Never in My Wildest Dreams 9781936227068

A Black Woman's Life in Journalism

| 272 pages

Never in My Wildest Dreams
What was it like to be the first black female television journalist in the western USA?
  • The inspiring autobiography of an American pioneer
  • Features vivid stories of Davis's encounters with famous people and historic events
  • Honest, revealing, at times humorous, at times harrowing-a deeply important document of our times.

As the first black female television journalist in the western United States, Belva Davis overcame racism and sexism and helped change the face and focus of television news. She shares the story of her extraordinary life in her poignantly honest memoir.


Davis is no stranger to adversity. Born to a fifteen-year-old Louisiana laundress during the Great Depression and raised in the overcrowded projects of Oakland, California, Davis suffered abuse, battled rejection, and persevered to achieve a career beyond her imagination. She has seen the world change in ways she never could have envisioned, from being verbally and physically attacked while reporting on the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco to witnessing the historic election of Barack Obama in 2008.


Davis reported many of the most explosive stories of modern times, including the Vietnam War protests, the Black Panthers, the Peoples Temple cult mass suicides at Jonestown, the assassinations of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the onset of the AIDS epidemic-and from Africa, the aftermath of the terrorist attacks that first put Osama bin Laden on the FBI's Most Wanted List. She encountered a cavalcade of cultural icons: Malcolm X, Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Nancy Reagan, Huey Newton, Muhammad Ali,
Alex Haley, Fidel Castro, Dianne Feinstein, Condoleezza Rice, and others.


Belva Davis soldiered in the trenches in the battle for racial equality and brought stories of black Americans out of the shadows and into the light of day. Now in her seventies, the "Walter Cronkite of the Bay Area" hosts a weekly news roundtable and special reports at KQED, one of the nation's leading PBS stations.

Click here for the press release

  • The inspiring autobiography of an American pioneer
  • Features vivid stories of Davis's encounters with famous people and historic events
  • Honest, revealing, at times humorous, at times harrowinga deeply important document of our times.

As the first black female television journalist in the western United States, Belva Davis overcame racism and sexism and helped change the face and focus of television news. She shares the story of her extraordinary life in her poignantly honest memoir.


Davis is no stranger to adversity. Born to a fifteen-year-old Louisiana laundress during the Great Depression and raised in the overcrowded projects of Oakland, California, Davis suffered abuse, battled rejection, and persevered to achieve a career beyond her imagination. She has seen the world change in ways she never could have envisioned, from being verbally and physically attacked while reporting on the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco to witnessing the historic election of Barack Obama in 2008.


Davis reported many of the most explosive stories of modern times, including the Vietnam War protests, the Black Panthers, the Peoples Temple cult mass suicides at Jonestown, the assassinations of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the onset of the AIDS epidemicand from Africa, the aftermath of the terrorist attacks that first put Osama bin Laden on the FBIs Most Wanted List. She encountered a cavalcade of cultural icons: Malcolm X, Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Nancy Reagan, Huey Newton, Muhammad Ali,
Alex Haley, Fidel Castro, Dianne Feinstein, Condoleezza Rice, and others.


Belva Davis soldiered in the trenches in the battle for racial equality and brought stories of black Americans out of the shadows and into the light of day. Now in her seventies, the Walter Cronkite of the Bay Area hosts a weekly news roundtable and special reports at KQED, one of the nations leading PBS stations.

 

Click here for the press release

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Overview

What was it like to be the first black female television journalist in the western USA?

  • The inspiring autobiography of an American pioneer
  • Features vivid stories of Davis's encounters with famous people and historic events
  • Honest, revealing, at times humorous, at times harrowing-a deeply important document of our times.

As the first black female television journalist in the western United States, Belva Davis overcame racism and sexism and helped change the face and focus of television news. She shares the story of her extraordinary life in her poignantly honest memoir.


Davis is no stranger to adversity. Born to a fifteen-year-old Louisiana laundress during the Great Depression and raised in the overcrowded projects of Oakland, California, Davis suffered abuse, battled rejection, and persevered to achieve a career beyond her imagination. She has seen the world change in ways she never could have envisioned, from being verbally and physically attacked while reporting on the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco to witnessing the historic election of Barack Obama in 2008.


