Observing tradition

New generation taking the reins of Sacramento’s venerable black newspaper

Larry Lee, left, and his dad, William Lee, right, publish The Sacramento Observer—and look good doing it, too.

Larry Lee, left, and his dad, William Lee, right, publish The Sacramento Observer—and look good doing it, too.

Photo By Larry Dalton

It’s been said that history is made by those who write it. If that’s the case, then Sacramento’s black community is fortunate that The Sacramento Observer has been documenting the news and events that have shaped the lives of local African-Americans for the past 44 years. Without the weekly newspaper, it’s fair to say, much of Sacramento’s black history might have been lost.

The paper was founded in 1962 by William Lee, Geno Gladden and John Cole, local black civic leaders who had virtually no experience in publishing when they purchased what was then the Sacramento Outlook from the Rev. J.T. Muse. The threesome, hoping to expand the small religious weekly’s reach, rechristened it as The Sacramento Observer.

“What existed at the time was an absolute void in the information flowing to a small but fledgling community,” explained Lee (known to most as Dr. Lee), a robust 69-year-old who was interviewed with his son Larry, 32, in the Observer’s modern office building on Alhambra Boulevard. That small and fledgling community of 18,000 African-Americans since has grown to 70,000 people within city limits and 130,000 within Sacramento County, an audience the Observer continues to serve with a paid weekly circulation of 50,000 issues.

It was tough sledding in the early days—“We were losing all kinds of money,” said Lee—and in 1965, he assumed the newspaper’s debt from his two partners and the role of publisher he still holds today. Under his tutelage, the paper thrived and survived, playing an integral role during a time of dramatic social change in Sacramento and the country at large.

Though Sacramento wasn’t exactly the segregationist South during the early 1960s, local African-Americans still faced many obstacles. For example, Lee explained, hotels and restaurants sometimes would refuse to serve blacks. “They would do it in a subtle way,” he said. “You’d go to a hotel, and suddenly there were no rooms available for some reason.” Public schools were segregated, and blacks held few if any leadership roles in local government. There were no black city-council members, fire-department chiefs, police captains or judges. Housing covenants prohibited African-Americans from living in tonier neighborhoods such as Land Park.

These subtle and not-so-subtle forms of prejudice began slowly fading away with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Not long afterward, William Rutland became the first African-American elected to the Sacramento City Unified School District’s Board of Education. In 1968, Milton McGhee became the first black elected to the Sacramento City Council. In 1974, then-Governor Ronald Reagan appointed Thomas Daughtery, the first black judge in Sacramento County. Raymond Charles became the first African-American fire chief in 1986.

Many of these names and faces first became familiar to the African-American community through the pages of the Observer. But Lee, as humble as he is debonair, refuses to take credit for any role he might have played. “What we did is serve as a catalyst to ensure doors continued to open up,” he said.

The Observer faced its own obstacles as a black news organization. In the late 1960s, the Capitol Correspondents Association, composed of the full-time reporters who cover state government, refused to grant membership to journalists from the Observer because the newspaper was a weekly. Certainly the association didn’t mean to bar highly respected weekly publications such as Time from its membership, Lee asked incredulously. The association relented, granting the Observer access to cover the Capitol in 1973.

During the turbulent times of the early civil-rights era, the more activist members of the African-American community, including local members of the Black Panthers, grew impatient with the slow pace of societal change and often pressured Lee to be more militant in the pages of the Observer. Lee responded to such demands not by becoming more militant, but by opening more doors, for instance through helping persuade both The Sacramento Bee and the Stockton Record to hire their first black reporters, both of whom were Observer alumni.

“In reality, you have to find someone to make the change occur without them being embarrassed to do it,” Lee said. “If you have no choice, then it becomes a political story, as you can imagine.”

Barbara O’Connor, director of the California State University, Sacramento, Institute for the Study of Politics and Media, has lived in Sacramento since 1972 and knows both Lee and the Observer well. She admires his approach to journalism.

“Everybody knows they need to talk to him and listen to him, and they do,” she said. “He’s been very influential on a lot of social issues at the local, state and national levels. It’s almost like a quiet advocacy. It hasn’t been a mau-mauing approach. It’s about how we meet our needs in this climate, and he epitomizes it.”

Lee is not content to rest on his laurels and insists that there is much more work to be done. Doors remain to be opened. Gaps continue to exist between whites and blacks, in terms of income, access to technology and donations from philanthropic organizations, to name but three. In the future, he hopes to convince Sacramento County as well as local private organizations such as Sutter Health to make more minority hires in their upper ranks. However, he soon may cede those responsibilities to his son Larry, a San Jose journalism graduate who grew up in his father’s newspaper business.

“It was such an amazing place, to grow up around the Observer,” Larry said. “It was such a different view of blacks that I had rather than what I heard from all my friends, saw on television or read in books. What I saw was people who were serious about making changes and influencing their community: bright minds, creative thinkers and dedicated people.”

The younger Lee can now count himself among the bright, creative and dedicated employees at the Observer. In 2001, he established the Observer’s online presence; the Web site currently achieves more than 1 million page views per month. He’s helping organize the 16th annual Black Expo that takes place February 24-26 at Cal Expo. The event has become the largest black-history celebration in California since the Observer began running it four years ago.

“My generation has a lot of challenges; there are a lot of voids and gaps in our lives,” Larry said, before pausing. “My challenges are a little bit different, but my role is very much the same. How do you get readers to act? How do you inform them? How do you prepare them? How do you get them to change their lifestyles to benefit not only themselves, but their community as well?”