Yette, Samuel F.
Samuel F. Yette
In the summer of 1956 Samuel F. Yette teamed with photographer and author Gordon Parks to create a four-part series on racial segregation for Life magazine. As a reporter for the Washington and Baltimore Afro-American, Yette covered the major events of the civil rights movement, including the Montgomery bus boycott, the organizational meetings of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the 1957 march on Washington. He was fired as Newsweek magazine's Washington correspondent after the publication of his 1971 book, The Choice, in which he claimed that there were "genocidal schemes" high up in the U.S. government to commit "guerilla warfare" against black Americans. As a freelance journalist and columnist Yette continued to spark dialogue and incite controversy with his outspoken and sometimes radical analyses.
Founded Student Newspaper
Samuel Frederick Yette, pronounced "Yet," was born on July 2, 1929, in Harriman, Tennessee, the 13th child of Frank Mack and Cora Lee (Rector) Yette. Although his mother had only an eighth-grade education, she saw to it that all of her children went to college. Yette told the National Visionary Leadership Project: "We had extraordinary parents…they raised families dedicated to education…no matter what we had to do to get an education." Indeed, some of Yette's siblings were forced to leave Tennessee for secondary school. Yette was able to attend Campbell High School in nearby Rockwood, where he was mentored by the principal John Brown Olinger.
Yette's interest in journalism was kindled in childhood as he read the newspaper to his father every evening. After one year at Morristown College in Tennessee, Yette transferred to Tennessee State University where he founded and edited the student newspaper The Meter and served on the student council. When the Korean War draft threatened to interrupt his education, the university's president called the governor of Tennessee and arranged for Yette to finish school first.
In his first integrated educational experience, Yette graduated at the top his class from the U.S. Air Force's Fixed-Wire Communications School. However racial discrimination and harassment almost kept him from completing Officer Candidate School.
Launched Journalism Career
Yette became a high school English teacher and coach, a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Times, and a sportscaster at WMFS radio. In 1955 he enrolled in journalism school at Indiana University in Bloomington, as one of only two black students. Despite a racist environment, he reported on politics and medicine for the Indiana Daily Student. When he was inducted into Sigma Delta Chi, the national journalism fraternity, in 1956 Yette persuaded the university to allow noted black journalist Carl T. Rowan to speak at his induction ceremony. Yette's master's thesis was entitled A Comparative Study of Life and Ebony Magazines.
Gordon Parks, Life's first black staff photographer, would become famous for his photo essays of segregated, poverty-stricken America contrasted with the glamour of elite white society. Yette's travels through Alabama with Parks made them lifelong friends and sparked Yette's interest in photography. He described the experience in a Tennessee Tribune profile in August of 1996: "As reporter, researcher, pack-horse, camera-loader, Kian scout, front-man and chauffeur for Gordon, I began to appreciate the importance of photography as a powerful—and sometimes indispensable—tool in modern storytelling. On train rides, he would suck up magazines or newspapers and have me select the best and worst pictures, and tell why. I learned also of the responsibility the journalist assumes for the welfare of those he exposes in his process."
When the Life series appeared in 1957, Yette's career as a journalist took off. He was almost shot while covering a 1957 trial in Florida for the Afro-American. As the first black reporter at the Dayton Journal Herald, Yette made enemies when he took the City Hall beat away from racist reporters in 1962. He covered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and came to know him well. In 1963 Yette served as the Peace Corps's press liaison for Sargent Shriver's trip to Africa and the following year he was appointed executive secretary of the Corps.
Fired by Newsweek
After two years as special assistant for civil rights at the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), Yette became Newsweek's first black Washington correspondent. Suddenly he was a public figure, appearing on Meet the Press and other television programs. No one at Newsweek knew about the book he was writing.
At a Glance …
Born Samuel Frederick Yette on July 2, 1929, in Harriman, TN; married Sadie Lee Walton, 1958 (died 1983); children: Frederick Walton, Michael Lewis. Education: Tennessee State University, BS, English, 1951; Indiana University, MA, journalism, 1959. Military Service: U.S. Air Force, communications and information officer, second lieutenant, 1951-53, reserve captain, 1953-63. Religion: Baptist. Politics: Independent.
Career: Campbell High School, Rockwood, TN, teacher and coach, 1953-54; Howard High School, Chattanooga, TN, teacher, 1954-55; Chattanooga Times, sportswriter, 1954-56; freelance journalist and photographer, 1956-; Afro-American Newspapers, Washington, DC, Baltimore, MD, reporter, 1956-57, columnist 1976-79; Ebony magazine, associate editor, 1957-59; Tuskegee Institute, Tuskegee, AL, Information Office Director, 1959-62; Journal Herald, Dayton, OH, city hall reporter, 1962-63; OEO, Washington, DC, special assistant for civil rights, 1965-68; Newsweek, Washington, DC, correspondent, 1968-72; Howard University, Washington, DC, journalism professor, 1972-80s, University Scholar, 1977-80s; Cottage Books & Posters, Silver Spring, MD, proprietor, 1982-; BET, Washington, DC, political commentator, 1987-88; WHMM-TV, Talk TV Politics, host, 1991-92; syndicated columnist, 1995-; Knoxville College, Knoxville, TN, writer-in-residence, 2006.
Memberships: Anthony J. Cebrun Journalism Center, board member; Capitol Press Club, vice president; Morristown College, trustee; Sigma Delta Chi; Society of Professional Journalists, president of Washington Chapter.
