Q&A with News Woman Carole Simpson

Starting at the height of the civil rights movement, Carole Simpson parlayed her natural curiosity, intellect, and persistence into a ground-breaking career in journalism that lasted some forty years. In her memoir, NewsLady (Authorhouse, 2010), she gives an uncensored account of her professional struggles and glass-ceiling-shattering triumphs. This summer, Martha’s Vineyard Magazine contributing writer Kate Feiffer stopped by Carole’s Oak Bluffs home for a chat. Here is an edited version of that conversation.

Many of us go through life without achieving any significant firsts, but you’ve had a remarkable number of firsts in your life. What would you say was the first of your monumental firsts?

When I graduated from college in 1965, it was unusual for a black woman or a white woman to go into journalism. Back in those days, you were either a nurse or a teacher or a social worker and that was about it, but I really loved current events. I was very curious as a child; I was always asking questions. It was the height of the civil rights movement, and there were news departments that didn’t have black people to go cover the story of what it is these black people want. “What is it you want?” If I heard that one more time: “What do you people want?”

They had white reporters that were afraid to go into ghetto neighborhoods. So there were a whole slew of us that were hired to cover the civil rights revolution. I had the two journalism degrees and I was at the right place at the right time, so I became the first woman to broadcast news in the city of Chicago. They had women’s afternoon shows, to talk about recipes and celebrities in town, but for hard news, I was the first woman.

You encountered both racial stereotyping and what might be described as unusual market research when you transitioned from a radio reporter to television. Can you tell us a bit about that?

People heard my name and they heard me on the radio, and then at news events they were shocked because I didn’t sound black. “Colored people don’t talk like that. You’re not Carole Simpson.” They’d say, “How did you get your mouth to get those words out like you do?” – thinking that I had to have special training or something to talk that way, which is the same way that my sister and my mother talk. When I moved to WMAQ-TV, the NBC-owned and -operated station, I became the first black woman to anchor the news. It was on the weekends: I was told that white people didn’t like to hear black people during the week, but on weekends [she laughs] they could listen to us and believe us. It’s true. It’s so crazy.

You write in NewsLady, “Lots of people back then thought that I was a rebel. Today people say I was a trailblazer.” You kept breaking new ground.

I became the first black network television correspondent for NBC News. Then I left NBC and went to ABC News and became the first network anchor, of the weekend news, mind you. I did that for fifteen years.

I was chosen by the bipartisan commission on presidential debates to moderate the town hall meeting debate in 1992 between Governor Bill Clinton and President George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot. This was the capstone of my career, because that debate was seen by 91 million people and it was shown overseas. I was the first woman or minority to moderate a presidential debate. So those were the firsts. They didn’t come easily. Nobody just said, “Hey Carole, we’re going to make you an anchor. We’re going to give this to you because you are so good.” It was my cajoling, my urging, my almost begging to be an anchor that led to these opportunities.

Your career got a serious jump-start from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., right?

When we heard that Dr. King was coming in early 1967 to Chicago to run a civil rights campaign, the city of Chicago went berserk. Nobody knew why he was coming, so that was the big question the press corps was trying to answer. I persuaded my boss to let me cover the story. All the press were jammed at the airport gate; we thought Dr. King would be coming through, but he didn’t come through the gate.

Everybody was so disappointed that we didn’t get his arrival, and so everybody decided to run downtown. He used to stay at a downtown hotel every time he came to Chicago on fundraisers and speeches, so everybody headed to that hotel and I just had an inkling that he probably wasn’t going to go down there for this very reason. And I said, “I bet he’s going to stay around the airport.” I went to maybe six hotels until I got to the O’Hare Inn, and I went to the reservation clerk and I said, “I am from WCFL radio and I’m wondering if Dr. King is registered here.” And she said, “No, of course not.” It was the of course not which struck me. Of course not. So I said, “I bet he’s here. I know he’s here.” So I went to the elevator and I went up, floor by floor. I got up to the seventh floor and I could see at the end of the corridor a bunch of black men, and I recognized Dr. Ralph Abernathy.

Amazing sleuthing.

