ACT-SO was founded in 1978 by journalist Vernon Jarrett. After his passing in 2004, the following article from the Crisis magazine was republished as a tribute to his life and tremendous work.
The headlines and stories are memorable: “Clarence Thomas fails as a role model for blacks” - “Black office holders don’t speak for all” “Sobering realities of David Duke” -- “Operation PUSH has support for Nike Boycott.” These are just a few of the Chicago SunTimes clippings I have kept of Vernon Jarrett’s commentaries over the past 12 years. As I reread them to prepare for my interview with Jarrett, it occurred to me why I have kept them. Jarrett’s commentaries transcend time. He is to journalism what John Coltrane and Theolonius Monk are to jazz. Jarrett also stretches the definition of what it means to be a black journalist. He not only uses his craft to educate and enlighten, but also to keep himself inspired and to motivate his readers into social and political action. Jarrett is recognized as the creator and national chair of the NAACP’s heralded ACT-SO program for youths, and he is highly regarded as one of the founders of the 3,000-member National Association of Black Journalists Inc., the world’s largest organization of ethnic communicators. But that’s not the beginning or end of his activism.
A few examples: Months after Martin Luther King’s marchers were brutalized on Chicago’s southside, Jarrett chose the date March 5, 1968, to have Chicago’s black-owned insurance companies sponsor a great public salute to the martyrdom of Crispus Attacks, the black man who became the first patriot to die at the Boston Massacre of 1770. Jarrett thought white racists and uninformed blacks should know that we had African-American war heroes before many of Chicago’s white racists arrived in this country.
In 1974, Jarrett urged Sigma Pi Phi fraternity to sponsor the annual Percy L. Julian Science Awards luncheon for young black science students who had exhibitions at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. Later the fraternity made the luncheon a major project at its national conventions. To encourage respect for reading, in 1998 Jarrett conceived and designed a joint self-education program for children and their parents called “The Freedom Readers,” a spin-off from the old “Freedom Riders.” The new slogan became, “You can’t ride to anywhere if you can’t read.” Ever conscious of black history, the program was launched on Sept. 3, the 160th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’ escape from slavery with two books in his bag. Jarrett, a senior fellow at the Great Cities Institute of the University of Illinois at Chicago, is also curator of oral history for the Rosa Parks Pathways to Freedom Program for Youths. During the spring and summer, he practically commutes as a volunteer from Chicago to Mrs. Parks’ office in Detroit, from which her program takes youths along historic underground railroad routes into Canada.
When I showed Jarrett some of the clips of his old columns, he confessed not to remember some of them. But, how could I expect him to recall a few commentaries from more than 4,000 columns written since 1970, a period divided between the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago SunTimes? All that, not to mention other stories dating back to the late 1940s when he was at the Chicago Defender and the defunct Associated Negro Press. Jarrett now writes for The New York Times’New American News Syndicate, and he still is considered one of the nation’s great columnists. Any doubt about his mass appeal is erased when one watches the way people affectionately greet him on the streets of Chicago and at public functions. While Jarrett had a big parting of the ways with Chicago’s local ABC-owned television station, where he had worked for 30 consecutive years, he has not been absent from national TV. He has appeared on programs produced for the Public Broadcasting System and the British Broadcasting Corp. He also has appeared on virtually all the network news shows. Jarrett is a former visiting professor of history at Northwestern University and a former lecturing professor at Roosevelt University and the City Colleges of Chicago. During the 1970s, he served two years on the panel of jurors which chooses Pulitzer Prize winners. In October, 1999, he was inducted into the National Literary Hall of Fame at the Gwendolyn Brooks Center at Chicago State University. What is the inspirational source of Jarrett’s passionate activism on behalf of youth? He answers quickly.
