Fighting for Equality in the 1970s – Albright College

Fighting for Equality in the 1970s

By Ernest Beck

From left: Reporters Michael B. Hodge, Ivan C. Brandon, LaBarbara A. Bowman, Leon Dash, Penny Mickelbury, Ronald A. Taylor; Richard Prince and attorney Clifford Alexander, March 23, 1972, at Metropolitan AME Church in Washington. (Credit: Ellsworth Davis/Washington Post)

Growing up in segregation-era Washington, D.C., in the 1950s, Bobbi Bowman vowed that she would become a journalist. And with that came a commitment to try and change the world. “Our job as journalists is to get in the way and to cause good trouble,” she explained in a recent telephone conversation, echoing the words of the late congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis.

Bowman, who graduated from Albright in 1967 with a degree in history, found herself embroiled in controversy at the start of her long career as a reporter for The Washington Post. In 1972, she joined six other Black journalists at the paper — a group known as the Metro 7 — to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Borne out of frustration about inequality at the paper, the complaint alleged that The Post had engaged in unlawful employment practices and discrimination by not hiring and promoting Black journalists, and failing to place Black journalists in top positions and on plum reporting assignments.

For Bowman, the Metro 7 was formed for another reason as well. “There was turmoil in the country, and here we were, young and Black, and sitting in a white newsroom in a city that was 70% Black,” she recalled. “We believed the staff needed to reflect the community, and that would make The Post a better paper.” But the executive editor at the time, Ben Bradlee, was having none of it, which spurred the Metro 7 to lodge what is believed to have been the first complaint of its kind against a major newspaper.

Was their effort successful? Looking back, Bowman, now 75 and retired, offers a measured appraisal. Although the EEOC eventually ruled in their favor, the Metro 7 decided against pursuing costly legal action. Still, by speaking out, they inspired women and journalists of color at other publications to do the same. And at The Post, over time, more Black journalists were hired and promoted. “We could have been fired, but they got the message without actually acknowledging it,” Bowman, who eventually became a City Hall reporter, admitted.

The message Bowman still wants to impart is that although it takes time, change does happen. While at Albright, for example, she was among just a handful of students of color on campus; today, 51% of the student body is non-white and 60% are women. The college is recognized as one of the most diverse not only in Pennsylvania, but also in the country. Such diversity reflects the majority-minority America that will occur in the 2040s, Bowman said, adding, “That’s why students at Albright today are lucky to be already living and learning in a microcosm of the future.”

Nearly half a century after the Metro 7 protest, Bowman is encouraged that The Post — which was acquired in 2013 by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — continues to confront its newsroom culture. Last year, amid fierce nationwide protests over systemic racism, it created new positions for editors and writers to cover race, and appointed the paper’s first managing editor for diversity and inclusion.

Having watched with great interest, from her home in McLean, Virginia, the eruption of civil unrest and the growing movement demanding social justice, Bowman reflected on her participation in a Black Lives Matter demonstration organized by two Asian women in her neighborhood — itself a signal, she believes, that the nation may be on the verge of real change.

“We are actually having the reckoning we need to move forward,” she said about the year of upheaval.” It’s the next chapter in our history to make this country live up to the promise and aspiration that we are all created equal.”