Richard Durham

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Richard Durham

Richard Durham (1917-1984) was a Chicago writer, broadcaster and activist.

He was married to Clarice Durham and was the older brother of Earl Durham.

Early life

Richard Durham was born on September 6, 1917 in Raymond, Mississippi, a small rural community in Hindes County. His father, a farmer, moved the family to Chicago when Durham was seven years old. Durham attended Hyde Park High School and Northwestern University[1].


While at Northwestern, Durham joined the Communist Party USA infiltrated Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration and received training and experience as a radio scriptwriter. When this project ended, Durham joined the staff of the Chicago Defender[2].

He began to write poetry and to associate with other young, progressive African-American writers in Chicago’s South Side Writers Group, which included other outstanding writers like Arna Bontemps, Frank Marshall Davis, Margaret Walker and Richard Wright, who challenged the group, Jones says, to write about the “Negro masses” from a consciousness “informed by Marxism.”

At age 21, Durham sent his poems “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Death in a Kitchenette” to Langston Hughes in New York. Hughes not only replied but edited some of Durham’s work to show him how to “tighten it up a bit — cut extra words.”

Durham’s parents and six siblings were proud of his early success and set aside a room in their small home so he could write in seclusion. He also enrolled in a class or two at Northwestern University in Evanston, and got a factory job to earn tuition money. The rigors of the shop floor aggravated his bum leg, however, and he had to abandon both the job and his college plans.

Fortunately for Durham and other socially conscious youths of the Depression era, the New Deal’s jobs-creation programs under the Works Progress Administration included Federal Writers Projects in each state. The FWP’s most famous achievement was the American Guide Series, which included state histories, oral histories, histories of towns, waterways, photographs and art works.

Durham was one of the 6,700 or so writers whom the FWP employed and trained. Joining him on the Illinois Writers’ Project were several future prominent literary stars, including Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Studs Terkel and Jack Conroy.[3]

A Marxist Outlook

Alarmed by fascism and racism, and seeing the links between the two, Durham joined the Communist Party USA sometime in the late 1930s, Sonja Williams says, because he “likely found the party’s aggressive attempts to stop housing evictions, organize workers and integrate labor unions to be what historian Mary Helen Washington called ‘beacons of light’ for Chicago’s struggling Black population.”

Although it’s not clear how long he was in the CP, Williams notes that he retained a Marxist-Leninist point of view while focusing it on the particular needs and interests of African-Americans.[4]


Richard Durham met Clarice Davis in the early 1940s while working with the National Negro Congress. The couple married in 1942. During their married life, Mrs. Durham made significant contributions to Durham's work by reading, editing and typing many of the Destination Freedom scripts[5].

Early career

Durham's first major experience with radio came between 1946 and 1948 when he wrote scripts for a series on black achievement, Democracy U.S.A., which aired on WBBM, a CBS station.

While he was recovering from an injury, his sister gave him a typewriter and he began to write poetry and soon won first prize in a poetry contest. Durham also wrote scripts for Here Comes Tomorrow, a black soap opera that aired on WJJD. Destination Freedom, a dramatic radio series on WMAQ in Chicago, brought the freedom struggles of African Americans to Chicago listening audiences on Sunday mornings between 1948 and 1950[6].

The premier of Destination Freedom on June 27, 1948 signaled a landmark in African American broadcasting history.

Durham worked talented young intellectuals and entertainers including Oscar Brown Jr., Studs Terkel, Janice Kingslow, Wezlyn Tilden, Fred Pinkard and Vernon Jarrett.

Durham developed scripts that captured the lives and struggles of everyday men and women as well as prominent African Americans. Unlike the typical radio fare of its time, Destination Freedom featured social dramas that eloquently appealed for racial justice. As Durham explained, "the real-life story of a single Negro in Alabama walking into a voting booth across a Ku Klux Klan line has more drama and world implications than all the stereotypes Hollywood or radio can turn out in a thousand years."

Durham cast black actors in leading roles and told the stories of activists and leaders including Frederick Douglass, Toussaint L'Ouverture and Mary Church Terrell, writers and artists including Richard Wright, Katherine Dunham and Gwendolyn Brooks[7].

