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A pioneering African-American TV reporter finally gets his due with new biography

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

One Sunday morning in 1962, history was made when a man named Mal Goode became the first African American correspondent for an American TV news network. Goode debuted with a breaking story on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Today, Malvin R. Goode, who died in 1995, is little remembered. But that's now changing with a new biography of this pioneering broadcaster. Bill O'Driscoll of member station WESA has our story.

BILL O'DRISCOLL, BYLINE: It was October 28, 1962. The Soviet Union had deployed nuclear missiles in Cuba, and the threat of atomic warfare loomed. Mal Goode was just a few weeks into his new job at ABC News, where he'd done only radio. But with its U.N. bureau chief on vacation, the network put Goode on TV. In an interview decades later, he recalled his debut.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAL GOODE: I said, it's a beautiful Sunday morning in October here in New York, but I can't tell you what's going to happen before the sun goes down.

O'DRISCOLL: With that, Goode broke the network TV news color line, much like his friend, Jackie Robinson, had done for Major League Baseball 15 years earlier. The road there had been long.

Goode was born in Virginia in 1908, the grandson of former slaves. He grew up in Homestead, a mill town outside Pittsburgh, where his father was a steelworker who encouraged his children to attend college. Here's Goode in a 1991 archival interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GOODE: My father said, you may go to college and get an education. You may not use it right away, but someday you will. And I'm the best example of it in the world.

O'DRISCOLL: Goode got a pre-law degree at the University of Pittsburgh but couldn't afford law school. He worked jobs, including juvenile probation officer, before being hired in the circulation department of the Pittsburgh Courier, a nationally distributed Black newspaper. His broadcast career began when a local radio station gave the Courier airtime. Goode used the opportunity to campaign for social justice. Historian Rob Ruck is co-author of the new biography "Mal Goode Reporting."

ROB RUCK: And soon, he is the Black voice on the Pittsburgh airwaves. A militant integrationist, who, if a Black man is killed by the police, makes sure that that story is heard and understood.

O'DRISCOLL: Goode was tall and slim, with a pencil mustache, and his wavy hair slicked down. In the 1950s, he sought TV news jobs in Pittsburgh but had little success. Historian Liann Tsoukas co-wrote Goode's biography with Ruck.

LIANN TSOUKAS: He's actually built for television, but he cannot break through because of the racial barriers.

O'DRISCOLL: In 1962, Black faces were rare anywhere on TV. But through his radio work, Goode covered and befriended Jackie Robinson. Here's the former Brooklyn Dodger in ABC News footage, touting Goode's relationship with Black ball players.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACKIE ROBINSON: Mal Goode used to give us guidance and advice a long, long time ago when we really needed it.

O'DRISCOLL: Robinson had contacts at ABC, and he pressed them to hire a Black reporter. Goode, by then age 54, got the job. His youngest daughter, Rosalia Parker, was in junior high when her dad made his dramatic debut.

ROSALIA PARKER: During the Cuban Missile Crisis, oh, my goodness. We were screaming (laughter). It was just like - it was - we were calling relatives. And, you know, Daddy's on TV. And people were calling the house, and is that Mal on TV? And...

O'DRISCOLL: Goode went to cover big stories, including the Civil Rights Movement, and interviewed newsmakers from Martin Luther King to Robert F. Kennedy. Here he is interviewing Malcolm X in 1964.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GOODE: And what is your assessment of the present leadership in this Negro revolution in America today?

MALCOM X: Well, it's probably doing the best that it can. It's probably doing the best that it knows how, but that's not enough.

O'DRISCOLL: Goode pushed ABC to include more and more diverse Black voices in its coverage. In 1967, at a Black Power conference in Newark, N.J., Goode was the only reporter organizers allowed in.

WAYNE DAWKINS: Yeah, he was there as an agent for change.

O'DRISCOLL: Wayne Dawkins is a journalism professor at Morgan State University.

DAWKINS: Because he was so well-respected, he had rapport with the top leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, but he also had rapport with that - every man or every woman in the community, and that mattered a lot.

O'DRISCOLL: Even after Goode, news networks were slow to hire more African Americans. But Goode inspired other pioneers, including the late CNN anchor Bernard Shaw. Goode's oldest daughter, Roberta Goode Wilburn, says her father's breakthrough formed her viewing habits for a lifetime.

ROBERTA GOODE WILBURN: I still feel very proud, and I can't get away from ABC News.

O'DRISCOLL: And for Wilburn, the Black TV news people who came after him all stand on her father's shoulders, a legacy she says is finally getting its due. For NPR News, I'm Bill O'Driscoll in Pittsburgh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Eric Westervelt
Correspondent-Editor Eric Westervelt has covered defining conflicts and major stories across the world and America for NPR News. He's served as a correspondent and Bureau Chief in Jerusalem, Baghdad and Berlin, covering the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine, as well as conflicts across the Middle East including Israel-Palestine, Israel-Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and the North African revolutions that swept Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. In Europe he covered everything from the economic crisis and migration to Bach's Christmas Oratorio.
Bill O'Driscoll
Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Most recently, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. [Copyright 2024 90.5 WESA]