teens that were denied summer jobs because they couldn't speak Spanish received more than 200,000 hits.
It is the responsibility of the Black media to serve, support and protect the five fundamental institutions that sustained African-Americans during the horrors of racism, segregation and Jim Crow. "These institutions are vital to the survival of our people said Mr. Brown: The Black family, The Black church, Black businesses, Black schools and the Black media." Mr. Brown who suffers from a debilitating muscle condition is rarely far from his computer, his family, his Bible and St. Paul AME Church the couple's church home for decades.
The publishers founded the Black Voice Foundation, Inc. in 1988 with a mission to train and educate individuals in print media. With the digital revolution, the rapid growth of technology and the need to impact lives through a diverse set of multi-media platforms, the Foundation lead by daughter Dr. Paulette Brown-Hinds has expanded its mission to include the fields of media, history and arts.
The Foundation offers the Black Voice Internship Program and Institute, Footsteps to Freedom Underground Railroad Study Tours, Isaac Family Collection of African Artifacts, Booker T. Washington Public History Project, a newly created IE scholarship program in conjunction with Black Churches, Gospel Music History Project with USC, Califest Hip-Hop Theater Studio and the "Art Changes Lives" campaign.
In 1827 the nation's first Black newspaper Freedom's Journal wrote "We wish to plead our own cause. Too long others have spoken for us."
"The Black Voice's mantra – giving voice to the voiceless is about speaking "truth to power", says Mrs. Brown. "It is just as important to speak truth to the powerless as it is to speak truth to the powerful," added Mr. Brown.
"The Inland Empire has, at least, five Black Newspapers, which is in and of itself remarkable, considering how much we complain about being the other minority group in the area," said Lilly. "There is also a strong national black Print Media. If "Black folk don't read", then how does one account for the success of the Black print media? It is because we DO read. And when we read articles and essays that are relevant, uplifting and Afro-Centric, we become fortified against the intended derogatory affects of the predominately negative characterizations that are frequently directed towards the African American community by other media."
"The Black Voice and the other Black Newspapers are important and relevant because they always have the option of telling our story and pleading our cause. That was and is my vision for the Black Voice and the other local Black newspapers, the protectors of liberty and justice for all."