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WAFR Radio's Staff, 1973

WAFR’s Staff, 1973

We just wrote a story for The Durham News section of the News and Observer on the history of activist media in the Research Triangle in the 1970s.  Topics included WAFR, the country’s first Black Power community radio station, and WVSP, the country’s first black rural community radio station, as well as WSHA, WDBS, The Protean Radish, The North Carolina AnvilSouthern Exposure, and Africa News Service.  The piece was published as part of a larger series highlighting work by board and committee members of the Museum of Durham History.

Check it out here.

WVSP Staff, 1977

WVSP’s Staff, 1977


Baraka, Carmichael, Brown

Stokely Carmichael, Amiri Baraka, and H. Rap Brown

As Amiri Baraka passed away one month ago today,  it’s worth reflecting on the artist-activist’s complex and multifaceted contributions to the media and the movement.  Many of Baraka’s obituaries, including ones from NPR , The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Timesdescribed him as a writer first, a leader in the Black Arts movement second, and a political figure third (Democracy Now’s excellent coverage was a key exception).  Journalists recounted Baraka’s  involvement with political movements merely in passing, almost as if they were distractions from his literary and artistic career.  Most obituaries did not even mention what was arguably the high point of Baraka’s political career, his election as chairperson of the 1972 National Black Political Assembly, when a broad coalition of tens of thousands of African Americans converged on Gary, Indiana to discuss forming their own national political party.

As James Smethurst wrote in his seminal workThe Black Arts Movement, it is “commonplace to briefly define Black Arts as the cultural wing of the Black Power Movement…[but] one could just as easily say that Black Power was the political wing of the Black Arts Movement.”[1]  This idea certainly applies to Baraka.  Most obituaries framed his political work as an outgrowth of his writing, but one could also argue that Baraka’s written work–especially in his black nationalist period stretching from roughly 1965 to 1975–grew out of his politics.

Historians such as Komozi Woodard have convincingly argued for Baraka’s significance as a central figure of both the black nationalist and pan-Africanist movements, as well as a national leader in Marxist circles.  Baraka was also a publisher and editor of various black nationalist and radical magazines and newspapers, including The CricketBlack New Ark, and Unity and Struggle, and he  lent his support to Newark’s black nationalist publishing house, Jihad Productions.

The video below gives a glimpse of just how deeply Baraka participated in black politics and media making in the early 1970s.  It comes from Breaking the Chains of Oppression, a rare documentary about the first commemoration of African Liberation Day, when an estimated 50,000 demonstrators assembled in Washington, D.C. in May 1972 to demand black independence in the U.S. and abroad.  The driving force behind ALD and the producer of the documentary was the African Liberation Solidarity Committee, a group with which Baraka worked closely.

Baraka was well acquainted with Black Power activists in the South.  In 1970, he helped to found the Congress of Afrikan Peoples at the group’s inaugural meeting in Atlanta.  The ALSC was also active in the South, particularly North Carolina.  Although it was headquartered in Washington, it was led by the Durham-based activist Owusu Sadaukai (Howard Fuller) and worked closely with Greensboro’s Malcolm X Liberation University and the Student Organization for Black Unity.


[1] James Smethurst, The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 14.


Jeffrey Starkweather, born into a conservative Christian household in California, eventually made his way to Washington, D.C. where he worked as a staffer and organizer, developing the community-mindedness that would eventually take him to Pittsboro, North Carolina in the early 1970s. There, he took over the Chatham County Herald, a paper serving this fairly rural county in the North Carolina Piedmont.

Jeffrey Starkweather depicted in the header for his column, "Baaad News."

Jeffrey Starkweather depicted in the header for his column, “Baaad News.”

Starkweather quickly shocked county leaders by actually covering community issues and political proceedings, a standard journalistic practice not often employed before his arrival. The Herald was not an alternative paper. That is, it did not exist to provide an alternative source of journalism and information for a community already being served by a local media outlet. Chatham County residents read The News and Observer of Raleigh, as did many North Carolinians, but they did not have a local paper to call their own. Starkweather set out to provide one, covering sports, church gatherings, local events, and other local news as well as pursuing investigative reporting.

A photograph in an August 1978 issue of the Chatham County Herald indicates residents' concerns with the health effects of PCBs illegally dumped in the area.

A photograph in an August 1978 issue of the Chatham County Herald indicates residents’ concerns with the health effects of PCBs illegally dumped in the area.

