Nov. 4, 2008, is the date etched in the history books, but the scene I encountered the next morning is what I’ll remember forever.
At the time, I was Metro Editor of The Washington Post, overseeing local coverage as the United States elected its first black president. A day at work that began before noon on Nov. 4 didn’t end until 2:30 a.m. on the 5th, and I was too hyper from adrenaline and coffee to get more than a couple hours of sleep. After a quick shower, I began the mile walk from my house back to the newsroom to help with “second-day coverage,” an antiquated term in the age of 24/7 news.
Before leaving home, I weighted down my pockets with quarters and dimes, intent on buying a dozen or more souvenir copies of The Post. “Obama Makes History” was our simple, and elegant, banner headline. But block after block, I found only empty -- sold-out! -- newspaper boxes, a wondrous sight to a journalist tired of hearing about the so-called death of print. Then I got to the corner of 15th and M streets N.W., where a stream of people were joining a line that, I’d soon find out, began in the The Post’s lobby. The line stretched nearly a city block.
As I walked closer, I studied the faces. Many were well into middle age; some appeared to be in their seventies and eighties. They were African-American, more often than not, and several had streaks of tears on their cheeks. They didn’t have to say anything to explain why they coveted copies of the morning paper. This was the day they never expected to live long enough to see.
Reading the consistently thought-provoking Allvoices columns that Herbert Dyer Jr. wrote in the months prior to -- and weeks after -- the 2012 presidential election made me reflect on those faces in that line. They represent a generation of Americans who, even with President Obama preparing for a second term, still wonder if their voices are heard often enough and clearly enough by the people atop the nation’s political, financial and media institutions. At the same time, they’ve lived long enough to see how much the country has changed in 60 or 70 years.
“Among black people today on Nov. 6, 2012, the same deep and yearned-for release from bondage is what most of us are feeling,” Dyer wrote last month in his Election Day Allvoices column. “The re-election of President Obama will be an ‘affirmation,’ a ‘confirmation,’ a ‘signing of the paper’ for us. His election as the ‘first’ was an affirmation of him personally. His re-election will be a confirmation of us as a group, as a people—as Americans.”
A Vietnam War veteran, retired paralegal and freelance writer based in Chicago, Dyer possesses a writing voice that isn’t “professional” enough, perhaps, to pry its way into The Washington Post with any kind of regularity. (As a Post alumnus – I left the staff in September 2010 to teach journalism at Stanford University – I take pride in having worked for a paper featuring Eugene Robinson, Colbert King and the late William Raspberry on the Op-Ed pages.) But Dyer’s voice is genuine, it’s heartfelt, and it’s infused with perspective about what musicianrefers to as the distance between the American Dream and American reality.
My favorite Dyer column for Allvoices was published on July 6, 2012, headlined “My dinner date with George Romney.” The column recalls a 1966 encounter between a 17-year-old Herbert Dyer Jr. and the then-governor of Michigan. After detailing a heartwarming scene that made me want to learn more about George Romney, Dyer wrote, “His last words to me were, ‘You know, Herb, I have a son about your age.’ He had one of his aides give me a card and then invited me to come see him in Lansing whenever I was in Michigan. ‘Maybe you could talk some sense into him.’”
The column concluded, “President Nixon appointed him as Housing and Urban Development Secretary, but (George) Romney quit in frustration after the first term over Nixon's lack of support for some of his too ‘liberal’ ideas about ending housing discrimination against ‘negroes’ and other ‘civil rights’ matters. … Does anybody believe, think, imagine that today son Mitt has the guts, the nerve, or the heart to show such courage of belief and conviction to principle? He certainly has the DNA for it.”
That piece, along with many other contributions to Allvoices, makes Herbert Dyer Jr. my selection as Grand Prize winner of the website’s “American Pundit” competition.
Grand Prize: Herbert Dyer Jr.
Runner Up: Maryann Tobin
Honorable Mention: Rob Lafferty
R.B. Brenner is a lecturer in the graduate journalism program at Stanford University.