Davis reported many of the most explosive stories of modern times, including the Vietnam War protests, the Black Panthers, the Peoples Temple cult mass suicides at Jonestown, the assassinations of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the onset of the AIDS epidemic-and from Africa, the aftermath of the terrorist attacks that first put Osama bin Laden on the FBI's Most Wanted List. She encountered a cavalcade of cultural icons: Malcolm X, Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Nancy Reagan, Huey Newton, Muhammad Ali,
Alex Haley, Fidel Castro, Dianne Feinstein, Condoleezza Rice, and others.


Belva Davis soldiered in the trenches in the battle for racial equality and brought stories of black Americans out of the shadows and into the light of day. Now in her seventies, the "Walter Cronkite of the Bay Area" hosts a weekly news roundtable and special reports at KQED, one of the nation's leading PBS stations.

Click here for the press release

  • The inspiring autobiography of an American pioneer
  • Features vivid stories of Davis's encounters with famous people and historic events
  • Honest, revealing, at times humorous, at times harrowinga deeply important document of our times.

As the first black female television journalist in the western United States, Belva Davis overcame racism and sexism and helped change the face and focus of television news. She shares the story of her extraordinary life in her poignantly honest memoir.


Davis is no stranger to adversity. Born to a fifteen-year-old Louisiana laundress during the Great Depression and raised in the overcrowded projects of Oakland, California, Davis suffered abuse, battled rejection, and persevered to achieve a career beyond her imagination. She has seen the world change in ways she never could have envisioned, from being verbally and physically attacked while reporting on the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco to witnessing the historic election of Barack Obama in 2008.


Davis reported many of the most explosive stories of modern times, including the Vietnam War protests, the Black Panthers, the Peoples Temple cult mass suicides at Jonestown, the assassinations of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the onset of the AIDS epidemicand from Africa, the aftermath of the terrorist attacks that first put Osama bin Laden on the FBIs Most Wanted List. She encountered a cavalcade of cultural icons: Malcolm X, Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Nancy Reagan, Huey Newton, Muhammad Ali,
Alex Haley, Fidel Castro, Dianne Feinstein, Condoleezza Rice, and others.


Belva Davis soldiered in the trenches in the battle for racial equality and brought stories of black Americans out of the shadows and into the light of day. Now in her seventies, the Walter Cronkite of the Bay Area hosts a weekly news roundtable and special reports at KQED, one of the nations leading PBS stations.

 

Click here for the press release

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Meet the Authors


Visit Author Page - Belva Davis


As the first black female television journalist in the western United States, Belva Davis overcame the obstacles of racism and sexism, and helped change the face and focus of television news.

A reporter for almost five decades, Davis is no stranger to adversity. Born to a fifteen-year-old Louisiana laundress during the Great Depression, and raised in the overcrowded projects of Oakland, California, Davis suffered abuse, battled rejection, and persevered to achieve a career beyond her imagination.

Visit Author Page - Vicki Haddock


Vicki Haddock worked closely with Belva Davis to organize nearly a half-century of a life filled with historic moments, a job she was well suited to handle. Haddock spent three decades in Bay Area journalism, working as a reporter, editor, and occasional columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner, and before that, as a political editor and writer at the Oakland Tribune. Her freelance work has appeared in magazines and newspapers throughout the United States, as well as in Canada, Africa, and Europe.

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Foreword by Bill Cosby


Chapter 1: "" What the Hell Are You Niggers Doing in Here?""

Chapter 2:Up from Troubled Waters


Chpater 3: Truth Isn't What You Want to See


Chapter 4: Strained Mercies


Chapter 5: In the Driver's Seat


Chpater 6: Vapors and Black Ink


Chapter 7: Lucky 13


Chapter 8: Lend Me a Tiara


Chapter 9: Dreams Deferred


Chapter 10:
New Station in Life


Chapter 11: His-and-Hers Gas Masks


Chapter 12:
Ringside at the Racial Revolution


Chapter 13: Freeze Frames


Chapter 14:
A Woman's Touch


Chapter 15:
When Work Hits Home


Chapter 16:
White Night and Dark Days


Chapter 17:
Diversified Interests


Chapter 18:
Going Global


Chapter 19: Special Reports


Chapter 20:
Never in My Wildest . . .


