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Back to the beginning with Belva Davis

Photo courtesy of Belva Davis.

As we near the end of Black History Month, we’re going to revisit an interview we did for our series “Witness to History.”

Bay Area broadcast journalist Belva Davis was among the most established and well-respected broadcasters in the nation.

During her remarkable career, Davis covered the U.C. Berkeley Free Speech Movement, the birth of the Black Panthers, and the assassinations of San Francisco mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk. 

“When I was first applying for jobs in television, I had never seen a black television reporter,” she once said.

And, one of the first, and most important, stories that Belva Davis covered happened back in 1964, when the Republican Party held its convention in San Francisco. Barry Goldwater was running for President.

President Johnson had recently signed the Civil Rights Act, which Goldwater had voted against. Demonstrators wearing Ku Klux Klan robes showed up to protest in front of City Hall. Belva Davis was a young black woman new to journalism and it was her task to help cover that GOP convention. She spoke about the event with former Crosscurrents host Holly Kernan.


BELVA DAVIS: It was a convention where people of color knew from the onset that they weren’t welcome. So, when my news director Louis Freeman and I ... he tried to get credentials and bring me along as his assistant – I was not a news reporter, I was just learning the game – he was denied press credentials.

So one of these gentlemen got us two passes to sit in the rafters way above the convention hall. We went over, got into the darkest corner that we could, took out our equipment and started to report the story as best we could.

It was a mean-spirited crowd up in the galleries where we were. And we did alright the first day because they were behaving for the cameras. But then, there was a speech by former President Eisenhower that was like lighting a match, in which he talked ... the words he said could have been interpreted as being racist. And after that, all hell broke loose. Reporters were being, I mean really big-name reporters, were being taken and arrested, really – one of the leading reporters was arrested on that night. So, we watched all this from up high, and finally we heard somebody from down below yell, “What are you N-word people doing up there?” And he screamed it in sort of a chant. And the next thing we knew, there’s a mob of people screaming all kinds of things. Up there, isolated where we were in semi-darkness, we felt threatened. We started down the stairs and garbage started being thrown at us. I didn’t really get nervous until I could feel a bottle whiz by my head. It crashed against the concrete, and my knees started to shake as we were walking down the ramp to get out of the Cow Palace.

Louis said to me, “If you cry, I will break your leg.” Just like that! And I looked at him, I was shocked! Straightened my back, and we both kept eyes straight ahead and got down to the bottom. And then we looked at each other because we saw uniformed officers, but coming from the South, we knew that was no safe passage. And we knew we still had the outside to the parking lot to go. We were both terrified. We were at a political convention, or you know, one of the two organizations pledged to protect the rights of American citizens and feeling that our lives were in danger. But that’s the way it was that year. It was an experience that made me sure that I wanted to go into the news business because they were the only ones who seemed to be able to shine light on these people. And I wanted to do that.

HOLLY KERNAN: You said in your memoir that you see some parallels to the atmosphere that was created and this sort of demonization in this case of black people, and a little bit of what’s happening now around Barack Obama’s presidency – could you talk about that?

DAVIS: It’s the same so-called grassroots people who I think usually are managed by other forces for whatever means. Certainly back in that period of time, in the ‘60s, there’s a book written about the organizational work that went on in the suburbs and the white suburbs of this country to get people riled up, because they thought that “colored people” were moving too fast, pushing too hard. The Civil Rights Act had just been signed in 1964 by President Johnson, and then we were going after the Voting Act next. And they just said, “This has gotta stop.” So it was Southern Dixiecrats that moved over and joined the Republican Party where they gained power because Goldwater gave them the permission – maybe not a racist himself, just maybe a person ambitious, to win – to join in and become the legitimate representation of the Grand Old Party.

KERNAN: Belva Davis’ new memoir is Never In My Wildest Dreams: A Black Woman’s Life in Journalism. She covered everything from GOP convention to the rise of the Black Panther party. Here she remembers Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther party.

DAVIS: I remember him for the drugs and for the guns, but he was really, I guess you would call him an intellect. I mean, he loved to learn, just so he would know it. And he used to convince a cousin of mine to invite me over because he wanted to talk. And I thought he wanted to talk about the day’s events. He wanted to talk about, you know, great scholars and thinkers – things that I knew nothing about, I’m not a college graduate, so far. But he needed an audience – he needed to let someone know what he knew.

So here was a guy who had a brilliant mind, somehow got off on a track which, of course anytime you’re involved with drugs that’s where it’s going, and got confused about actions and goals. Took a lot of actions that should have never been taken, had a streak and a hot temper that got him in trouble, but on the whole had a mind that was very, very sharp.

KERNAN: And you interviewed Malcolm X, right?

DAVIS: I ended up being his interpreter. He was at sort of this weird period where he wasn’t talking to white people, or at least so his escort said, and my editor was white. And I was the black person in the office of a black newspaper – he never expected to see a white man in that place, so he refused to talk to him. So he would say something, and I would repeat his words. The editor would say something and I would repeat his words. And we kept up this little game. It was one of the most unique things I’ve ever done in my life because I knew they both could hear what was going on, and they could make judgments about whether I was interpreting correctly. (laughs)

KERNAN: That’s bizarre!

DAVIS: Yes it was, I think it was probably the fun of the day for him.

KERNAN: So you covered the very tumultuous ‘60s and ‘70s – what was your assessment of the Black Panthers now in retrospect.

DAVIS: It’s amazing to me how their fame has held. There’s very little you can read about that period of time. There were other groups who were, maybe did more damage to society. They did a lot of damage to each other, or the government did a lot of damage to them, but what they wanted were things that people want today: good education, children that are fed well, balanced society, a police force that you could trust – that was what was in their Ten-Point Program. It just got lost in the violence that followed them around the world.

Belva Davis will retire from her position as host of KQED's “This Week in Northern California” on Friday, November 9.

This story originally aired on February 16, 2011.

Crosscurrents Black History Month
Holly Kernan is the architect of the award-winning Public Interest Reporting Project. She is currently news director at KALW 91.7FM in San Francisco. In 2009 she was named Journalist of the Year by the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Kernan teaches journalism at Mills College and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and has taught at Santa Rosa Junior College, Youth Radio and San Francisco State University's Lifelong Learning Institute. She lives in Oakland with her husband, Mike, daughter, Julia, and retired greyhound Benjamin Franklin.