December 06, 2011 News & Features » Cover Story


Ray's Light 

Half a century later, the editor and publisher of the Richmond Free Press still searches for justice.

click to enlarge Ray Boone, in the Richmond Free Press offices at Fifth and Franklin streets, has a podium in a back office for angry readers to vent. "Initially, we would have people come into the lobby and scream," he says. "And I would say, 'A little louder!'" - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Ray Boone, in the Richmond Free Press offices at Fifth and Franklin streets, has a podium in a back office for angry readers to vent. "Initially, we would have people come into the lobby and scream," he says. "And I would say, 'A little louder!'"

Just beyond Ray Boone's living room window, a police officer ventures into the front yard at the urging of a handful of 20-something protesters. After a week of virtual absurdity, neighborhood meetings and around-the-clock consternation from Mayor Dwight Jones and his lieutenants at City Hall, Ray Boone breaks into a wide grin. It would be easy to dismiss his invitation to the Occupy Richmond movement to set up camp on his front lawn as a publicity stunt or a personal grudge against Jones, who lives next door. Boone is a complicated man, prone to outrageous declarations of injustice, after all.

But he's also a teacher.

More than a few eyes will roll when Boone elevates punkish, college-aged hipsters with civil rights lions. He ascribes to the protesters, who are mostly white and at least two generations removed from desegregation, a role as modern-day patriarchs, the heroes and heroines, following in the same footsteps of Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln and Thurgood Marshall.

Boone was there during Massive Resistance, through the 1960s, as editor of the Richmond Afro-American, fighting against the wide reach of the Byrd machine, which dominated state politics under then-U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr.

He also was there in the 1960s, shopping at the Miller & Rhoads downtown on Christmas Eve, where he seemed to always run into Gov. Mills Godwin. Gawking customers saw one of the most powerful white men in the state conversing politely with the black, bulldog editor of the Afro.

"Both of us would be looking for Christmas presents for our wives," recalls Boone, 73. "So [Godwin] would be there with two state troopers. The first year they didn't know what the hell was going on. So the governor and I would have a conversation, about 15 minutes — you know, talking about things. And then the second year, the same place almost, on the first floor of Miller & Rhoads, the same cops, the same officers saw me and saw the governor approaching each other. They said, 'Oh God, a delay.' You know, it's Christmas Eve."

They talked for a few minutes, and then Boone, cordially and politely, did what he was always wont to do — ask the tough question. "I said: 'I've got to ask you a question I've been wanting to ask you forever. How in the world can you live with yourself being a segregationist, and being part of the Byrd machine?'

"He said, 'I've thought about that and I came to the conclusion that if I were not the governor someone worse would be governor.'

"I said, 'Gosh, I just don't know how you can rationalize that knowing that it's wrong.'"

click to enlarge Ray Boone and his wife, Jean, give a news conference welcoming Occupy Richmond protesters to their front yard Nov. 15. The city recently cited the encampment as a zoning violation, but Boone plans to fight the citation. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Ray Boone and his wife, Jean, give a news conference welcoming Occupy Richmond protesters to their front yard Nov. 15. The city recently cited the encampment as a zoning violation, but Boone plans to fight the citation.

If anyone knows Richmond's dark history, the political disenfranchisement, the resistance to desegregation, it would be Boone. He got his start as a sports writer for the Suffolk News-Herald in the mid-'50s, writing for what were then known as the colored pages of the newspaper. His journalistic career continued through his college days at Norfolk State College and then Boston University. He landed a job with the Afro-American in 1964, where he covered the White House during the Lyndon Johnson administration. His reputation as a dogged reporter, who unflinchingly asked tough questions, led him to the Richmond Afro-American in 1965.

"The circulation was sinking and the paper was gasping for breath," Boone recalls of the Richmond paper. Carl Murphy, then publisher of the Afro-American newspaper chain, sent Boone to Richmond as editor to right the sinking ship.

Garrett Epps, a law professor at the University of Baltimore who specializes in constitutional and civil rights law, regards Boone as "the best boss I ever had," during his stint as an Afro reporter in the early 1970s. "The very first day he called me" into his office, Epps recalls, and explained the Afro philosophy: "There are three things that sell newspapers: sex, blood and money. We try to have all three on every front page."

