Sonja D. Williams: Word Warrior: Richard Durham, Radio, and Freedom (University of Illinois Press, 2015)

Radio script writer and ’word warrior’ Richard Durham (1917-1984) was a product of the Illinois Writers Project radio unit – part of the Works Progress Administration of president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal – meeting regularly between 1939 and 1943 to discuss the future of radio as a medium for social change and honing their skills as scriptwriters, according to author, oral historian, and famous Chicago radio broadcaster Louis ‘Studs’ Terkel (1912-2008).   

Praised for his ear and skills as a writer and editor by Terkel and another Chicagoan, novelist Leon Forrest, Richard Durham had definite ideas about writing: “I had been coached in writing along the theory that writing is mainly a thing of exposing injustices.” A writer needed to have a clear sense of right and wrong, “because that is what gets the passion out of the audience.”

Richard Durham had a long career as a journalist for papers like Chicago Defender; working for  the Packing House Workers of America, the progressive labor union organizing workers – two third Negro and Mexican – in the Chicago stockyards and on the dangerous ‘killing floors’ of the ‘hog butcher of the world’; editor of Nation of Islam’s newspaper Muhammad Speaks; ghost-writer for Muhammad Ali’s The Greatest: My Own Story (1975); and a Harold Washington advisor on Washington’s successful campaign to become Chicago’s first African American mayor.

But Richard Durham’s fame rests on his radio shows, his pioneering work as scriptwriter, especially for Destination Freedom (1948-1950), a weekly show produced against the odds, what with no staff – Durham put renowned black librarian Vivian G. Harsh to work digging up the ‘raw data’ for his scripts – , low salaries and impossible deadlines. And censorship: NBC rejected out of hand his script on Nat Turner’s 1831 Virginia slave rebellion, taking the lives of many white slave owners too. And segregation was off limits, it being a ‘constitutional matter’, according to NBC.

Crispus Attucks, former slave and first victim in the American Revolutionary War, was the first of many often unsung heroes of African American history journeying towards freedom, equality and empowerment – people like Ida B. Wells, Jesse Owens and Marian Anderson – portrayed in this groundbreaking show, at a time when minstrel shows like Amos ‘n’ Andy was still standard fare.   

Exhaustively researched, Sonja D. Williams’ Richard Durham biography shifts back and forth  between Durham’s private and professional life, and sketching issues in American and African American politics that Durham had to deal with at various stages of his career. 

In 1989 historian J. Fred MacDonald published Richard Durham’s Destination Freedom: Scripts from Radio’s Black Legacy, 1948-1950. And 42 original broadcasts of Destination Freedom episodes can be accessed online, perhaps the better place to start looking for this ‘word warrior.’

In 2007 Richard Durham was posthumously inducted to the National Radio Hall of Fame.