Claude Lewis, 82, distinguished Philly columnist and guiding light for African American journalists

Claude Lewis, 82, of Cherry Hill, a distinguished journalist who made history as the first person of color to write a regular newspaper column in Philadelphia and inspired generations of African Americans to follow him into the profession, died Thursday, March 16.

After battling diabetes for years, Mr. Lewis died of complications from the disease at Virtua Voorhees Hospital, said his daughter, Beverley Wilson. The illness claimed his vision beginning a decade ago, she said.

In 1965, the Evening Bulletin hired Mr. Lewis away from NBC for the city staff. Mr. Lewis started out as a general assignment reporter, but in 1968, George R. Packard, then the managing editor, invited him to write a column three times a week.

 “I had known him from Newsweek magazine, where we both worked," Packard said. "I knew his work, and he was good. When I was promoted to managing editor, I thought of Claude. He could really add so much to the newsroom with his point of view. He was not bitter or angry. He was dedicated to fairness and justice."

Though blessed with a gentle demeanor, Mr. Lewis was a “passionate man who cared deeply about ending racial discrimination,” Packard said.

Mr. Lewis’ appearance as a columnist — a challenge he met with evenhanded grace — made him an instant icon to the community at large, and especially to African Americans.

“If you think back to that period, there weren’t many people doing what we do,” said Michael Days,  editor of the Daily News. “There was Acel Moore and Edie Huggins – and there was Claude.

“I read the Bulletin and you would see his picture there," Days said. "As a kid, what that said to me was, anything is possible. He was a big deal for a very, very long time.”

Joe Davidson, now a Washington Post columnist, said he met Mr. Lewis upon joining the Bulletin staff in 1974.

“He was the first black man I knew who had an office at a newspaper,” Davidson said. “That was pretty impressive to a young reporter who had just moved to Philly from Detroit during a period when any black person in mainstream journalism was still considered a pioneer. He wrote with the grace and commitment that reflected his personality.”

In his columns, Mr. Lewis ranged as far afield as boxing and politics, but he homed in on America’s civil rights era and its leaders, including Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His ability to rub shoulders comfortably with such national figures produced telling portraits of them for his readers.

He described King as “a little guy with a lot of energy” who “took personal risks.”

He politely confronted Malcolm with the question of whether black people were likely to succeed in America without invoking violence.

“Well, independence comes only by two ways: by ballots or by bullets,” Malcolm said in a December 1964 interview posted on http://malcolmxfiles.blogspot.com. “Now, naturally, everyone prefers ballots, and even I prefer ballots, but I don’t discount bullets. I’m not interested in either ballots or bullets, I’m interested in freedom.”

When King was shot to death in Memphis on April 4, 1968, Mr. Lewis dropped everything to join the King family.

“Coretta Scott King,” Mr. Lewis told the Inquirer’s Peter Binzen, “doesn’t get a lot of credit, but she played an important role in her husband’s work.”

Amid the racial turmoil in Philadelphia, especially in the Rizzo years, Mr. Lewis had a singular ability to find a middle ground. “Claude managed somehow to be balanced, fair, and objective and not to get drawn into the angry battles that played on the sidelines,” Packard recalled. “I knew Rizzo and he came to respect Claude, even though he might not agree with him.”

After the Bulletin closed in 1982, Mr. Lewis, Davidson, and lawyer Ragan Henry joined forces to establish the National Leader, a weekly publication based in Philadelphia aimed at black readers. Mr. Lewis was editor, Davidson managing editor.

Though the publication lasted only a few years, Davidson recalled, “it was one of the most rewarding parts of my career.”

In 1985, Mr. Lewis was hired by the Inquirer to serve on its editorial board and produce a column called "Looking at America." He chronicled this country “in all its flawed glory,” Jane  Eisner, then editorial page editor, wrote when he stepped down from the assignment in October 1997. He retired from the newspaper in 2009.

“Claude,” she wrote, “never seemed to forget whom he was writing for, the ordinary American struggling with change, confronting senseless violence, racism, poverty, and a loss of respect for life.”

 Mr. Lewis made history in 1973 as one of the founding members of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists (PABJ) and in 1975 as an originator of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), said the national group’s president, Sarah J. Glover.

“He was a hero to many young African American professionals who welcomed his guidance and admired his bravery in navigating his way through a prestigious and amazing journalism career,” she said.  “He was a gentle giant and kind soul whose passion for equality and equal opportunity can be seen in his columns and life’s work. He had a personal impact on the trajectory of many black journalists, myself included, showing us all the way."

A native New Yorker, Mr. Lewis grew up in the Bronx. He met Beverly McKelvey while riding the Third Avenue El train in high school. "We were 15," she recalled. "We would take the train together."

Mr. Lewis graduated from Benjamin Franklin High School  in Manhattan in 1953 and married McKelvey that October.

His first job out of high school was working as a copy boy at Newsweek while attending City College of New York at night, his wife said. He graduated from City College with a bachelor's degree in English.

Mr. Lewis had wanted to be a poet, but when he ran the idea by Langston Hughes, the famed poet pointed him toward journalism. Hughes told Mr. Lewis to “sow the seeds of accomplishment,” Binzen wrote, and Mr. Lewis made that his guiding principle.

Linda Wright Moore, a journalist and communications specialist and the widow of Acel Moore, recalled Mr. Lewis’ kindness to her when, as a WCAU-TV reporter, she covered the Bulletin’s closing on Jan. 29, 1982.

“It was a sad and awkward time,” she recalled. “He was so engaging and encouraging to me as a reporter.”

Later, she said, Mr. Lewis served as a low-key, supportive mentor. “I talked to him when I was working on projects at the station to get his insight," she said. “He was quiet and unassuming  — real different from now, when everybody has to be a brand for success. He was a pioneer.”

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Lewis is survived by another daughter, Pamela Freeman; sons Bryan and Craig; five grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; two brothers; and a sister. 

The body will be cremated. A public memorial service will follow, possibly in April.

Staff writer Robert Moran contributed to this article.