Claude Lewis made history - and covered it

By Peter Binzen

Fifty-one years ago, the Evening Bulletin hired a young black reporter from NBC-TV in Philadelphia for its city staff. The Bulletin had been founded nearly a century earlier, but Claude Lewis was just the second African American reporter to join its newsroom.

Lewis started as a general assignment reporter, but, in 1967, George R. Packard, the Bulletin's executive editor, made him a columnist. No Philadelphia daily paper had ever published regular columns by a journalist of color. Lewis wrote his thrice-weekly column until the Bulletin folded in 1982. Three years later, he began writing his column for The Inquirer and continued until retiring in 2009 at the age of 72.

Lewis covered one of the most tumultuous civil rights eras in American history and its newsmakers, from Langston Hughes and James Baldwin to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

He described King, whom he greatly admired, as "a little guy with a lot of energy" who took "personal risks" and kept getting "threats on his life." Lewis marched with King and spent time with him and his wife, Coretta Scott King, at their home.

King had been supporting sanitation workers in Memphis when he was shot to death on April 4, 1968. He was 39 years old. At the time of the shooting, Lewis was attending a meeting in Philadelphia. "I got out of town and flew to Memphis that day to be with the King family," he said.

Coretta Scott King "doesn't get a lot of credit," said Lewis, "but she played an important role in her husband's work."

The same might be said of Lewis' wife, the former Beverly McKelvey. Both were New Yorkers who grew up in the Bronx. They met in high school, fell in love in their teens, and were married in October 1953. They have four children and five grandchildren, and Beverly is with Claude every step of the way.

An early friend was Langston Hughes, the poet and author. "When I met him," said Lewis, "I wanted to be a poet." Hughes knew better. "He said, 'No, be a journalist,' " Lewis recalled. Hughes urged him to "sow the seeds of accomplishment," and Lewis has always sought to achieve that goal.

It hasn't been easy. At the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, a "police riot" broke out when civil rights demonstrations got violent. As a Bulletin columnist, Lewis was there taking notes when a Chicago policeman, mistaking him for one of the demonstrators, knocked his notes to the ground and beat Lewis viciously about the head. He was hospitalized for three days. It was after that beating, Lewis believes, when his eyesight began to fail.

He is now almost completely blind. Thanks to his wife, who is a registered nurse, Lewis gets around pretty well. He refers to his loss of sight as nothing more than "an inconvenience." That is typical of Lewis. I have known him for 40 years and have never found him angry or embittered. His mood is almost always serene.

An earlier episode, though peaceful, was equally outrageous. Before he joined The Bulletin, the Lewises were living in Matawan, N.J. One day, Claude was out walking near their house when a policeman, apparently new to the force, drove up and demanded to know what a black man was doing in a predominantly white neighborhood. Claude said he and his wife lived there. The cop didn't believe him. He put Lewis in handcuffs and arrested him for trespassing.

Since the Lewises were well known in Matawan and Beverly was a member of the Borough Council, the charge was soon dropped. The cop left the force, and Claude collected $15,000 for false arrest, but he has never written about the racist policeman. To do so would not have been Claude Lewis.

His balanced outlook on life is reflected in his dealings with civil rights leaders. Among whites and much of the press, Malcolm X was portrayed as a frightening force. "I knew him for years," Lewis said. "I admired him. He was very harsh, very tough. People were afraid of him. But he was actually a very gentle man and a very decent man."

Lewis said that when Malcolm's life was threatened, "Bev and I invited him and his wife to stay at our house. He was pleased by the offer," said Lewis, "but not wanting to put our lives in danger, he declined." Malcolm X was assassinated on Feb. 21, 1965. He was 39 years old.

Of another friend, James Baldwin, Lewis said, "He was gay before it was OK to be gay. He lived a private life. He was a small guy who spoke softly but used a lot of profanity."

"He told me it was very important to write every day," said Lewis. "I admired his work. I think he was one of the greatest writers America has ever produced."

At the Bulletin, Lewis wrote strong columns criticizing Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo for not doing more to control the flow of drugs into the city.

Rizzo was furious. He denounced Lewis and insisted that drugs were not a problem in Philadelphia. After they met, Rizzo's anger cooled. "In private, he wasn't a bad guy," said the columnist.

So it goes with Lewis, a fair-minded reporter who could teach lessons to some of the over-the-top press hounds hunting for headlines today.

The other day, Beverly Lewis read to her husband two letters he had received years ago from one of his most devoted fans. Lewis had boundless admiration for the letter writer. She was Katharine Hepburn, the legendary actress. Lewis had written often about her, and she wrote to say that his columns made her "so proud and happy."

As Beverly read the letter to her husband, his eyes misted with tears.

Peter Binzen is a retired Inquirer staff writer. Contact him via www.peterbinzen.com.