Epps, who wrote most of his book, "The Shad Treatment," while working at the Afro, recalls how Boone would remain friends, remarkably, with many of the offending politicians of the day — those who supported segregationist policies. "The interesting thing to me about Ray, in addition to his absolute commitment to the goals of the civil rights movement, he was really good friends with a number of figures you'd think he'd hate," Epps says, such as former Lt. Gov. Fred G. Pollard, who ran "a very hostile, race-baiting campaign" for lieutenant governor in 1965. "He would never conceal from anyone what he thought," Epps says of Boone — "just somehow, he was able to keep the dialogue going."

Boone was more than an editor; he was an advocate, a teacher — even to the highest-ranking politicians in the state. At one point in the 1960s, during Godwin's first term in office, he chastised the governor during a news conference for using the term "niggra," a known slight that white politicians used instead of "negro." Boone stopped Godwin in his tracks.

"I said, 'Governor, you have been to one of our most prestigious universities. You are a Virginia gentleman, and I know you can articulate and enunciate, and I know you can say hero, and you can say zero. If you can say those two words, you can say negro,'" Boone recalls. "Oh my God, they almost fainted. He said, 'I hear you.' He never used niggra again to my knowledge. In my presence he didn't."

Former Congressman Tom Bliley, who served as Richmond mayor from 1970 to 1977, says he often found himself at odds with Boone — but they always managed to be civil, and remain friends to this day.

"Politically, we were not that close. Otherwise we got along fine," Bliley says. "I always thought he was fair, we just disagreed on occasion. ... I think Ray is the kind of person who can kind of disagree with you without being disagreeable."

Boone's relationship with his political adversaries also was a sign of respect. But that doesn't seem to extend to the administration of Richmond Mayor Jones. Despite being neighbors and sharing similar political philosophies regarding social and economic justice, Boone and Jones don't talk regularly. Some say that Jones' lack of communication with Boone has led to a deep rift. Boone has taken on City Hall for its inattention to Richmond's growing poverty rate — it's nearly 25 percent — and the mayor for his awarding of the new jail contract to a company with a spotty record on minority participation, according to Boone.

Some say that Boone's invitation to the occupiers was an attempt to send the mayor a message: Ignore Boone and the Free Press at your own peril.

"How can you talk about regional cooperation when you don't even have neighborly cooperation?" asks Terone Green, former president of the Richmond Crusade for Voters. "You are talking about two guys who were in the civil rights era. They grew up segregated. Yet they can't get along."

The lesson Boone is imparting isn't just about the First Amendment, Green says. It's a political lesson — and a powerful one. "The white community looks at Boone as one of the gatekeepers of the black community. When they see him put his armor down, they see an opportunity," Green says, referring to the mayoral elections coming in 2012. "When they see that Boone isn't with you, then you are vulnerable."

Some, of course, often see Boone's crusades as destructive, and sometimes unnecessarily petty. Boone took on Ukrop's Super Markets in 2006 when Ukrop's outsourced its in-store newspaper distribution. The move meant the Free Press wouldn't be available until Friday, instead of Thursday mornings. Boone took out full page ads and ran scathing editorials in the Free Press, deriding Ukrop's for infringing on the First Amendment. Boone told Style Weekly, in 2006, that Ukrop's was becoming a "whites-only distribution center in terms of newspapers."

While some criticize the Free Press for taking such strong editorial stances, it's not uncommon for black newspapers, which have a history of advocacy journalism. Some can make the same argument about a publisher inviting protesters to their front lawn, then spending the next issue covering the move in their own newspaper.

Where some see petty race baiting instead of advocacy, others see something different.

"Ray Boone is my hero. He has what I like to call testicular fortitude," says King Salim Khalfani, executive director of the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who is also a rabid critic of Jones. Khalfani says Jones should be careful, because Boone is from another era of dogged black journalists. Khalfani was working at the NAACP in the early 1990s when he first ran into Boone's crosshairs.

"My first impression: He was a man after my own heart," Khalfani says. "He was bombastic, no-nonsense, and he would take me to task all the time." In one instance, Boone called for the entire staff of the NAACP to be fired, including Khalfani.

"I can't even remember what I had done to him," Khalfani says, but he quickly got the message: "Ray didn't play."

