Recalling bad old days

TV/RADIO COLUMN

April 23, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Talk with George W. Collins these days, and the man brims with good cheer.

He boasts about his young grandson's football prowess, jokes about politicians, shares asides about the foibles of today's television news stars, vents about the pomposities of talk radio.

Collins has the stature to muse widely on such subjects.

A self-described "dinosaur," the 77-year-old journalist covered some of the most sobering issues that Marylanders confronted over the 20th century.

As a reporter and then editor-in-chief for Baltimore's Afro-American and a staffer at WMAR-TV, among other outlets, Collins chronicled the rise and fall of Maryland politician Spiro T. Agnew, wrote about education, and tracked policies on poverty and other social issues. Even now, Collins has a biweekly public-affairs show Wednesday evenings on WEAA-FM, Morgan State University's public radio station (88.9 FM).

No topic has played a more central role for Collins than race. Earlier this year, the Library of America selected two Collins articles from the Afro-American for inclusion in Reporting Civil Rights, an anthology of the best work from 1941 to 1973. It's part of the not-for-profit publisher's series of volumes with the familiar black covers.

Other luminaries represented include James Baldwin, David Halberstam, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Murray Kempton and Claude Sitton.

Though there were bright spots and crusaders in the media, the progress of the civil-rights movement was not uniformly understood by the establishment press, including The Sun, Collins says.

"The mainstream media had traditionally followed the police into the black communities, and the ambulances, too," he says. "When the trouble started -- when Dr. King was killed [in 1968] -- the media looked and said, `We don't have anybody who can relate to these communities.' "

That's when Collins was hired by WMAR-TV.

One of Collins' pieces included in the Library of America compilation focused on the movement for change in Cambridge, Md., in 1963. One hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, students and activists were protesting to bring an end to legal segregation in the small Eastern Shore city.

The confrontation with the city's business establishment turned violent, in an episode Collins recounted in his article, "Blazing Guns Mark Freedom Fight: Embattled Defenders Fire From Rooftops."

Collins had already wielded a more potent weapon against segregationists: embarrassment. In 1961, the Kennedy administration made it known that it was incensed by the rough treatment that African diplomats received in Maryland from hoteliers and restaurateurs when traveling from New York City to Washington.

Although some public facilities had been integrated in the state, many white business owners still discriminated against blacks. But the word came down that African dignitaries should be treated with respect.

Collins, then a leading reporter at the Afro-American, asked: What about American blacks? He selected restaurants near Route 40 that had already denied the newspaper's reporters service in the bluntest possible terms. (The road was then the major north-south route through Maryland.)

Fellow Afro reporter Herbert Mangrum was designated as the finance minister of the fictional country of Gobon. Garbed in a colorful gilded robe and turban, Mangrum took the name Orfa Adibuwa (the first name being Afro backward), while Collins was Luaua Aklulu, Adibuwa's Harvard-educated translator and aide. He adopted a full-length topcoat and an ascot, along with an overly formal accent that makes him giggle to this day.

After whisking up to Madison House, a Cecil County restaurant, in a limousine borrowed from a black-owned funeral home, Collins announced, "His highness is hungry." The all-black delegation (including an Afro photographer and another staffer) was escorted inside to much fanfare.

"We had the limo running in case there were any troubles," Collins recalls.

There weren't. One star-struck waitress desperately asked the visiting minister for an autograph. "He signed it, she opened her blouse and shoved it down her bra," Collins says, laughing. The same ruse was replayed at the Redwood Inn and the Double T Diner.

Though The Sun caught wind of the prank, reporting that police were searching for mysterious men posing as foreign diplomats, the Afro got its scoop, and national attention, with a six-page spread a few days later.

"It was meant to ridicule racism, as part of the advocacy for passage of the public accommodation [desegregation] bill," Collins says.

But the thrust was perfectly captured in the headline: "Everybody eats but Americans." That was no laughing matter. And Collins' unflinching gaze on such unpalatable truths helped to force change.

Honors for WBAL

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