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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.

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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."

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