As for Jones, Boone's recent attacks are a clear warning of what could be on the horizon. Privately, the Jones administration has become increasingly concerned that the rift between Boone and Jones could have serious implications next year, when Jones is expected to run for re-election as Richmond mayor. It's not necessarily that Jones couldn't overcome Boone's wrath, but if Boone supports a black challenger, it could split the majority black vote. And that would leave open the door for a candidate who gains the support of the corporate community, such as Councilman Bruce Tyler or former City Council president and mayoral candidate Bill Pantele, who narrowly lost to Jones in the last election, in 2008.

The Free Press isn't something to be taken for granted. State Sen. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico County, says his campaign did an internal poll of Democrats in 2007, during his primary run against former Sen. Benjamin Lambert. "I was polling a district that stretched from East Richmond all the way down to Charles City," McEachin recalls. "What I found was over 50 percent of the district was reading the Free Press regularly."

McEachin, who hasn't always had Boone's support, says the power of the Free Press and Boone's endorsement isn't something to be taken lightly: "I have lost without his support. I won without his support. I've won with his support. But it is certainly a more pleasant experience when you are enjoying his support."

click to enlarge Boone, who lives in the Brookbury subdivision along Route 10 near the Chesterfield County line, visits with the protesters the Saturday before Thanksgiving. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Boone, who lives in the Brookbury subdivision along Route 10 near the Chesterfield County line, visits with the protesters the Saturday before Thanksgiving.

After a decade editing the Afro in Richmond, Boone was promoted to vice president and editor of all of the Afro-American newspapers, 13 editions, in 1976. He worked at the Afro for another five years, and eventually left after the newspaper company underwent "internal problems" with the Murphy family, Boone says. He taught journalism at Howard University for the next few years, and eventually decided to move back to Richmond and start a new paper, the Richmond Free Press, in 1991. The first issue was printed on Jan. 16, 1992, and extensively covered then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder's exit from the presidential race.

The paper lost money for the first five years. Like many black newspapers, the Free Press struggles to lure lucrative retail advertisers, who often look at the paper's readership — especially its widespread distribution in the lower-income black communities — and go elsewhere. "It's been a major challenge since day one," Boone says. "Our readership is not valued to the level that they should be."

But the paper started making money in the sixth year, and began to flourish. Boone purchased the former Imperial Tobacco headquarters at 422 E. Franklin St. in 2000 and spent nearly $1 million renovating the building. Two years later, Boone and his wife, Jean — who works as the paper's advertising director — received the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods' Golden Hammer award for their work.

While the business enjoyed some success, the Boones reinvested the profits in the business and shared the rest with employees, Boone says: "We have a philosophy: If we have any profits, they are returned to the people who help us make them, and that would be our team members." The Boones invest in equipment — the editorial staff works on up-to-date Apple computers, a rarity in the newspaper business — and up until recently employees received 100-percent health insurance coverage.

Since 2007, at the outset of the recession, the paper has been bleeding, Boone says, but he's managed to make ends meet by cutting staff and reducing expenses. There are just 11 employees now, Boone says, and he often doesn't draw a salary to keep the paper afloat.

"In the context of all newspapers, we're gasping," Boone says, but there's a difference: Black newspapers such as the Free Press are battle-tested. And they have another advantage — they didn't rush to give away their content online, for free, as the rest of the newspaper industry did more than a decade ago. As a result, the paper doesn't bleed advertisers to the Web, and the paper's pickup rate is more than 94 percent. The weekly press run is 36,000, and their audited circulation is about 34,000. The paper has an average-issue readership of 80,780, according to Scarborough Research, a media auditing company.

Those who cut their teeth at the Free Press say they are eternally grateful.

"It was like a Marine boot camp of journalism," recalls Hazel Trice Edney, whom Boone hired as his first reporter in 1991. "He was an incredibly tough editor. He was demanding. It was a high-volume, high-performance atmosphere. He demanded excellence. He wanted reporters who knew the history of black people in America."

Edney, a syndicated columnist who left the Free Press in 1998 and runs her own wire service in Washington, says she regards Boone as her journalistic father. "He liked stories that really feel the evil," she says. "Mr. Boone is like the quintessential modern-day Frederick Douglass — agitate, agitate, agitate."

Boone never told her what she should think, but how to think, she says. Boone gave Edney the freedom to come to her own conclusions. In particular, she recalls differing with Boone about where the Arthur Ashe statue should be located. Boone thought it should be on Broad Street, where it could be an uplifting experience, not on Monument Avenue. "He did not think we belonged among losers," Edney says. "I just believed that the continuum of history on Monument was important, and that no white racist regime on earth should dominate a public thoroughfare."

