Rowan, Carl T.

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Rowan, Carl T.

August 11, 1925
September 23, 2000

Born in Ravenscroft, Tennessee, the son of a lumber worker, journalist and governmental official Carl Thomas Rowan grew up in poverty. After graduating from local schools in 1942, he saved enough money to attend Tennessee State University. While at Tennessee State, Rowan was drafted and was selected for a special program to train African-American officers in the then segregated U.S. Navy. In 1945, after completing his military service, Rowan registered at Oberlin College in Ohio; he graduated in 1947. Determined to become a journalist, he moved to Minneapolis and received an M.A. from the University of Minnesota in 1948.

That same year Rowan was hired as a copywriter by the white-owned Minneapolis Tribune and was made a reporter in 1950, becoming one of the first African-American reporters for a large urban daily newspaper. The next year Rowan toured the southern states, reporting on racial discrimination. His articles (which were collected in the book South of Freedom in 1952) won him national attention. Rowan continued as a reporter for the Tribune for ten years and won several journalism awards for his coverage of such issues as the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case in 1954, the Bandung Conference of Nonaligned Nations in Indonesia in 1955, and the 1960 civil war in the former Belgian Congo. In 1956 Rowan made a second trip to the South and was one of the first national journalists to cover the Montgomery bus boycott. He recounted his journey in Go South to Sorrow (1957). During the late 1950s he wrote two other books: The Pitiful and the Proud (1956), a report on society and culture in India, and Wait Till Next Year (1960), a biography of baseball star Jackie Robinson.

In 1961 Rowan was appointed deputy assistant secretary of state by President John F. Kennedy. He spent two years in the position, directing the drafting of position papers. Rowan also assisted Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, accompanying him on a tour of the Middle East, India, and Vietnam. In 1962 he was assigned to the U.S. delegation to the United Nations. In January 1963 Kennedy appointed Rowan U.S. ambassador to Finland. Rowan was one of the first African Americans ever assigned as ambassador to a largely white country.

In December 1963 President Lyndon B. Johnson named Rowan to head the United States Information Agency (USIA), replacing Edward R. Murrow. As USIA director, Rowan held by far the highest executive branch position occupied by an African American up to that time. He also attended cabinet meetings and served as a political adviser. Rowan remained at the agency for a little more than a year before resigning because of friction with Johnson over Vietnam and other policies.

In 1965 Rowan was hired as a columnist and lecturer by the Field Newspaper Syndicate, becoming the first African American with a nationally syndicated column. During the next three decades Rowan remained one of the most visible and respected journalists in the United States. In addition to his newspaper column, Rowan served as a syndicated radio commentator on the daily program The Rowan Report, as a regular panelist/commentator on the syndicated television show Agronsky & Company (19761988), and as a frequent panelist on Meet the Press. During the 1970s he wrote Just Between Us Blacks (1974), a book of essays on racial topics, and Race War in Rhodesia (1978). In 1987 he was named annual president of the prestigious journalists' group, the Gridiron Club. In 1991 Rowan published Breaking Barriers: A Memoir. The following year, he founded the Project Excellence program, a million-dollar college scholarship fund. In recognition of his educational efforts, in 1993 the Lynch Annex Elementary School in Detroit was renamed the Carl T. Rowan Community School in his honor.

Rowan was a committed integrationist and mainstream liberal who attacked both conservatives and black nationalists. He and his writings remained controversial. In 1988 Rowan, long a champion of gun control legislation, drew national headlines after he shot and wounded a white man who had broken into his Washington, D.C., home. He was threatened with arrest on charges of possessing an illegal handgun, but the charges were later dropped. Rowan claimed he was the victim of a politically motivated prosecution led by Mayor Marion Barry, whose administration he had attacked in his column.

In 1986 Rowan wrote and produced Thurgood Marshall: The Man (1986), two television documentary programs on Marshall's career. In 1987 he began collaborating on Marshall's memoirs, but the project was abandoned when Marshall refused to discuss his Supreme Court cases. Rowan then wrote a biography, Dream Makers, Dream Breakers: The World of Justice Thurgood Marshall, which was published in 1993.

Though plagued by health problems, which ultimately required the amputation of one leg, Rowan continued to write his column and to speak out on racial issues. In 1995 he denounced the Million Man March as racist. In 1996 he published The Coming Race War in America, in which he warned of the potential for violence if white prejudice and denial of equal opportunity were not addressed.

Rowan died of natural causes at the age of seventy-five.

See also Barry, Marion; Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas ; Journalism; Robinson, Jackie


Rowan, Carl T. Breaking Barriers: A Memoir. Boston: Little, Brown, 1991.

greg robinson (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005