Gratitudes


Acknowledgments


Index


About the Authors

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Never In My Wildest Dreams: A Black Woman’s Life in Journalism

one

• • •

“What the Hell Are You Niggers Doing in Here?”

I could feel the hostility rising like steam off a cauldron of vitriol: floor delegates and gallery spectators at the Republican National Convention were erupting in catcalls aimed at the press. South of San Francisco, people were sweltering inside the cavernous Cow Palace, which typically hosted rodeos. In July of 1964 it offered ringside seats for the breech birth of a right-wing revolution.

My radio news director, Louis Freeman, and I lacked credentials for the press box—actually we knew that some whites at this convention would find our mere presence offensive. Although Louis was brilliant and had a deep baritone voice and a journalism degree, his first boss had warned Louis he might never become a radio reporter because Negro lips were “too thick to pronounce polysyllabic words.” But Louis, whose enunciation was flawless, eventually landed an on-the-hour news slot on KDIA-AM, the Bay Area’s premier soul-gospel-jazz station; and he was determined to cover the convention. It was said that the national press was flocking to the GOP confab to “report Armageddon.” Louis wanted to be at the crux of the story, relaying to our black listeners all the news that white reporters might deem insignificant. I was the station’s intrepid ad traffic manager, a thirtyone-year-old divorced mother of two, who had no journalism training. No question Louis would have preferred a more formidable companion: I’m delicately boned and stand merely five foot one in stockings. But I was an eager volunteer. More to the point, I was his only volunteer. And I was, in his words, “a moxie little thing.” He had finagled two spectator passes from one of the black delegates—they made up less than 1 percent of convention participants. So there we were, perched in the shadows under the rafters,scribbling notes and recording speeches, mistakenly presuming we had found the safest spot to be.

Day One of the convention had been tense but orderly. GOP organizers had strictly instructed delegates to be on their best behavior for the television cameras, and they had complied.

Day Two would be different. Day Two was starting to spin out of control.

Indeed, the “Party of Lincoln” was ripping apart before our eyes. Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, a flinty firebrand whose ruggedly chiseled face would have rested easy on Mount Rushmore, had tapped into a mother lode of voter anxiety about Communism, crime, and especially civil rights. His followers came prepared to jettison the party’s moderate wing, and they were spurred on by Goldwater’s fantasy of sawing off the Eastern Seaboard to let it float out to sea. The press noted that he could win the nomination by coalescing the right and attracting fringe groups such as the John Birch Society and the Ku Klux Klan, and reporters were openly questioning whether the party was on the verge of being taken over by extremists.

So when former president Dwight D. Eisenhower stepped into the spotlight at the podium, I leaned forward intently, hoping the avuncular Ike would provide a soothing balm of rationality.

Indeed his speechwriters had crafted a temperate address that gave nods to free enterprise, a denunciation of violent radicals on the left or right, and even benign praise about America’s progress on civil rights. But Eisenhower had personally and uncharacteristically inserted a couple of poison-tipped arrows into his script, and he let the first fly straight at the press: “Let us particularly scorn the divisive efforts of those outside our family—including sensation-seeking columnists and commentators—because my friends I assure you, these are people who couldn’t care less about the good of our party.”

The Cow Palace erupted in jeers, boos, and catcalls. Fists shot up in the air and shook angrily in the direction of the press box and broadcast anchor booths. The convention’s contempt for even the most respected reporters of the day was palpable—when professorial John Chancellor of NBC News refused to surrender his floor spot to the dancing “Goldwater Girls,” security guards brusquely carted him out, prompting him to wryly sign off with “This is John Chancellor, somewhere in custody.”

