Carl Rowan's new reality

February 14, 1991|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON — Washington

Television pundit and newspaper columnist Carl T. Rowan could be recognized for his four and a half decades of journalism and public service.

He could be hailed for his long career of "Breaking Barriers," the title of his new memoir -- racial barriers in the military, in journalism, in government, in society. Or for rising from a childhood of abject poverty in Tennessee -- he brushed his teeth with his finger and laundry soap, lived in a rickety house that had no electricity or plumbing -- to a life of Lincoln Town Cars and whirlpool baths, awards and accolades.

But Mr. Rowan, 65, knows better. He knows this:

"Whether I die next year or 50 years from now, somebody will want to write an obit [calling me] 'the liberal gun control advocate who shot a teen-ager in his back yard,' " says the former Kennedyand Johnson administration official, who is to speak briefly at 5 p.m. today at the Enoch Pratt Library about his new book.

"I just accept that as a reality."

In fact, he opens his book with and devotes the penultimate chapter, "The Shot Heard Round My World," to the infamous backyard swimming pool incident of June 1988, in which he shot an intruder, wounding him in the wrist, with an unregistered pistol. (Charges filed against him for possessing the weapon were dismissed by a jury.)

But the most provocative material in Mr. Rowan's new book is not about him, his career in the Navy as one of the first black officers, his admiration for President Lyndon B. Johnson, or his furious disappointment with President Ronald Reagan.

The controversial section comes when he details an FBI smear campaign against Martin Luther King Jr. Mr. Rowan relates a conversation he had in 1964 with Rep. John Rooney, D-N.Y. Mr. Rooney, he says, described to him a tape played by then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover for a House committee in which Dr. King is heard making what could be taken as a sexual advance to his top aide Ralph Abernathy.

The Washington Afro-American newspaper recently criticized Mr. Rowan for repeating what it called "salacious rumors" about Dr. King.

Mr. Rowan says he thought for quite a while about whether to include the episode in "Barriers," but concluded, "In order to have the greatest believability and integrity, I had to state the facts as they were put to me. It's not about Martin Luther King's sex life or Abernathy. It's about J. Edgar Hoover's monstrous usage of these rumors and allegations to try to destroy Dr. King.

"I don't have any responsibility to try to protect Dr. King. His career and his reputation stands up and protects itself."

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