“My understanding of African-American defunct Associated Negro Press. Jarrett now writes for The New York Times’ New American News Syndicate, and he still is considered one of the nation’s great columnists. Any doubt about his mass appeal is erased when one watches the way people affectionately greet him on the streets of Chicago and at public functions. While Jarrett had a big parting of the ways with Chicago’s local ABC-owned television station, where he had worked for 30 consecutive years, he
has not been absent from national TV. He has appeared on programs produced for the Public Broadcasting System and the British Broadcasting Corp. He also has appeared on virtually all the network news shows. Jarrett is a former visiting professor of history at Northwestern University and a former lecturing professor at Roosevelt University and the City Colleges of Chicago. During the 1970s, he served two years on the panel of jurors which chooses Pulitzer Prize winners. In October, 1999, he was inducted into the National Literary Hall of Fame at the Gwendolyn Brooks Center at Chicago State University. What is the inspirational source of Jarrett’s passionate activism on behalf of youth? He answers quickly.
“My understanding of African-American history is based largely upon many interviews over many years with great black leaders and unsung school teachers,” he says. Over 50 years, he has heard numerous great black orators. So don’t tell him that blacks can’t master the English language. Jarrett recalls the speeches or talks he had with such people as Mary McCleod Bethune, Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, A. Phillip Randolph, Paul Robeson, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, Roy Wilkins and Dr. Percy L. Julian and much alive historian Dr. John Hope Franklin.
Of course, there were his own educator parents, William Robert and Annie Sybil Jarrett, the children of ex-slaves who spent an aggregate 95 years teaching in small town classrooms. And there was his older brother, Dr. Thomas D. Jarrett, retired president of Atlanta University and a former visiting professor of literature at Oxford University. “What did all of them have, along with their special longevity genes?” Jarrett asks. “They had a black community spirit behind them. Every one of them.” And that community, though generally low in formal schooling, maintained an enormous respect for education.
With many adults positively influencing Jarrett’s own early childhood in Paris, Tenn., he garnered enough to envision ACT-SO, which was first introduced in 1976 when he was chairman of the board of Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History. At the museum’s suggestion, ACT-SO was given to the NAACP in 1977. Jarrett, then a Chicago Tribune columnist, said it is urgent that the academic achievement of black youths be praised “the same as we salute athletic achievers.” With eager support from Dr. Ben Hooks, new NAACP executive director, ACT-SO spread Jarrett’s slogan: “A scholar has a right to be a hero.”
ACT-SO is the acronym for Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics. Active in nearly 400 cities, it is the largest academic promotion for black youths in America.
Jarrett is convinced that blacks must “present our own role models to black children, rather than permit others to do it for us.” He cited his own first grade teacher, Mrs. Jenny Booker of Trenton, Tennessee, who every Friday afternoon had her students stand and portray figures in black history to counter the racial slander in the newspapers, radio and movies. So one day little Vernon Jarrett, age six, was appointed to be Robert S. Abbott, a totally foreign name to him: “Mrs. Booker informed me that he was the publisher of the Chicago Defender that my parents read.” Abbott died before Jarrett arrived in Chicago, but Jarrett’s employment at the Chicago Defender was his first professional job. Interestingly, Jarrett hastily grasped his first writing experience as editor of black Knoxville College’s campus newspaper, the Aurora. “Imagine me writing for the Defender, where my name occasionally appeared near W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes.” While at the Defender, Jarrett once spent a social evening with the great scholar W.E.B. Du Bois.
His final thrust in creating ACT-SO followed a 1976 interview of 80 year old Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, president emeritus of Morehouse College. Dr. Mays told Jarrett of his boyhood in Epworth, S.C., which he called a “mud hole on the side of the road.” One Sunday morning when Mays was only eight, the regular circuit preacher failed to show. While waiting, somebody announced, “One of our little colored boys can read the Bible. So let him read.” That was when little Benny Mays read from the Fifth Chapter of Matthew so well that an audience of former slaves cried, cheered, waved handkerchiefs and made him read over and over. “From that moment,” Dr. Mays told Jarrett. “Despite South Carolina’s lynch mobs and rampant racism, I knew I was somebody, that I was going to be somebody.”
