Belva Davis is the host of KQED television’s weekly news discussion show “This Week in Northern California,” and the author of a new memoir, “Never in My Wildest Dreams: A Black Woman’s Life in Journalism.”
The book is a memoir about your early career in journalism.
I got the bright idea I wanted to be a journalist as early as the ’50s. At that time, the media was clearly divided based on skin color. There were very few black Americans who worked for anything other than black organizations. My first foray into this was to act as a stringer for Jet Magazine, a Johnson Publishing Company magazine. I was an unpaid stringer, I didn’t have a byline. But what I did was to write small stories and send them off to Chicago to my editor, and my payment was that on the Monday after deadline, he would call me and I received invaluable advice about how to put a story together.
That led to more work in the segregated market of black newspapers. I become woman’s editor of the Sun Reporter in San Francisco, which led into my reading copy I’d written for the newspaper on a black programmed radio station. Then I got the idea that I wanted to be a disc jockey and have a program of my own. So I took a supposedly temporary job as a clerk traffic manager – really a pretty powerful job because what traffic managers do is, when salesmen sell time on the air for clients, they schedule when that gets run. You have a lot of influence.
I convinced one of the salesmen to sell a show we called “The Belva Davis Show.” It started a pretty rich radio career that I enjoyed thoroughly. As radio began to change and television was growing, I then became really serious about looking for a job in television. Its seeds came from a political event. I went with my radio news director to cover the ’64 Republican Convention at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. They were not credentialing people of color.
We managed to get in to that convention with gallery passes, and managed a full day of coverage without being discovered. Then on the second day we were discovered, as the temperature was heating within the convention itself and things were getting more and more out of hand. It’s a day people have written great books about. We were called the customary derogatory names and pelted with whatever people had to throw at us and we were driven from the Cow Palace. I’d been around long enough to see that the major market media was also being harassed, but they had their microphones and they were broadcasting this and making impressions on people about what I call the dirty deeds that were going on there. There was very little coverage that had anything to do with minorities at that convention, because there were so few of us, but there were people out on the street protesting. I decided I really wanted to be one of those with the power to change things.
I started looking for opportunities and finally found one. Ronald Reagan’s political career, many say, was made during that convention. Two years later he was elected governor. A woman who was one of the evening news anchors, part of a dynasty of influential Republicans, had said in a lifestyle interview that if Ronald Reagan was ever elected, she wanted to work for him. The day after the election, I called KPIX to apply for her job. That caused an uncomfortable situation. She did eventually go work for Reagan and the position was open. I competed with almost 70 other women for that position, and I got it.
You had some interactions with some people who are pretty famous historical figures now.
From just reading Robert F. Kennedy’s history and files, I did not think of him as a friend to African Americans, as opposed to his brother. There was a political cost to John F. Kennedy for standing up for Negroes. It was only after his death that he [RFK] became a compassionate person about a number of things. One of them was the plight of Natives Americans, which was an area I was interested in coming from South Mississippi and Louisiana, where the mingling of blacks and Native Americans is very commonplace.
I covered many of his news conferences once he made the decision to run for president, particularly his battles in California and his support for Cesar Chavez and the farm workers. He was going up to Yreka to a reservation where were some egregious things that we done. My cameraman and I talked him into letting us come along for the ride. It meant a nice long helicopter ride, in a pretty heavy fog, just talking like two people who had known each other and who were exploring family and friends and faith. I consider it a precious gift to have spent the time with him. Of course, it was not long after that he was gone.
What do you think of the current state of journalism?
Our mission was clearer, the dividing line between those who entertained with political tidbits was clearly different from those who gave their time, energy and lives to providing factual information. I think that line has been crossed over and become murky, and that does not serve the public well. I’ve always felt that doing journalism is a privilege. I think it’s sad that in this day and age, when things are moving so fast, there are so few people to bring a balanced voice.