By Arlene Notoro-Morgan
I recently watched an MSNBC Morning Joe program where Joe Scarborough polled panelists to name the Black leader who most influenced them. The names ranged from Motown’s Berry Gordy to the writer Toni Morrison, all worthy role models.
Naturally, I thought about my own mentor, friend, and life-long human rights champion — the late Acel Moore who died five years ago on Feb. 12, 2016. Most fittingly, Acel, a native son from South Philly, died during Black History Month.
When I met Acel in 1969, he had worked his way up from being a copy clerk to a city desk reporter. He eventually gained fame as an investigative reporter and columnist.
Regrettably, he is still The Philadelphia Inquirer’s only Black Pulitzer Prize winner, an award that recognized his investigation of inmate abuses at Farview Prison for the mentally disabled in 1977. That story came to him largely because of the trust he earned as a “street” reporter.
Most readers, regardless of their race or background, considered Acel as the voice of The Inquirer. He was a reporter who knew every part of the city, especially neighborhoods where white reporters rarely ventured except for a crime. It was not unusual for criminal suspects to walk into the newsroom to give themselves up to him.
Clearly, Acel was a pioneer for journalists of color, using his role to mine the streets for stories about everyday life in Black neighborhoods. He quickly gained a reputation for “telling it like it is” with stories that reflected real people, not the typical Black sports or crime stereotypes. When gang warfare erupted in city neighborhoods in the 1970s, Acel went out to meet the mothers of gang members who took to the streets to stop the mayhem. To the end of his career, Acel stayed in touch with those moms, proud of the voice he was able to give them.
Rather than be content with his fame as a reporter, Acel took up the challenge to lead the paper in its diversity efforts. A founder of the Philadelphia and National Association of Black Journalists, Acel constantly pitched stories to the City Desk that outstripped his own ability and time to do them.
With the help of Managing Editor Gene Foreman, Acel started the Art Peters Copy Editing program, one of the few efforts in the nation’s newsrooms to train minority interns for jobs on a copy desk. One of those interns, Sewell Chan, is now editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times. Scores of other interns went on to careers at The Inquirer or at newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times.
Acel also understood that it was rare for Philadelphia’s minority students to work on a high school paper. To remedy that, he started a Saturday high school journalism workshop and scholarship program — a program that now bears his name. Inspired by the success of that program, I recently started a Summer Pre-College program at Temple’s Klein College of Media and Communication that targets Philadelphia’s diverse students.
To the paper’s credit, the Art Peters and Acel Moore programs are still launching young talented professionals of color on media careers. But it’s still not enough. As evidenced by an Inquirer content audit, conducted by a team of Klein and Inquirer staff members, the low percentage of diverse sources and stories indicated how hard it is to reflect the reality of the Philadelphia community.
READ MORE: Workshop is Acel Moore’s enduring legacy. https://acel-moore.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=3673&action=edit
We shouldn’t need a Black History Month to recognize the legacy of this remarkable journalist and friend. But marking the anniversary of Acel’s death during this time of racial unrest should be a reminder for journalists everywhere about their responsibility to continue the fight for equality that is still Acel’s dream about who is an American.
Arlene Notoro-Morgan is an assistant dean at Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple University.