While he downplays the political significance, Boone's front-yard-turned-free-speech-zone has sent a message to his neighbor, Mayor Dwight Jones: "I think the mayor needs to review the First Amendment." - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • While he downplays the political significance, Boone's front-yard-turned-free-speech-zone has sent a message to his neighbor, Mayor Dwight Jones: "I think the mayor needs to review the First Amendment."

Of course, running a newspaper isn't easy, especially when you're 73. Boone still works long nights and most weekends editing each Thursday edition. He readily admits that he works too much, but retirement isn't in the cards for now. So he trudges on.

On Nov. 15, the day he and his wife welcome the Occupy Richmond encampment to their front lawn, Boone also makes time to deliver a speech to the Richmond Crusade for Voters. A week after November's election, the evening's speakers include Shannon Taylor, the underfunded Henrico Democrat who defeated a Republican and an independent endorsed by U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, to become the commonwealth's attorney of Henrico County. But tonight Boone's message centers on Occupy Richmond, those heroes and heroines of the 21st century.

Comparing the occupiers to the civil rights movement, however, doesn't go over so well with some of those in attendance. The current protest is disorganized and the young people pitching tents "don't have a damn clue," says Roderyck Bullock, a member of the Crusade. Others in the audience catcall in agreement. Boone, forever the agitator, doesn't back down.

"I disagree with you in terms of intelligence," Boone shoots back. "I met with them and I welcomed them to my home today, and I welcome them as long as necessary. You know, we had the same resistance, Dr. King had the same resistance."

"You can't say that," Bullock retorts.

Bullock isn't the only one who questions Boone's motives. Isn't this more about the mayor and Boone's personal agenda? Boone says it isn't, and dismisses any talk of supporting another mayoral candidate in 2012 as "speculation." He reminds that his paper supported Jones for mayor in 2008, after all.

As for the civil rights connotations, Boone refuses to retract. Sitting in his living room a few days later, he reverts to the old teacher as his students frolic in the front yard.

"Massive resistance — you see this was a real black eye to America because people who understand democracy also know that in order to have a democracy, not only do you have to have voter participation, you have to have informed voter participation," Boone says, peering out the window at the tents in his yard, and the police officer moving in. "We're having the same thing happening today with the decline in education, with the concentration of power within the hands of a few."

The police officer bends over and picks up a football, and begins tossing it to a couple of protesters. It's a balmy Saturday afternoon, sunny and in the mid-60s, the week before Thanksgiving. "Isn't that a great scene, compared to the protesters of the past?" Boone posits, taking a moment to survey his classroom.

"I can tell you that this movement today is more serious or as serious," Boone says, again comparing the occupiers to civil rights protesters. It's no longer about racial segregation, Boone says, but economic segregation. Corporate influence dictates political policy today, which is an even greater threat to democracy. The occupy movement is an attempt to take it back, the corporate takeover of American politics.

"This is what makes this different from the abolitionist movement, from the civil rights movement. They have presence beyond picketing and beyond a rally," Boone says. "In other words, they do not go away, which I think is rather creative because that presence reminds people every day about poverty, about the threat to democracy, about the disregard for the First Amendment. This is what I'm saying."

If the Occupy Wall Street movement, and its spinoff protests across the country, have lacked anything, it's a discernible agenda. The protesters have no concrete set of demands, which often leaves the impression that the movement, as Bullock pointed out during the Crusade meeting, is without direction.

"Where I think the occupiers have fallen short is not making their message clear. They are not as specific as they could be," Edney says. "And that's why the strategy of Ray Boone is so important. Because when you match the occupiers' strategy with the message of Ray Boone, it becomes very clear to me: This is about racial justice. This is about economic justice. This is about we the people. That is because I know that is what he stands for."

The tents in the yard are quintessential Boone, Edney says. While City Hall squirms and tries to downplay the mayor's responsibility of denying the occupiers their encampments in city parks, Boone turns the tables, making the debate one of moral responsibility.

"A lot of our public officials don't recognize it. ... The First Amendment allows them great opportunity to stay in power and people not to take the road of violence to express their discontent against them," Boone says. "So, if we were to stop it right now, a tremendous education has been given Richmond."

He stops, and glances out of his living room window. The officer is still tossing the football with what Boone calls his "special guests," who will be here for a while.

"Isn't that a great scene out there?" S



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