'American Black Journal' premiered in 1968 and addressed topics of relevance to the black community like gentrification, crime, mass incarceration, unemployment disparities and other hot-button issues.
Ten days before CPT – the original name of Detroit Public Television's American Black Journal – first aired, singer Jose Feliciano delivered a soulful rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner" during Game 5 of Major League Baseball's World Series contest between the St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers. Many jaws dropped in the 50,000-seat Tiger Stadium as Feliciano strummed his guitar and added a unique vocal inflection that had never been heard in concert with the Francis Scott Key-written War of 1812 battle hymn.
"I don't think it was the proper place for that kind of treatment," Roger Maris, the blond, blue-eyed, crew-cut St. Louis outfielder who was playing in his 12th and final big-league season, told The Boston Globe. "Maybe I'm a conservative."
Feliciano's rendition was regarded as polarizing by some, but there wasn't anything divisive about it to pioneering CPT host Tony Brown. "We gave (Feliciano) an award," Brown boasted about CPT's first broadcast. And with that, the public affairs show rocketed like a fastball colliding with Willie Horton's mighty bat.
Fast forward to 2018: Detroit Public Television is celebrating its long-running program as it turns 50. Sure, its name has changed from CPT to Detroit Black Journal to American Black Journal – but it has stood the test of time.
How did the show get its name?
"I wanted to call it CPT because I was angry," Brown, an African-American journalist, recalled in 1989. "I wanted to say something to the public that was ethnic and that was an inside something." CPT or "colored people's time" has been a derogatory phrase used among blacks. It describes someone who is late or not ready for prime time. Brown, however, took CPT and flipped the script.
CPT debuted on Oct. 16, 1968 and was financed in large part with a grant from the Junior League of Detroit, a group of progressive white women from Grosse Pointe, as well as funding from Wayne State University. The late Gil Maddox was the show's executive director; Brown was producer and primary host. Jazz pianist Harold McKinney was musical director and Jon Onye Lockard designed elements of the set. Abe Ulmer and George Martin were newscasters on the show.
"It is our hope that this program will overcome the disparity in coverage of the black community by the communications media," Maddox told the Detroit Free Press in 1968. "Over 40 percent of Detroiters are in the black community, and they are not represented today."
In its second episode, CPT talked with Northeastern High School students who were concerned about unsafe school building conditions and inadequate resources such as textbooks and support materials. During its fifth broadcast, actors performed a satirical skit called "Free Your Mind." In it, uppity blacks were portrayed yearning to be white so bad that they used skin-bleaching cream to look more Caucasian than African-American. The topics, themes and look were about nation-building during those days. Hosts sometimes donned dashikis and adorned Afros. African drums were no stranger to the studio. Jazz combos performed avant-garde and bebop jazz.
In 1970, Tony Brown left the show to host a similar broadcast at WNET in New York City. From there, as Detroit Black Journal, it evolved into an hour-long presentation with lengthy magazine-style reports, a half-hour broadcast with two in-studio interview segments and a news magazine. It's had a variety of hosts from journalists like Lavonia Perryman, Ben Frazier, Ed Gordon, Trudy Gallant-Stokes, Cliff Russell and Lloyd Jackson to community activists like Jim Ingram, Ron Scott, the Rev. Wendell Anthony and others.
Over the years, guests have included South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, recording artist James Brown, writer Alex Haley, actresses Lena Horne and Eartha Kitt, poet Nikki Giovanni, Black Panther Party for Self Defense co-founder Bobby Seale and former Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young.
Rich Homberg, president and CEO of Detroit Public Television, believes that the broadcast remains important. "Detroit Public Television is proud to produce a program as historically significant as American Black Journal and congratulates everyone who has been involved in the show for providing 50 years of relevant and urgently needed programming." Homberg continues, "American Black Journal not only has traced the achievements and challenges of the black community over half a century; it has convened conversations that have given that community a voice in the media it did not have previously. It has let African-Americans tell their own stories and create their own pathways to progress."
Stephen Henderson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has hosted American Black Journal for nearly 10 years, takes his role seriously. "It's a huge chance to be part of history in the city," he says. "Black history, yes. But also, history. The turn, in 1968, to create more mainstream consciousness of black presence and black issues was huge for the city's African-American population – but also just significant, period. It's one of the things I think about a lot on the show. And our anniversary makes me acknowledge and appreciate it even more."
A Year Long Celebration
On Jan. 29, Detroit Public Television kicked off the 50th anniversary celebration with an American Black Journal Roadshow, a community conversation that focused on the state of blacks in the news media – and whether the industry has advanced since 1968 when the Kerner Commission recommended an increase in the coverage of the black community and the hiring of black journalists by newsrooms around the country.
Stephen Henderson, who has been the host of American Black Journal for nearly 10 years, led a wide-ranging discussion in front of a live audience at the William V. Banks Broadcast Museum (the former home of the nation's first African-American owned and operated television station, WGPR-TV Channel 62 in Detroit).
In April, Henderson will sit down for a conversation with Stanley Nelson, one of the preeminent documentary filmmakers of our time. His films – The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, The Murder of Emmett Till and Freedom Riders, among others – have won numerous awards and sparked crucial discussions of issues of race and social justice. His latest documentary, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities, is airing on DPTV on March 10 at 3 p.m.
Other American Black Journal specials will air throughout the year, culminating in the month of October – the anniversary of the original show 50 years ago – with a major program celebrating the history and achievements of the show. More details will be announced as they are finalized. In addition, a series of short video clips of key moments from the American Black Journal archives will air during episodes throughout the year and during other DPTV programming.