Skip to main content

Warrior for justice: Why fugitives would surrender to Chuck Stone

By Elmer Smith
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, legendary Philadelphia journalist, who died April 6
  • Stone was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
  • Stone was a Tuskegee Airman and a founder of National Association of Black Journalists

Editor's note: Elmer Smith is an award-winning journalist and retired columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- A line of angry protesters waving signs and wearing scows formed a ring around the front entrance of the Daily News' headquarters.

They took turns at the bullhorn accusing the paper of everything from libel to genocide. They didn't bring a list of demands; they weren't looking to negotiate. They had one goal: to shut the paper down forever.

Elmer Smith
Elmer Smith

"We're going to march until the walls come down," one shouted.

Employees who would normally head out the revolving door to one of the lunch trucks along Broad street developed a taste for cafeteria food that day.

Not Chuck Stone.

Stone, senior editor of the newspaper they had pledged to kill, walked out the front entrance and met their scows with a broad smile. Picketers committed to the complete destruction of the Daily News returned his smile or nodded in recognition as they passed him. A few even shook his hand.

I'll never forget that scene. It was, at once, improbable yet typical of a man who was as comfortable in the salons of power as he was in the embrace of the disadvantaged.

Chuck was the last man you'd pick out of a lineup of guys suspected of aiding and abetting dangerous felons. In his horn-rimmed glasses, hand-tied, silk bowties and graying crew cut, he looked like a grown-up version of the nerds that tough guys used to beat up to burnish their reps.

But fugitives who were wanted for vicious assaults and heinous crimes would call Chuck before they called their lawyers. In a town where some cops were known to administer curbside justice, surrendering to Chuck Stone was a way to keep from having their faces rearranged on the way to jail. At least 75 fugitives did just that over Stone's 19-year career.

In Egypt, case of trial by error
Two AP journalists attacked in Kabul
U.S. journalist kicked out of Russia

In 1981, he negotiated the release of six prison guards being held hostage by a band of armed inmates whose leader was doing life for killing a cop. Prisoners guards and a remarkably composed Chuck Stone emerged unscathed from the two-day ordeal.

His departure in 1991 ended a 19-year run as the most influential columnist in town. Chuck's courtly manners and air of refinement could disarm the unwary. But the Daily News knew what they were getting when they hired him in 1972. Newsweek magazine had once dubbed him "the angry man of the negro press."

Philadelphia was a target-rich environment in 1972. Frank Rizzo, a former police commissioner who had once left a formal dinner in a tuxedo to supervise the public strip search of a group of unarmed Black Panthers, had been elected mayor. Chuck began his Daily News tenure in time to see four City Council members, including the city council president get ensnared in the Abscam net.

In a one-party town where an inbred Democratic machine reigned supreme, Chuck Stone was like a kid in a candy shop. He attacked police brutality, political corruption, the chronic failure of public schools and institutional injustice twice a week in the Daily News and weekly on his aptly-named TV show, "On Target".

He was the Daily News' first black columnist. But he never saw color when he was looking through his gun sights. He described Wilson W. Goode, the city's first black mayor, as a "paternalistic ferret." When State Rep. Dwight Evans was the most-powerful black politician in the state capital, Stone called him "an oleaginous eel."

The English language was a sharp tool in his hands. He described one of his targets as a "retromingent," a term for an animal who urinates backward. But he could be effusive in praise. He originated the George Fencl Award, an honor named for a cop known for the kind of firm but fair police work which Stone advocated.

His death on April 6 at age 89 ended a lifetime of service. He was trained as a Tuskegee Airman in a segregated U.S. Army in WWII. He had worked overseas for an international aid organization in the '50s. In the '60s, he was a special assistant to U.S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and later authored three books. He ended his career as a professor of Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, before retiring five years ago.

Perhaps his most lasting legacy is as a founder of the National Association of Black Journalists. Les Payne, a Pulitizer Prize-winning columnist and NABJ co-founder once described him as the first amongst equals in founding NABJ.

"There were a lot of us in the room," Payne told me. "But Chuck was the one holding the clipboard."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT