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February 6th, 2008

Restoring Gerald M. Boyd’s name

Thanksgiving will never be the same for me. A year ago, my long-time friend Gerald M. Boyd, the first African-American managing editor of the The New York Times, died on Thanksgiving Day of lung cancer at the age of 56. Gerald had lost his No.2 post at The New York Times after being blamed for misdeeds of plagiarist Jason Blair. He was portrayed as Blair’s mentor because of one reason - both were Black.

At a memorial service on November 30th for Gerald, I minced no words about a friend I had known all of his professional career.

"I am here tonight to reclaim a friend. I am here to restore his good name…It is unfair to act like Blair, that serial liar, was an appendage of Gerald Boyd. Gerald was not his direct supervisor and Gerald certainly did not fabricate any stories. But you’d never know that from some of the coverage of his death, including that of the New York Times."

I noted, "In one account, the Associated Press even substituted Blair’s name for Gerald’s. It seems that my friend cannot even go to his grave peacefully without his own colleagues besmirching his reputation.

"Sure, any major story about Gerald Boyd should mention the Blair incident, but that shouldn’t supercede or overshadow Gerald’s accomplishments as a first-rate journalist. Gerald was a victim of Jayson Blair, not his protector."

On the anniversary of Gerald’s death, New York magazine has done an excellent profile of Gerald Boyd. Apparently my comments didn’t sit well with the Times’ former editor.

Writing in New York magazine, Jeff Coplon said of my speech, "As his call found its cadence, the black chorus responded in collective grievance - over a man they’d seen used up and discarded by a smug, white institution. But in the Times section, there were winces and pursed lips. ("I was quite angry with the guy who decided to make a political stump speech," said Max Frankel, Lelyveld’s predecessor - though the "honest feelings" Frankel added, were "good for white folks to hear.") Here was the 500-pound irony in the room: that a man who’d aimed to bridge the great divide - to live and work color-blind - would now be mourned compartmentally."

First, my comments did not constitute a "political stump speech." Stump speeches are by definition made over and over. I assure you, that speech was written for that particular occasion, the death of a close friend.

Though he objected, Frankel said the "honest feelings" expressed that evening were "good for white folks to hear."

I believe I speak for most African-Americans who made comments at the memorial when I state that saying what was "good for white folks to hear" was not even remotely on our mind. We came to mourn a warrior and if our "honest feelings" upset the sensibilities of past and present New York Times editors, so be it.

Even more revealing in the article were the "honest feelings" of African-Americans who had worked there. The article stated, "Paul Delaney became the Times’ first black Washington correspondent, in 1969; he would make it to senior editor, but no higher. "There was an elitism at the Times," he said, a "belief that there was no black as good as any of the white reporters and editors."

He wasn’t the only one critical of the Times.

"Jayson Blair didn’t bring Gerald down," said Don Terry, a former Times writer. "The New York Times brought Gerald down. Arthur Sulzberger punked out." For Terry, and for many of those gathered last November, Boyd was scapegoated into ruin for Ascending While Black.

And there were the words of Gerald himself.

The New York

magazine story recalls, "In a roundtable published in the Times Magazine, he was eerily prescient: "Race is out there, time and time again. And if you’re not careful, it’s going to reach out and slap you and knock you down in some way, and you’ll never be able to get up from it."

He saw that played when the person who tapped him to be second-in-command published his version of events.

The New York magazine story explains, "In the spring of 2004, the Atlantic Monthly published Howell Raines’s My Times, a 21,000-word you-a culpa, much of it a revisionist history that hung Boyd out to dry. Raines claimed that his No. 2 was privy to critical forewarning about Blair, and that Boyd had dropped the ball. Had Raines ‘been in the bureaucratic loop on the memo,’ he wrote, ‘the Jayson Blair story would have ended there.’"

"Translation: Gerald was my black guy and he didn’t save me from this black kid and it must have been his fault."

This was another cruel example, in Gerald’s words, of race reaching out to slap him down. Now, a year after Gerald’s death, they still don’t get it.

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