Eisenhower, meanwhile, wasn’t finished. “Let us not be guilty of maud lin sympathy,” he bellowed, “for the criminal who, roaming the streets with the switchblade knife and illegal firearm, seeking a helpless prey, suddenly becomes, upon apprehension, a poor, underprivileged person who counts upon the compassion of our society and the laxness or weakness of too many courts to forgive his offense.” Without actually uttering the word Negroes, the former president spoke in a code that needed no translation for those white Americans who regarded black people as an encroaching threat. Eisenhower, whether he realized it or not, seemed to be granting permission to the whites’ prejudice and hatred. I suspect he was unprepared for the deafening applause, cheers, shouts, and honked Klaxons that ensued.

Louis and I warily locked eyes, neither of us willing to outwardly betray a hint of alarm. Next on the agenda were controversial platform amendments on civil rights. We had a job to do.

The satirist H. L. Mencken once observed that a national political convention often is as fascinating as a revival, or a hanging: “One sits through long sessions wishing heartily that all the delegates and alternates were dead and in hell—and then suddenly there comes a show so gaudy and hilarious, so melodramatic and obscene, so unimaginably exhilarating and preposterous, that one lives a gorgeous year in an hour.”

Mencken, of course, had the luxury of being white. We did not. For Louis and me, the next hour would indeed feel like a year, but a grotesque one.

First, the entire Republican platform was read aloud—a tedious ploy to delay any ugly debate over amendments until the prime time viewing hour would be past. At 10 p.m. the first amendment was offered, condemning radical zealots such as the KKK and the Birchers. Liberal establishment icon New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, whom Goldwater had defeated for the nomination, rose to speak in the amendment’s favor. “These extremists feed on fear, hate and terror,” he said, as a cacophony of boos began to rise from the crowd. “They encourage disunity. These are people who have nothing in common with Americanism. The Republican Party must repudiate these people!” Enraged at him, the Goldwater crowd interrupted Rockefeller twenty-two times in five minutes, drowning him out with shrieks, noisemakers, a bass drum, and the rebuking cry, “We want Barry! We want Barry!”

While the Goldwater organization tried to keep its delegates in check on the floor of the Cow Palace, snarling Goldwater fans in the galleries around us were off the leash. The mood turned unmistakably menacing. Even eminent campaign historian Theodore White abandoned the arena for the relative sanity of the trailers outside; he would later write that although no one in the Goldwater organization and few on the delegate floor remotely qualified as kooks, “the kooks dominated the galleries, hating and screaming and reveling in their own frenzy.”

Suddenly Louis and I heard a voice yell, “Hey, look at those two up there!” The accuser pointed us out, and several spectators swarmed beneath us. “Hey niggers!” they yelled. “What the hell are you niggers doing in here?”

I could feel the hair rising on the back of my neck as I looked into faces turned scarlet and sweaty by heat and hostility. Louis, in suit and tie and perpetually dignified, turned to me and said with all the nonchalance he could muster, “Well, I think that’s enough for today.” Methodically we began wrapping up the cords to our bulky tape recorder and packing it and the rest of our equipment into suitcases. As we began our descent down the ramps of the Cow Palace, a self-appointed posse dangled over the railings, taunting. “Niggers!” “Get out of here, boy!” “You too, nigger bitch.” “Go on, get out!” “I’m gonna kill your ass.”

I stared straight ahead, putting one foot in front of the other like a soldier who would not be deterred from a mission. The throng began tossing garbage at us: wadded up convention programs, mustard-soaked hotdogs, half-eaten Snickers bars. My goal was to appear deceptively serene, mastering the mask of dispassion I had perfected since childhood to steel myself against any insults the outside world hurled my way. Then a glass soda bottle whizzed within inches of my skull. I heard it whack against the concrete and shatter. I didn’t look back, but I glanced sideways at Louis and felt my lower lip begin to quiver. He was determined we would give our tormentors no satisfaction.

“If you start to cry,” he muttered, “I’ll break your leg.”

It took an eternity for us to wend our way through the gauntlet, from the nosebleed rows of the arena down to the sea of well-coiffed whites on the ground floor. Security guards popped into my peripheral vision, but I knew better than to expect them to rescue us—that wasn’t a realistic expectation for any African American in 1964. Louis and I pushed through the exit doors and into the darkness of the parking lot, dreading that our antagonists might trail us. When at last we made it to our car, we clambered inside, locked the doors—and exhaled.

