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.

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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."



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