Bankole: Jon Wolman to receive posthumous 'Let Freedom Ring Award'

Bankole Thompson

The Rainbow PUSH Coalition’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January 2020 will put the spotlight on the life of former Detroit News publisher and editor Jon Wolman. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a former top aide to King and president and founder of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, will present the "Let Freedom Ring Award" for Journalistic Leadership to Wolman’s family for the late publisher’s strong commitment to coverage of civil and human rights issues. Wolman died April 15 at 68 after battling pancreatic cancer.

Jonathan Wolman

The award, which will be presented at a public ceremony on the evening of Jan. 20 at the Fox Theatre in downtown Detroit, is a remarkable testimony of the kind of news leader Wolman was, and how he demonstrated a profound commitment in tackling the difficult questions of race and economic inequality over the decades as a first-rate newsman. He will be honored alongside Maureen Taylor, leader of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, the late iconic Detroit Congressman John Conyers and others.

In a letter announcing the posthumous honor, Jackson praised Wolman’s indelible commitment to his profession:

“For more than 45 years, Wolman applied his splendid skills, compelling courage and instructive integrity to the journalism profession ... [H]e excelled as a journalist of journalists and leader of leaders,” Jackson wrote.

But here is the line in the Jackson letter that stood out as an enduring testament to what informed Wolman’s deeper commitment to civil rights issues:

“He was even known to have given much-needed support to the Fannie Lou Hamer’s voting rights campaign in Mississippi that got thousands of African Americans to become registered voters,” Jackson noted.

That fact was not lost on mourners at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills, where Wolman’s funeral was held. There, his childhood friends told how the 1950s and 1960s civil rights battles shaped his worldview and how the need to fight injustice showed in his support of Hamer’s crusade to guarantee blacks the right to vote.

“Wolman’s conscientious application of the principles of fairness and objectivity endeared him to people on both sides of the political aisle, and earned him admiration from peers and mentees,” Jackson said.

Gary Miles, who succeeded Wolman as publisher and editor of The Detroit News, underscored Jackson’s point when he rightly observed that Wolman came to the paper “at a time of incredible uncertainty,” and was “a steadying, calming influence who put a priority on the big picture: accuracy and fairness of our news report.”

Wolman lived the life of the underdog who did not ignore issues of the marginalized, but who had a heart for those who are often relegated to the back.

“He took a chance on people, putting them in roles that perhaps they weren’t obviously ready for, including me. He created an esprit de corps in Washington that in turn set the bar higher for all of us,” said Sandy Johnson, Wolman's successor as AP bureau chief in Washington, D.C., after he died.

Most importantly, Wolman exemplified the huge responsibility journalists have to shine light where there is darkness. He was a lantern in the struggle for human and civil rights. He was concerned about issues of justice and equality, and provided for us a lasting example of why we should not sit on the sidelines in tackling longstanding issues that emanated from America’s original sin of slavery.

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

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