Later I would learn that the smattering of other blacks inside the Cow Palace suffered their own indignities. San Francisco dentist Henry Lucas was ejected twice from his seat. Oakland real estate entrepreneur Charles J. Patterson, then vice president of the Alameda County Republican Central Committee, was denied his rightful place at a luncheon and discovered that none of the white Republicans there would even meet his gaze. “There was no one to complain to,” he would say. “The major press seemed scared of the Goldwater people.” The Tennessee delegation cited race as its reason for refusing to grant a vote to its sole black delegate. And another black delegate walked out with holes singed in his best suit after a bigot sloshed him with acid.

Jackie Robinson, who had attended as a special delegate for Rockefeller, almost came to blows with a white delegate—whose wife held him back to stop him from attacking the baseball legend. “Turn him loose, lady, turn him loose,” Robinson shouted, ready for retaliation himself. The next night, Goldwater would accept the GOP nomination and proclaim his signature line: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Although ample evidence exists to show that Goldwater personally was not racist, he had allied himself with those who were. And he would go down to defeat in a landslide, carrying only six states: aside from his home state of Arizona, all were in the Deep South. His campaign, however, set in motion an electoral realignment because a huge number of Southern whites abandoned the Democratic Party for the GOP. His campaign also laid the foundation on which actor Ronald Reagan, having charmed the 1964 convention with a passionate speech on Goldwater’s behalf, constructed a conservative “Reagan Era” that would dominate the 1980s and beyond. As for Jackie Robinson, he would always recall the GOP Convention of 1964 as one of the most unforgettable and frightening experiences of his life. “A new breed of Republican had taken over the GOP,” he wrote. “As I watched this steamroller operation in San Francisco, I had a better understanding of how it must have felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.”

That night, as Louis and I drove back to our station—our hearts still thumping and our ears ringing with echoes of the pandemonium—I was lost in thought. I contemplated the loss of President John F. Kennedy, who had been the first real hope for black people until he was cut down by an assassin’s bullet. I recalled how only two weeks before, President Lyndon B. Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act to prohibit racial discrimination. I thought about James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, three idealistic civil rights workers who vanished in Mississippi that summer; their murdered bodies would later be found buried in an earthen dam. And I thought about how much easier it was to change federal policy than it would be to change the hearts and minds of America.

All too many white Americans refused to believe the harsh truth about race relations in their own country. Too many turned a blind eye to the prejudices great and small that polluted the air African Americans had to breathe every day. Hatred was a powerful force. But I wondered: could it ultimately withstand the power of the press? Journalists were beginning to bring the stories of black Americans out of the shadows of the rafters and the alleys and the backwoods, out of the sharecropper plots and the inner-city ghettos, and into the light of day. They were reporting on the cross burnings and water hosings, the beatings and lynchings, in vivid details that the public could no longer ignore.

I wanted to be one of them. I wanted to broadcast the reality of my community to those who could not otherwise imagine it, to fill in that missing perspective. I wanted to do work that mattered. I wanted to tell stories that changed the world. And if it was then inconceivable for a petite, soft-spoken black woman to ever become a journalist—much less an Emmy-winning television reporter and anchor—well, chalk that up as just one more thing in the world that was about to change.

Fast forward almost a half century, to November 2008—another pivotal presidential contest. Again, the Republicans have nominated a senator from Arizona. Again, the GOP convention has featured jeering demonstrations in support of “real Americans” and against urbanites and “media elites.” This time it’s the Democrats who have nominated a candidate once known as Barry, although he now prefers his real name, Barack.

Don’t ever let anyone tell you history doesn’t have a sense of humor. Against all odds, the Democrats nominated Barack Hussein Obama, a Harvard-trained former community organizer and law professor, and the freshman U.S. senator for Illinois. His mother was white and from Kansas; his father was black and from Kenya. Obama became the Democratic Party standard-bearer by defeating its presumptive nominee, former first lady turned New York senator Hillary Clinton. Further proof of history’s twisted wit: in high school she was one of the costumed “Goldwater Girls,” from the tip of her cowboy boots to the top of her straw hat, emblazoned with the chemistry pun “AuH20”—Au for gold, H20 for water.

