Jack Newfield: From the Radical Outpost


By Eve Berliner



An intense, young Jack Newfield at work, 1973.


By Eve Berliner


An enemy of corruption, subjugation, exploitation, a pugilistic street fighter for the abused, Jack Newfield is a journalist of sacred rage.

His constituency is the victims, underdogs and rebels of this earth.

He has taken on the likes of Don King, Louis Farrakhan, Edward Koch and the judicial establishment of the City of New York.

That profound sense of injustice came early to this child of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, whose father was stolen off the earth when he was four years of age leaving him an only child of the working class poor.

His mother struggled valiantly, never quite recovering from the loss, never remarrying or ever having a date. Her mandate was to work. By the time Jack entered Public School 54, she was slaving away five days a week in a department store in downtown Brooklyn, Jack a latch-key child of the early 40's.

They were essentially the last white family on the block, the suspicion of authority innate, the alliance with the powerless forged.

* * *

It was to be Jackie Robinson who would inflame and inspire him, Jackie Robinson who came up to the Dodgers in 1947 when Newfield was nine years of age, a fanatical Dodger fan, reading about him day in and day out, Robinson who would prevail with daring and heroism and pride in the face of vilification.

"He was the first outsider/underdog I identified with.

"Eight years ahead of the Supreme Court's ruling, baseball was integrated in a ballpark that was walking distance from my house in 1947. And I read the Post. I read Jimmy Cannon every day and saw the bigotry, the discrimination – bean balls, exclusion -- that was all directed at Robinson. People resenting his existence in the Major Leagues.

"The first time I ever saw him play was on July 4th, 1948 when I saw him steal home.

"I had a deep identification with him and with Brooklyn."

* * *                                        

The great journalistic influences came early.

"The best thing that ever happened to me was discovering the Jimmy Cannon/Murray Kempton New York Post when I was nine years old. They made me want to become a journalist.

"Murray made me want to be a writer and an intellectual. It was the wit, the irony, the subtlety, the deep learning and literature behind it. And once I got to know Murray it was even better than reading him. Listening to him was like Shakespeare. He was such a forgiving, generous person. Murray solved the mystery of how to be a good human being. To me he was perfection with class.

"Cannon in the 40's was a great liberal. He crusaded for Jackie Robinson even before he came up to the Majors. He was able to humanize all these black athletes for me as a kid, reading about Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson. He was a poet of the city, of Broadway, of Greenwich Village. He was a real urban writer to me, not just a sports writer.

"I.F. Stone was the first model of investigative journalism. I discovered him in college. To me he was like Sherlock Holmes. From him I learned you've got to read all the documents, read all the transcripts, annoy the bureaucrats to give you the memos. Read, read, read. That was the lesson I took from Stone.

"Later it was Mailer. I was deeply influenced by Norman Mailer's journalism. Mailer was a founder of the Village Voice when I went to work there. I had read his fiction and knew that Mailer went to Boys High, my own high school, and I was very aware of him. He graduated in '41, I graduated in '55. When he started to write journalism, Advertisements for Myself and The Presidential Papers and his famous Esquire piece about the Democratic National Convention -- I still think that it's the single greatest piece of magazine journalism I've ever read -- it was called "Superman Comes to the Supermarket" about JFK's nomination in 1960. It was the first piece that caught the Hollywood domination of politics, the influence of marketing and public relations on politics. That piece blew my mind. It was like the first time I heard Bob Dylan and Charlie Parker. It opened a whole new room in my imagination of what journalism could be."

        * * *                

Mississippi -- the heart of darkness -- summer of 1963, Jack Newfield, part idealist, part anarchist, part innocent, on the frontlines of struggle.

"The summer of '63 was very scary. Houses were getting firebombed. Blacks were afraid to drive in a car with whites. This was the year in which Goodman, Cheney and Schwerner were killed.

"July 4th 1963, I was arrested in a civil rights sit-in and ended up spending two days in jail with Mickey Schwerner.

"By 1965 things were a little less tense. I got chased a few times and filed a complaint with the FBI."

                        * * *

Newfield had been drawn in to the civil rights movement by his best friend, Paul DuBrul. They became involved in organizing the "Youth March for Integrated Schools." He literally marched on Washington alongside Michael Harrington. [author, The Other America, 1962]

"It was the first time I ever heard King speak. And that day King spoke about voting rights. And King blew me away. This was April, 1959."

By February, 1960 he was involved in sit-ins at Hunter College where he was studying journalism and working in a little office on 125th Street organizing support demonstrations for sit-ins. "Met Bob Moses there and Bayard Rustin." In 1962, he began writing pamphlets for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC].

By 1964 he was writing about these matters on the pages of the Village Voice.

Newfield returned to Mississippi in 1965 to write his powerful and searching first book, A Prophetic Minority which emerged out of his searing experience in Mississippi.

"I spent a lot of time in Mississippi writing that book. I lived with a farmer in Southwest Mississippi named E.W. Steptoe, one of the great characters I met."

Mississippi, a turning point in the life of Jack Newfield, a rude awakening.

