When Dwight Lewis was a student at what is now known as Old Austin High School in Knoxville, Tenn., he had his heart set on being a professional baseball player when he grew up. He did not expect journalism to get in the way — for 40 years.
Lewis, a seasoned newspaper reporter named editorial page editor of The Tennessean in 2008, is set to retire this fall. Since launching his career in March 1971, the 63-year-old Lewis has made his mark in history as a fierce advocate for those historically ignored by the press and politicians.
During those same years, as he traveled the state and nation and did a stint as a Washington correspondent, Lewis often had a front-row seat in interviews with scores of more well-known people from boxing great Muhammad Ali to convicted assassin James Earl Ray (until his dying day he insisted he did not kill Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) to President Obama.
“Other than being a professional baseball player like I wanted to be growing up, I can’t think of a career that would have been more enjoyable,” says Lewis, a 1972 graduate of Tennessee State University where he played on the school’s baseball team for three years and served as editor of the campus newspaper, The Meter.
In a recent interview, Lewis, who also taught college journalism part time for more than a decade, took a break from his hectic schedule to reflect on his career, the news business today and what it was like when he started as a college-campus stringer in Nashville for The Tennessean.
Diverse: Why did you pick journalism over baseball?
Lewis: That was easy. When you can’t hit, you can’t make it to the majors (he laughed).
Diverse: Why are you retiring?
Lewis: I went to work not thinking 40 years ahead. When I got to 39 years last year, I thought 40 would be nice. Forty years is long enough. I’ve watched my wife get sick before she retired (she is now homebound and requires 24-hour care). I watched my father get sick before he retired. I don’t know what’s going to happen but I don’t want to die on the job.
Diverse: What do you plan to do after you retire?
Lewis: I want to take care of my wife, finish a book of columns I’ve been working on, update A Will to Win (the book about the legendary Tennessee State athletic program), complete work on a book of essays I’ve asked people [to write] and finish the book about Dr. Dorothy Brown, the first Black female surgeon in the South. To write and work on a book of essays — it’s been an education for me. I’ve learned a lot, been a lot of places. I think I’ve helped change terrible conditions in [Tennessee] prisons. I hope I’ve made some differences.
Diverse: Is there one story that has touched you the most?
Lewis: I don’t know whether it changed my life but it made me cry. When the Civil Rights Museum was getting ready to open in 1989 in Montgomery, John Seigenthaler (the veteran journalist who gave Lewis his job) suggested we do some stories in advance of the opening. I interviewed a lot of people for the series, including one of the daughters of Viola Liuzzo, a White woman from Detroit who had decided to go down South and participate in the civil rights activities of the 60s. Her daughter told me that one night her mom told her children she was going and the daughter said they asked “can we go.” She said her mom told them, no, not this time. And that was the last time they saw their mother alive. She was shot to death by the (Ku Klux) Klan. As I listened to her talk, tears filled my eyes. It made you appreciate life.
Diverse: Among the well known people you’ve interviewed, tell us about your interviews with James Earl Ray, the man convicted of assassinating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Lewis: I was covering prisons and there was a ruling by the courts that Ray could not have an evidentiary hearing (he was seeking one to make his case for his innocence). I sought to interview him. He refused. Eventually, he agreed (and Lewis interviewed him several times over nearly two decades from the early 1970s to the late 1990s). In one interview, Ray said, “If they are waiting for a deathbed confession, they’re not getting it from me.”
Diverse: Did you believe Ray’s claim of innocence?
Lewis: No. He had all the chances in the world to prove his innocence, but he didn’t.
Diverse: What has been your least enjoyable story?
Lewis: The killings. Young Black people killing each other. You write stories and you write stories. People shoot each other and you say to yourself, “Did I do any good? Does anybody care? Is anybody listening? What did I not do? What could I do better?”
Diverse: How has journalism changed since you started?
Lewis: When I started, you had more people, more resources. We don’t have those resources anymore. That’s one of the sad things. You wish you had the people today to cover things like we did when I started. Who goes to the prisons? Who covers mental health? Who covers the poor? Does anybody care anymore? You have more technology today, the Internet, cable services. It’s a different day. I guess there’s still competition. But, you don’t have the people to get the story.
When you see the cutbacks taking place today and the people of color losing their jobs, you ask does diversity really matter. I just wonder sometimes if the people making this decision are taking time to ask themselves do you really want to lose that person. You read the Kerner Commission Report (the 1968 report by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders) and the section on the news media and say are we going backward?
Diverse: What advice do you have for teachers?
Lewis: Students have to believe in themselves and teachers have to tell them that. They have to give students a chance to really see what journalism is like. Get them inside a building, not just a school building. Get them inside a newsroom. It’s more than just the classroom. You’ve got to get them out.
Diverse: What advice do you have for students?
Lewis: Learn all you can about all aspects of the business. Also, know this is not a 9-to-5 job. You’ve got to be willing to put in the hours, and you’ve got to be willing to dig. Get out and learn the city you work in and build sources. As for internships, start looking in the fall. The thing that bothers me is when you get a call from a teacher or student in April or May looking for an internship. That’s too late.