As for me, I’m in another car driving through the night, lost in thought. The world has changed in ways I never could have envisioned. I have been a reporter for almost five decades and fortunate to report on many of the major stories of my lifetime. I’ve talked with five presidents. I even interviewed Goldwater in his later years, when he had grown repulsed by religious fundamentalists seizing the reigns of the right away from more libertarian conservatives like him. I’ve been awarded eight local Emmys and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. In my seventies, I continue to host a weekly news roundtable and special reports on KQED-TV, one of the nation’s leading PBS stations. My children are grown and launched into the world; and I’ve been happily married for more than four decades to Bill Moore, one of the country’s first African American television news cameramen.

Bill and I arrive at Harris’s steakhouse in San Francisco, where an election-night dinner party is underway, hosted by our close friend and California’s senior U.S. senator, Dianne Feinstein. We’ve talked about whether the nation could possibly elect its first black president. I don’t allow myself to think it will really happen.

We mingle and finally sit down to dinner and try to follow state-by-state returns, although television reception is poor. From time to time, Dianne rises, regally clinks her knife against a glass to catch our attention, and announces the latest development. Prospects appear promising for Obama, but I refuse to let myself celebrate before CNN projects him the winner.

Even when the projection is made it is unbelievable. The sound is muffled—should we check another channel?

But no one else is hesitating. Nearly a hundred guests applaud, and more than a few jump up and down and whoop for joy. As I look around, I realize that fewer than a handful of those present are black. A lump swells in my throat, and I lean toward Bill to tell him I feel an irrepressible urge to speak publicly. He looks puzzled for a moment.

“Go on then,” he encourages with a nod.

So I turn to Dianne at the next table and explain. Again she clinks her glass: “Everyone please be quiet—Belva’s got something to say.”

The words do not flow as much as spill out, while a movie starts to unreel itself in my mind, revealing all the highlights of my life. I tell them about my father and his big dreams. I tell them how my father was denied the right to vote; my uncle was threatened with tar and feathering; and the men of my family were ridden out of Louisiana on a rail. I tell them about my mother, the silent sufferer all her life—working in laundries, cleaning Southern Pacific trains, polishing silver for tables in a dining car where she could never dine. I talk about people, such as Louis, who had borne so much with dignity.

Not that long before, I was asked to leave news conferences because no one believed I was a real reporter; and Bill was prevented from crossing police lines to get his camera shots because no one believed he was a real news photographer. We had been among the first of our race granted television jobs in the United States.

Now, as I squeeze Bill’s hand tightly and wipe away tears, I speak about the promise of America that we clung to all these many years, and how on this night that promise feels fulfilled. I want these prominent people to know that we are all witnessing a miracle—not only in politics, but in the lives of people such as me.

For several seconds after I finish, no one in the room makes a sound. Then applause begins slowly and builds. Some people are wiping away tears. Others move to embrace me or Bill or anyone else nearby. Then the real party begins.

A tall, young black man has been handing Dianne notes about the vote count all evening. I don’t know Christopher Thompson, who is her D.C. chief of staff, until he introduces himself to me and requests a word in private. I follow him to a quiet corner in the hallway. As soon as we face each other, he asks, “Can I give you a big hug? I just have to touch another black person tonight!” And we throw our arms around one another in a moment as tender as it is profound.

Deep down, I suspect that this glorious glow will fade into a more complex reality. Every progressive step in America seems to evoke its own backlash. In the same way that Brown v. Board of Education and passage of the Civil Rights Act helped spawn the reactionary rhetoric of the Goldwaterites, so too will Obama’s election trigger angry Tea Party movement protesters branding him “un-American” and clamoring to take their country “back.”

Yet I choose to remain hopeful. Over the years I’ve followed my mantra—a note I wrote to myself years ago. Its message applies to the fate of Belvagene Melton Davis Moore from hardscrabble Louisiana, and to the Obamas and Oprahs and Christophers of the world, and to all who follow the arc of history as it bends toward justice. It begins like this: “Don’t be afraid of the space between your dreams and reality...”

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"No people can say they understand the times in which they have lived unless they have read this book."

-- Dr. Maya Angelou

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