Awards: Prentiss Institute, doctor of humanities, 1971; Black Academy of Arts and Letters, Non-Fiction Work of Distinction, for The Choice, 1972; Capitol Press Club, Special Book, Award for The Choice, 1972; Society of Professional Journalists, Hall of Fame, 2000.
Addresses: Office—Cottage Books & Posters, PO Box 2071, Silver Spring, MD 20915.
The basic premise of The Choice—"Blacks are given a choice in this country: ‘to accept their miserable lot or die’"—was bound to cause controversy. In his second chapter, "The Great Society Pacification Programs," Yette analyzed Lyndon Johnson's politics of black containment: "President Johnson's ‘unconditional war on poverty’ never became a general war…. The rhetoric and occasional good intentions aside, the effect of it all was mainly to further the establishment war against those in the society already defeated. OEO, in fact, would become a new vehicle for black oppression-at white profit. President Kennedy had taken official notice of black discontent; President Johnson would move to pacify it." Yette was quoted in the Tennessee Tribune in April of 1996: "The book dealt with things they did not want people to know about at the time. There were those well-placed in our government who were determined to have a final solution for the race issue in this country—not unlike Hitler's ‘Final Solution’ for Jews 50 years earlier in Germany. I wrote this and documented it. It caused the Nixon White House to say to Newsweek in effect, ‘Don't come back until you are rid of him.’" Yette sued Newsweek over his firing. The ensuing court battle went on for six years. Although the initial verdict was in Yette's favor, the decision was eventually reversed and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal.
In The Choice Yette reported that the Nixon administration was planning to revoke the Washington Post's Miami television license and give it to President Richard Nixon's friend Bebe Rebozo. According to Yette this revelation initiated the Post's break with the administration, enabling to paper to pursue its Watergate reporting, which led eventually to Nixon's resignation. Yette also claimed that an award-winning Post story—concerning the role of U.S.-produced Asian rice sales in the Vietnam War—had been lifted from The Choice.
Joined Howard University Faculty
Yette joined Howard University as its first tenured journalism professor and continued writing and lecturing. In September of 1977 he was one of five journalists invited to tour the People's Republic of China. During a 1979 sabbatical he was the only journalist invited to accompany SCLC delegates on their historic peace mission to Lebanon to meet with Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Over the course of that year Yette pursued his growing interest in photojournalism and began marketing his photographs.
Yette's photograph of the Great Wall was sold as a poster in the Chinese pavilion at the World's Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee. Sales from the poster financed the republication of The Choice by his own company, Cottage Books, founded in 1982. In 1984 Yette and his son published a pictorial history of the civil rights movement.
Following his retirement from Howard in the mid-1980s, Yette continued to work as a freelance journalist and photographer, contributing to numerous publications including People, Time, and National Geographic, and mounting several photographic exhibitions. He documented the 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns of the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson. In 1987 and 1988 Yette was a political commentator on Black Entertainment Television (BET) and in 1991 and 1992 he hosted Talk TV Politics on WHMM-TV.
In 1995 Yette launched a weekly syndicated black newspaper column. In a 1996 column he called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "Hitler's unacknowledged disciple" and charged that "Jewish political power…hold[s] American politicians hostage, often while betraying this nation's best interests." In response to pressure from the Jewish community the Philadelphia Tribune, which had printed the column twice, disavowed it.
Yette's political views were clearly stated in the Philadelphia Tribune in 1995: "I am for affirmative action, desegregation in general, self-reliance, gun registration, nationally organized boycotts, Congress' declaration before war, campaign finance reform, strict separation of church and state, sex education, the nationalization of the United States postal service, progressive income tax and parental notification for abortions."
The Choice: The Issue of Black Survival in America, Putnam, 1971, Cottage, 1982, 1996.
(With Frederick Walton Yette) Washington and Two Marches, 1963 and 1983: The Third American Revolution, Cottage, 1984.
"Samuel F. Yette Charges ‘Imitation and Thievery,’" Afro-American Red Star, July 6, 1996, p. B1.
"Learned Behavior Characterizes Some Jews Actions," Philadelphia Tribune, October 18, 1996, p. A2.
"Samuel F. Yette: Columnist," Tennessee Tribune, Vol. 8, No. 30, November 13, 1996, p. 6.
Jewish Exponent, November 7, 1996, p. 1.
Philadelphia Tribune, July 18, 1995, p. 8.
Tennessee Tribune, April 9, 1996, p. 5; August 27, 1996, p. 20.
Cottage Books & Posters,www.merchantamerica.com/blackbooks-posters/index.php?ba=home (August 16, 2007).
"Distinguished Journalist and Author Samuel F. Yette Takes Post at Knoxville College," Knoxville College, http://knoxvillecollege.edu/press/YetteKCPressConf.pdf (August 16, 2007).
"Samuel F(rederick) Yette," Contemporary Authors Online,http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/Bio-RC (August 16, 2007).
"Samuel Yette," National Visionary Leadership Project,http://188.8.131.52/nvlpmembertier/visionariest1/visionarypages/2004visionaries/yettesamuel/index.asp (August 16, 2007).
"Samuel Yette Biography," HistoryMakers, www.thehistorymakers.com/biography/biography.asp?bioindex=800&category=mediaMakers (August 16, 2007).
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