The White House Press Corps and the Color Barrier
Saturday night, the 102nd White House Correspondents’ Association dinner takes place in Washington. It’s an event, various media scolds remind us annually, that has gotten way out of hand.
If your vantage point is the growing list of parties and garish social events held in conjunction with the dinner -- these shindigs occur all weekend -- that criticism has some validity.
On the other hand, the dinner itself is an occasion that (a) generates scholarship money for deserving journalism students; (b) reminds reporters, editors, and producers -- at least for one evening -- that the politicians were cover are actual human beings; (c) reminds White House gatekeepers of their own First Amendment obligations; (d) gets Democrats and Republicans talking together in the same room, which is increasingly rare in the nation’s capital but utterly necessary for democracy to function.
If you have a historical bent, this dinner is also a benchmark of sorts, denoting the country’s progress on the long march toward inclusiveness. And historical accuracy requires me to note that the White House press corps often had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into this better future.
A stark example occurred 73 years ago today, when the White House was planning for a visit by a foreign head of state. The guest’s name was Edwin Barclay, and he was president of Liberia. He was also the grandson of Kentucky slaves.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt had already met Barclay earlier in the year, and personally invited him to Washington. FDR had also spoken at the correspondents’ dinner that year, which was held on February 12, 1943, the first time he’d done so since the United States entered World War II.
“It is nearly two years since I attended the last dinner of our White House Correspondents' Association,” the president began that night. “A great deal of water has flowed over the dam since then. And several people have flown over the water.”
He was referring to hundreds of thousands of U.S. pilots and fighting men, and also to their commander-in-chief. Only a month earlier, Roosevelt met Winston Churchill in Casablanca, then traveled to West Africa and on to South America. In a press conference held earlier on the day of the dinner, Roosevelt had discussed his travels jocularly.
“I had the president of Liberia to lunch with me at our camp. I flew back to Gambia in the afternoon,” he related lightheartedly. “I had supper on a cruiser that was in the harbor. I got on a plane at 10:30 p.m. I got to Natal, Brazil, in the morning. … It’s an amazing thing: Wednesday in Liberia, Thursday in Brazil! And I don’t like flying!”
With war raging around the globe, FDR’s words on the progress of the U.S. military were important news. But as the United States and its allies fought regimes in Tokyo and Berlin that were trying to impose a racialized fascism on the rest of the world, one White House correspondent was prescient enough to see the important symbolism in the visit of an African president to a U.S. capital that was, in many important ways, still segregated.
This description included the White House press corps. The man who saw the big picture was a dignified University of Wisconsin journalism school graduate named Harry McAlpin,
“Ol’ man Jim Crow took a terrific licking,” he wrote of Edwin Barclay’s visit. Liberia’s president, McAlpin added, “wrote a page in history by being the first Negro to stay overnight as a guest in the White House.”
Harry McAlpin penned these words for the Chicago Defender, a black weekly. McAlpin knew what he was talking about first-hand: As an African-American himself, he was prevented by the White House correspondents’ association -- if you can imagine such a thing -- from covering presidential press conferences.
Edwin Barclay’s visit, not to mention a world war being fought against racism, underscored the absurdity of the Fourth Estate’s version of apartheid. It jump-started a conversation that black reporters and editors had been having with the political establishment in general and White House officials in particular, and by 1944, Roosevelt and White House press secretary Steve Early insisted that black correspondents be allowed to cover the president’s news conferences.
This sordid chapter in the history of the press corps was rediscovered a couple of years ago by the intrepid George E. Condon Jr., White House correspondent for National Journal.
“This fight was not something I expected to find when I started researching the history of the White House Correspondents’ Association in preparation for writing a book on the group and for commemorating its centennial this year,” George wrote in 2014.
As a former president of the WHCA, George Condon did more than write a story about it. He proposed that the association name a scholarship after Harry McAlpin, tracked down McAlpin’s son Sherman, and invited him to the 2014 dinner.
It was there that the 2014 WHCA president, Steve Thomma, announced the scholarship in McAlpin’s name and introduced Sherman to Barack Obama.
From the podium that night, President Obama repeated the story unearthed by George Condon. The 44th U.S. president also quoted the 32nd president’s words to Harry McAlpin, on the occasion when he was finally ushered into a presidential press conference:
“I’m glad to see you, McAlpin,” said Roosevelt as he flashed his famous smile and stuck out his hand to the correspondent. “And very happy to have you here.”