Jarrett continues to reflect: “As the youngest member of my family, I got a chance to see firsthand the community support given my brother, Thomas Dunbar Jarrett, in the 1930s when he graduated from a so-called high school in Paris, Tenn. There really were no public high schools for blacks in most small towns in the South at that time. `Central High for coloreds’ was one small room about the size of a doctor’s reception area in our `Negro building,’ which was built around 1900. But when my brother was announced as the salutatorian of his class and his friend Oliver Teague was named valedictorian, our black adults didn’t wait for equality. Women’s social clubs and the male Civic League sponsored a big party for the two boys at Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church.” Nothing could stop Jarrett’s brother after that. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Knoxville College, then a master’s degree in American literature at Fisk University, and a Ph.D. degree at the University of Chicago. When in 1954 Jarrett’s brother became a visiting professor of literature at England’s Oxford University, and later was named chairman of the Rhodes Scholarship Selection Committee’s U.S. Southern Region, his journalist brother in Chicago reached a seminal conclusion: Early recognition for scholastic achievement can have an immeasurable impact on self-esteem, ambition and drive. Jarrett heard a similar story from famed chemist and friend Dr. Percy L. Julian who developed the history-making synthesis of cortisone. Dr. Julian recalled that in 1916 when he was 17, he left Montgomery, Ala., to attend DePaul University in Greencastle, Ind. He was so far behind academically that he spent his first two years of college in simultaneous attendance at a local high school.
Yet he graduated in four years at the top of his college class with a degree in chemistry and a Phi Beta Kappa key. Much of Julian’s drive, came from a powerful push by neighbors and relatives, and the memory of his ex-slave grandfather at the railroad station when Julian left for college: “My grandfather was among the group waving good-bye, but I recall that he had two fingers missing. They had been chopped off as punishment for learning to read during slavery.” Each year ACT-SO celebrates the anniversaries of great black achievers. Last year’s salutes were a centennial celebration of Dr. Julian and composer Duke Ellington. This year ACT-SO will honor the 100th anniversary of James Weldon Johnson and brother J. Rosamond Johnson’s musical composition Lift Every Voice and Sing, along with the 90th
anniversary of Du Bois’ founding of the NAACP’s Crisis magazine. Jarrett can look back at “determination stimuli” in his own career. He recalls his first days at the Chicago Defender in 1946 when he was almost killed while covering the Airport Homes racial explosion in Chicago. He was threatened again in 1950 when mobs gathered daily to block black home ownership from advancing into all white neighborhoods. He was tempted to exchange journalism for direct action.
One great moment in Jarrett’s career came in 1982 when he joined activist journalist Lu Palmer to keep U.S. Rep. Harold Washington in the race to become Chicago’s first black mayor. Palmer, a radio crusader, discovered that Washington, despite his great appeal, was considering withdrawing from the race. That’s when Palmer and Jarrett hurriedly called a private meeting with other activists to pressure Washington to run. Washington promised to remain in the race “only if we register 50,000 new black voters.” Jarrett and Palmer gave each other stunned looks. They thought such a goal was impossible to attain in just a few weeks. However, they were pleasantly shocked when the black community itself registered 200,000 new voters in record time to enable Washington to defeat the vaunted Chicago machine in the 1983 mayoral race. Jarrett is sold on the power of the black family and community initiative. He is married to the former Fernetta Hobbs, a retired school teacher and they reared two sons, Thomas and the late Dr. William R. Jarrett. “It is urgent,” Says Vernon Jarrett, “that we resort to a strategy based upon our history of winning against the odds, which can keep alive the inspiration and learning required to solve complex problems. Our history says: We must never write off the potential for greatness among any of our beleaguered youth. Never!”
-C. Stone Brown for The Crisis