I went up to the men and said, “I’m Carole Simpson with WCFL radio and I’d like to get an interview with Dr. King about why he’s here in Chicago,” and one of them said, “Young lady, Dr. King is not going to talk to you. He’s holding a press conference tomorrow and you’ll find out along with everybody else why Dr. King is here.” And I said, “He won’t talk to me?” and I’m being my little cutesy young self, and it was not working. And I said, “Well, I’m going to stay here until I can get to see Dr. King.”

I decided to plunk myself at the elevators. He had to go down those elevators, and if he was going down the elevators, he had to pass me. That was about 7 p.m. At midnight, the guy who had told me I wasn’t going to see him said, “You’re not still here, are you?” And I said, “Yes, I told you I was going to stay. I’m going to talk to Dr. King,” and he laughed at me and he said, “You poor thing. You ought to go home and be at the 10 o’clock press conference.” I said, “Nope, I’m staying.”

By about 7 o’clock in the morning, I had about had it, but all of a sudden I see him [Dr. King] come walking down the hall. I got up. I’m trying to straighten up my clothes. I grabbed a lipstick and I fluffed up my hair, and as he came walking toward me, I can’t tell you the excitement I felt to actually see the man in person. He said, “Are you the young lady they’ve been telling me about?” I said, “I guess so.” He said, “Have you been here all night?” I said, “Yes, Dr. King. I’m the first black female reporter in Chicago and I’m really trying to make a name for myself and if you would tell me why you’re here in Chicago, it would really help my career.” And he said, “Well, I admire your persistence, young lady,” and he said, “Let me whisper in your ear.” And he whispered in my ear that he had come to challenge Mayor Richard J. Daley and the segregated housing patterns in the city of Chicago. “We’re going to challenge him on fair housing laws,” and he said, “Now don’t tell anybody.” And I was like, “Don’t tell anybody!” and he gave me a wink.

They were holding the elevator for him and he said, “Goodbye, young lady. I expect great things from you.” So I ran immediately to the telephone and got on the air at 7:30. They broke into programming and said, “WCFL has an exclusive on Dr. King’s visit and here’s Carole Simpson.” I reported what’s going to be happening. I went back to the office, straightened myself up, and went to the news conference, where he did make the announcement. I had gotten it right. I was sitting in the front row. I had gotten there early and he gave me a wink and kind of thumbs up.

I’m wondering what first brought you to the Vineyard.

I had of course heard about it for years – wealthy African Americans who would spend their summers on Martha’s Vineyard – so I was particularly curious about what kind of place this is. People throughout African American history had come to the Island, so there must be something about it. But I was living in Washington and we’d go to the ocean resorts of Delaware and Maryland and just didn’t come here. But my daughter went to Harvard and she went to Harvard Medical and got her medical residency there, and she fell in love with a Boston native whose parents had had a house on the Island for forty-five years or something like that. Then for our fortieth wedding anniversary, my daughter decided to bring us to the Vineyard. We had the best time. So I told Jim [Marshall, her husband], let’s buy a little house. So that next year [2007] we bought this house.

By this time you were no longer living in Washington, right?

When I retired from ABC [she last anchored in 2003], I was in Washington and we had a big house, and my husband and I were living in four of the thirteen rooms. It’s like we need to downsize. [Laughs.] And so we moved to Boston to be near my daughter. Now we come [to the Vineyard] all year long to get away from the city. It’s a respite. It’s otherworldly for me. It’s a place where I feel rested and fulfilled and I bring my grandbabies here. I’ve made some wonderful friends from all over the country – from Dallas, from California, from Florida, from Georgia – and it’s so nice to come back in the summer and get together. And this is where I wrote the book.

Tell me about that.

For two summers and the times I would come during the off-months, I would write. You know when you’re sitting at home, the phone is ringing – there’s always stuff to do? You see that closet that you haven’t cleaned; there is always something that intrudes. But here I was able to put on my earphones, plug them into my computer, and type away. It came easily and it was quite an experience in that I would start writing about things and start crying and I’d have to stop, get myself together, and go back. It was cathartic though, ’cause I got it out. I had had it bottled up for a lot of time so that helped me free my mind and get past it. Now this is a new life as a college professor [at Emerson College in Boston], which I enjoy immensely – and then having my summers off, having my holidays.

Was it important for you to live in Oak Bluffs?

It was important. Of course I heard about the Inkwell, which I see is being taken over by white people.

I’m afraid I’m one of those white people.

I don’t care. It’s fine with me. I’m not about exclusion; I’m about inclusion.