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KU journalism professor led with love amid hate

Professor Samuel Adams recruited me to the University of Kansas in 1985 through his summer journalism camp.

As a reporter at the St. Petersburg Times, Adams helped launch President Lyndon Johnson’s war on hunger by posing as a migrant farm worker.

Adams worked for the Democratic National Committee in Washington during Watergate and stood just feet from Gov. George Wallace as he blocked integration efforts at the University of Alabama. Adams curated journalism’s Ida B. Wells diversity award.

He’s always led.

But it wasn’t until one of his award-winning efforts resurfaced recently that I realized how neatly his work corresponds with civic leadership. His 1964 seven-part series, “Highways of Hope,” seemingly checks every competency box. (Above image courtesy of the Tampa Bay Times.)

Four months after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, Adams and his wife, Elenora, embarked on a 4,000-mile, 15-day Confederate-states tour to measure the edict’s impact.

“We were to forget, if we could, our color,” he wrote. “We were to report what happened to us, but to precipitate no trouble.”

Black travelers faced humiliation or death, according to a recent story about the series in the Tampa Bay Times (as the St. Petersburg Times is now known). Friends offered Adams weapons for protection. He declined.

“I have lived with fear so long I am hardly aware it’s there,” he was quoted  as saying.

Southern businesses discouraged black patronage, the Adamses found, by pretending to be closing as black people approached or by placing reserved signs on all of the restaurant tables.

“Elenora became depressed and I developed a splitting headache for want of food,” he wrote.

Despite being routinely denied service in restaurants, hotels and even an emergency room during the trip, the experiment found rays of hope.

But consider this series under civic leadership’s lens.

Some connections are obvious: “leadership is an activity,” and “leadership is risky.” Others, such as distinguishing between technical and adaptive work – changing laws versus changing hearts – breathe just beneath the surface.

Adams also held relentlessly to purpose and, importantly, spoke to loss. If our society more willingly spoke to racial loss, we’d achieve greater progress.

Most powerfully, Adams managed self. He did what was needed rather than what was comfortable. He distinguished between himself as a black man traveling the South and his role as a reporter, while managing vulnerabilities and triggers.

When he wrote the series, Adams had three academic degrees but could only write for the Negro News section of the mainstream paper. Today, most Kansas newsrooms don’t have one black reporter.

He’s always led.

He taught us that journalism exercised incredible power but lacked legitimacy without diversity. We were either full partners, or the journalism was illegitimate.

I called him on his birthday in January, finding him in his native Waycross, Georgia, where he had lived in retirement. I knew by his voice that I’d allowed too much time to pass since our previous conversation. We’re so close, I call him “Daddy Sam.” When you’re loved enough that you’re missed, that’s love.

That may be his greatest lesson: We don’t lead without love, even when confronting hate.

Editor’s Note: Professor Samuel Adams died in April, after this column was written but prior to its publication.

A version of this article was originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/1yrgiftsub.

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