Renowned journalist Gwen Ifill dies at 61

On November 15, American Peabody Award-winning PBS journalist Gwen Ifill, died of cancer at the age of 61. During an April 16, 2009 Westminster Presbyterian Church Town Hall Forum, MSR Staff Writer Charles Hallman had the opportunity to speak with her about her recently released book, The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama. We are republishing the story in this issue in honor of her passing and the legacy in journalism she leaves behind.

Gwen Ifill
Gwen Ifill (MGN Online/Flicker)

Gwen Ifill said race always matters in the electoral process

Barack Obama’s election as U.S. president in 2008 sparked a new era of Black politicians, claims PBS journalist Gwen Ifill.

Ifill told the overflow crowd of around 1,500 who attended the April 16, 2009 Westminster Presbyterian Church Town Hall Forum in downtown Minneapolis that Obama’s presidential campaign “rewrote the textbook” on presidential politics. When he accepted the Democratic nomination last summer in Denver, “It was a rare lightning-struck moment that finally elevated the dramatic shift in tone, message and leadership, and forced a redefinition of Black politics and Black politicians,” she noted.

“It was the age of Obama in full effect,” said the moderator and managing editor of PBS’ weekly news round-table show, Washington Week, and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer’s senior correspondent as she mainly spoke on her latest book, The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama. Before joining PBS, Ifill also worked as NBC News chief congressional and political correspondent and was a reporter for the New York Times, Washington Post, Baltimore Evening Sun and Boston Herald American.

Most Black elected officials, especially those as mayors and legislators, “are driven as much by demographics [as] by destiny,” Ifill pointed out, adding that although historic, she devoted only a chapter on President Obama in her book that also features profiles on other Black elected officials, such as Newark, NJ Mayor Cory Booker, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, and Artur Davis, an Alabama U.S. Congressman who is contemplating running for governor.

Gwen Ifill spoke on April 16, 2009 at Westminster Presbyterian Church Town Hall Forum in downtown Minneapolis.
Gwen Ifill spoke on April 16, 2009 at Westminster Presbyterian Church Town Hall Forum in downtown Minneapolis. (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

Patrick was the exception as Obama, Booker and Davis all lost in their first attempts at running for elected office. Patrick never had run for office prior to winning the Massachusetts governor’s seat, noted Ifill.

The obstacles these officials all ran into included naysayers, continued the 30-year journalist. “They all were told by Black people that they were not Black enough and by Whites that they were too Black,” said Ifill. “Race sometimes helps and sometimes hurts, but it always matters.”

According to Ifill, U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. told her, “There is a movement in the Black community for accountable leadership,” and he said his father, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr. is among those “unaccountable” Black leaders.

She argued that America must still discuss race. “I think there is a fair amount of resentment from people who are not of color that they are expected to apologized,” she said, adding that we are not in a “post-racial” age. “First of all, he [Obama] doesn’t see himself as multi-racial — he defines himself as African American.”

Furthermore, Ifill pointed out, “It is not up to Congress, but it is up to us” to improve U.S. race relations, and move away from typical labels as “who’s good, who’s bad, who’s responsible and who’s not responsible — we have to find a way to work together.

“I think I am more hopeful than I was at this time last year,” Ifill surmised.

During audience questions, the longtime journalist was asked what role the Black church plays in today’s politics. “For many, many years there was no other platform for African Americans but the Black church,” said Ifill, whose father was an African Methodist Episcopal Church minister.

“It was the only place we owned and the only place where we could have the microphone. The model of leadership is shifting, and it is not exclusively in the Black church. But that doesn’t mean there is not still a social justice role, or [that] social justice activism isn’t alive and well in many African American churches.”

When asked are there any fast-rising Black female politicians, “[Black] women often choose to lead in other ways, such as leading nonprofit organizations,” she said, adding that Black men usually “don’t wait their turn” to run for political office, “while women tend to wait to be asked.”

The forum’s crowd was primarily White, but there were a handful of Blacks in attendance. Adrienne Merrill Ratliff of Minneapolis said she regularly attends the Westminster Forums but doesn’t often see a lot of fellow Blacks. “I don’t think there is enough publicity,” she pointed out. “I like to think it’s more that instead of [Blacks] not [being] interested in what’s going on in the world.”

The Washington-based journalist concluded that although Obama is America’s first Black president, “You are not going to see Barack Obama with his fist in the air, singing ‘We Shall Overcome,’” said Ifill. “But I find it very interesting now to watch how subtle the Obamas are to speaking to race. I think they are very conscious [of] who they are and how they are doing it.”


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