                        * * *

The assassination of the dream -- John, Martin and Bobby -- came hard to Jack Newfield who had come to love, to know deeply as friend and biographer (then in progress) of Robert Francis Kennedy.

June 5, 1968, Jack there in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel when the moan rose like a wave across the room -- men and women weeping and praying, wailing, pounding the floor -- and Bobby was dead, the last hope of America gone.

"Though it's really unknowable, I think that if Bobby had lived to be President we would have ended the Vietnam War much sooner, renewed the war on poverty; we would have had a totally different policy toward blacks than Richard Nixon had. Kennedy was still a work in progress when he was killed -- just 42 years of age, King 39 when he was killed. Could have been around together another 30 years on parallel tracks."

The friendship was a great treasure.

Lingering memories: "The joy in people's eyes, particularly Mexicans and blacks when he came through their neighborhoods. He used to let me ride in his car with him during the California primary. I was able to see the expressions on people's faces the seconds after he touched their hands. He had a singular chemistry with blacks and Hispanics and to some degree with poor whites. There was an intensity in the way poor people trusted him that I never saw in anybody else.

"I think it was the murder of his brother that was the defining event of his life. After that he identified with anybody who had a hurt, a loss, and when he got elected to the Senate he became a moral witness to poverty."

"With King I didn't quite grasp that he was the greatest American of the 20th century when he was alive and it's only through the course of time that I now have come to understand how amazing King was in his capacity to grow and his ability to stay sane in the late 60's when so many people around him were going nuts, becoming terrorists or dropping out or getting into drugs or hating America or giving up on integration. King never lost his commitment to an interracial society, to democracy, to non-violence, to reason."

                        * * *        

For Jack Newfield, the sport of boxing has always been a kind of paradox of brutality and art.

"I've always considered boxing a guilty pleasure," he states.

His explosive 1995 book Only in America: The Life and Crimes of Don King is a scathing portrait of the flamboyant, brutal and corrupt boxing promoter and the dark corrupt underworld of boxing.

"I now know a lot of fighters who are almost all black and Latino who have been exploited. I view fighters as exploited workers, uneducated, like the farm workers of the 1960's and the miners of the 1930's. Fighters are the only athletes without a labor union. Baseball, football, basketball, hockey, all have a union. They're victimized and exploited by the promoters and I view my writing about boxing as another way to defend the working class against the rich plutocrat."

"Sugar Ray Robinson was the greatest fighter who ever lived. When I met him late in life he talked to me about how much he hated fighting. In 1947 he killed an opponent in the ring in Cleveland. 'Ever since then I hate what I do,' he told me. 'God gave me the gift to be a great fighter. I don't enjoy it. I pray for my opponent before every fight.'"

Of Ali: "Hurts my heart whenever I see him. I see him pretty regularly at events and I give him a hug and he taps me on the chin and my heart breaks because I know all the punches he took in fighting and in the gym contributed to his condition."Sugar Ray Robinson had Alzheimer's, Joe Louis had dementia and Ali. The three greatest fighters who ever lived all ended up with tragic medical conditions. It's like a curse.

"I'm very ambivalent about boxing."

* * *                                        

Newfield pleads guilty to the suspicion that he is on more than a few hit lists: slumlords, labor racketeers, nursing home operators, arsonists, errant politicians.

"Sued by Farrakhan for $44-billion. Thrown out of court.

"Koch [City for Sale: Ed Koch and the Betrayal of New York City, 1989] is the one who really tried to hurt me by trying to get me fired repeatedly when he was Mayor. Even tried to buy the Voice to fire me. Sued me at the Post about three years ago.

"Don King screams and yells. Has a lot of bluster, calls me bad names.

"The judges -- they hate me. I've written the Ten Worst Judges list eight different times. Four of them sued. All dismissed before trial by other judges.

"Never been sued successfully. I'm very careful."

* * *                                

And so after a journalistic reign at the Village Voice from 1964 to 1988 as a reporter, columnist and senior editor, a brief but wonderful two and a half year stint as a columnist and senior investigative editor at The Daily News, he resigned on principle as a member of management to support the striking workers in 1990. "In some ways that was much harder to do than going to Mississippi. I was giving up a job I loved to support ten unions. I had to live the way I write."

As for life at the Post under Rupert Murdoch [October '91 to present], "I only met him once in my life. I'm forever grateful that I have the freedom to write columns that dispute the whole editorial section. I can write ten columns knocking D'Amato two years ago or criticizing Giuliani or Pataki or Newt Gingrich or Clarence Thomas when the editorial page is supporting these people. And I'm very, very grateful for that. To my amazement the Post gives me more freedom than the Village Voice did at the end."

Jack Newfield and his family have resided in Greenwich Village these many years. His wife Janie is a social worker at Beth Israel Hospital, his daughter Rebecca, age 22 and a theatre major, now with The Roundabout Theatre Group, his son Joey, 19, a staff photographer for the New York Post.

Jack Newfield, in the end, a muckraker, a voice of conscience, a voice of sacred rage, in the tradition of Murray Kempton, his guiding light.


table of contents

Eve’s Magazine