Within just two years, the paper had won two major journalism awards for its investigative and community work. At the end of the 1970s, the Herald’s coverage of plans to deposit soil contaminated with PCBs in Chatham County successfully halted that effort (the contaminated soil was dumped in Warren County, the home of WVSP), demonstrating the power of local media in addressing and affecting policies and practices with local impact.

Starkweather’s desire was to use the Herald to shed light on the political process, thus contributing to the community’s civic health, but also to acknowledge the importance of the daily lives of Chatham County residents. He describes his philosophy here:

(Don’t see the audio player? Try Safari or Firefox. Or use the QR code below.)



In the early 1970s, Jim Robinson, armed with an education from the Elkins Institute of Broadcasting and the Taylor School of Broadcasting, showed up for an interview at an Asheville radio station. Here’s what happened next.

(Psst–these audio files are invisible in Chrome. Check it out using Safari or Firefox, or use the QR code below.)



The Carolina Times and a couple of pages in the white newspaper was devoted to black folks. I thought there should be more than that. I thought they should have their own information structure, except the two pages in whatever, the Tribune, whatever, and the one Carolina Times. So, I thought we should have our own information structure, and that was my reason for getting involved in radio.

~Ralph Williams, interview with Joshua Clark Davis, March 29, 2013

Ralph Williams Picture


Donald Baker, among the first staff members at Durham’s WAFR radio–also known as Wave Africa–reflects on the freedom afforded by the station’s format in a 2010 interview with Joshua Clark Davis:

One morning during the week I played Aretha Franklin’s “Holy, Holy,” and it was off of her double album, it was a gospel album, it’s a double album. It was a live recording. And I followed it with John Coltrane’s “Love Supreme.” The thing about working at AFR is that you could experiment. And if you knew the music, if you knew much of the music: the R&B, the gospel, the jazz, you could mix. You could go a lot of places.

As historian William Barlow writes, “nothing else sounded remotely like WAFR on the Durham market.” (Voice Over, pg. 287) Mr. Baker’s interview will soon be available online via UNC’s Southern Historical Collection.

An ad for a WAFR fundraising marathon connects the station to Freedom's Journal, the first African American newspaper

A newspaper advertisement for a WAFR fundraising marathon invoking Freedom’s Journal, the first African American newspaper


The civil rights and black power movements of the 1960s swept through the American South like a storm, leaving behind a profoundly changed environment. The boundaries drawn by racial segregation were washed away, and although those boundaries were often redrawn in less overt ways, African Americans in the South were by the late 1960s able to take unprecedented control over their public lives. As they began to seize control of their communities and reckon with their new freedoms, the national media, so crucial in publicizing the civil rights movement and encouraging widespread support for the demands of the protestors, retreated to their respective cities to begin their chronicle of the malaise of the 1970s.

The withdrawal of these media left space for a group of southerners transformed by the civil rights movement but hungry for more change and for the opportunity to tell their own stories. These southerners left behind a remarkable and largely forgotten record of what came after the more famous Montgomery-to-Memphis phase of the civil rights movement that ended in 1968. The Southern Oral History Program’s Media and the Movement project will interview roughly fifty journalists who covered, debated, and even shaped how civil rights and black power struggles transformed the South in the 1960s and 1970s.

This study will be the first research project that examines a civil rights-era local southern media ecosystem in its entirety. In addition to publishing recordings and transcripts of interviews online, project collaborators will produce referenced, interpretive commentaries for each interview. Thus, this project will provide both scholars and students with accessible, provocative, and illuminating historical analysis on an overlooked dimension of the civil rights movement and its long-term impact on southern life.

Media and the Movement: Journalism, Civil Rights, and Black Power in the American South is directed by Joshua Clark Davis, Ph.D. of Duke University and Seth Kotch, Ph.D. of the University of North Carolina’s Southern Oral History Program in the Center for the Study of the American South in collaboration with Charmaine McKissick-Melton, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Mass Communication at North Carolina Central University and Jerry Gershenhorn, Ph.D., Professor of History at North Carolina Central University, and Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Ph.D., Spruill Professor of History at the University of North Carolina. Interviews began in January of 2013.

Additional project collaborators include Joey Fink of the University of North Carolina, Gordon Mantler, Ph.D., of Duke University, and Nicole Campbell of WUNC 91.5 North Carolina Public Radio and producer for The State of Things.

We are grateful to the National Endowment for the Humanities for supporting this project with a Collaborative Research Grant, and to the North Carolina Humanities Council for a planning grant that allowed us to meet with project stakeholders and develop our application for carrying out Media and the Movement.