Richard Durham researched his shows in the Chicago Public Library with Vivian Harsh's assistance.

...close readings of autobiographies, monographs and speeches and skilled scriptwriting brought these historical and contemporary figures to life in poignant detail on Destination Freedom. Certain of the redemptive power of black history and education, Durham went beyond recounting the biographies of these figures and focused on the ways that they overcame racial injustice through resistance. Durham challenged network protocols to ensure that the series featured black women as equally important, history-making figures.

The series lacked a sponsor for most of the time it aired on WMAQ, but by relying on his earlier connections, Durham persuaded the Chicago Defender to fund the first weeks of the broadcast and the Urban League sponsored several broadcasts in 1950. Despite Durham's efforts to exercise authorial control over the series, WMAQ edited, controlled final script approval and rejected the more controversial stories of the lives of Nat Turner and Paul Robeson. Despite these conflicts, the station recognized the import and the success of the show when in 1949, it won a prestigious first-place award from the Institute for Education by Radio. On the anniversary of its first episode, Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson commended the program for its efforts in increasing racial tolerance and in educating the public on the contributions of African Americans[8].

Despite these accolades, WMAQ canceled Destination Freedom in 1950, just as the rising tide of anti-Communist conservatism began to adversely affect radio and the arts.

Union writer

In the 1950s, Durham worked as the national program director of the communist controlled United Packinghouse Workers of America. Durham was hired to write a pamphlet on the accomplishments of the union's anti-discrimination department. The pamphlet, "Action Against Jim Crow: UPWA's Fight for Equal Rights," described the progressive work of the union to end job discrimination and to elevate women to equal status and equal pay in the workplace.

The union was so pleased with Durham's work that they hired him as the head of the program office and he wrote and developed materials to publicize the union's programs and events. But conflict arose as Durham continued to put pressure on the union to support and to prioritize black advancement. In 1957, he was forced to resign[9].

Destination Freedom

Quite early on, Durham saw that he could reach and move vast audiences through radio drama. His talents in that field earned the respect of Irna Phillips, the queen of daytime radio, and he was soon scriptwriting and script-doctoring for programs like “The Lone Ranger,” “Suspense” and “Old Ma Perkins,” while also developing his own progressive scripts for “Democracy USA” and his path-breaking series “Here Comes Tomorrow” (dubbed “the first authentic radio serial of an American Negro family”) and “Destination Freedom.”

Corporate censorship in the “land of the free” meant that it was hard to tackle segregation head-on. Durham couldn’t target segregation directly, the network honchos told him. But he learned how to convey the value of militancy, courage and dignity in scripts whose protagonists ranged from Crispus Attucks and Sojourner Truth to Francisco Goya and pioneering African-American physicians and soldiers.

By 1947, according to a study of radio by the National Negro Congress, Durham seemed to have been the only African-American writer working fulltime in radio, the country’s most far-reaching mass medium of that day.

America’s reactionary McCarthyite witchhunt gained increasing support from big business from the early ‘50s on. Like many other progressive writers, Durham found himself squeezed out of his radio jobs — especially after he sued NBC for underpaying him and other Black writers, producers, directors and actors while simultaneously capitalizing on his scripts without his approval.

Adding to his stress was the need after June 3, 1949, to care for his and Clarice’s newborn son Mark Durham, who was born premature and required extra care. (Mark survived to become an outstanding student at Columbia University as well as a fine jazz musician.)

Durham’s case against NBC made its very slow way through the courts (ultimately being settled in 1955, after five years, with terms not made public), forcing Durham to seek a paying job elsewhere. He found it in 1952 in the publications department of one of Chicago’s biggest and most progressive unions, the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA), which had 500,000 members nationwide and 45,000 in Chicago.

Under its president Ralph Helstein, the UPWA was among the first unions to have an antidiscrimination clause in its contracts that barred employers from discriminating against its employees in hiring, pay or other ways. Durham began as a contract employee but gained staff status in the union’s Anti-Discrimination Department.

Durham constantly maneuvered the editor of the Packinghouse Worker newspaper to make it an unusually strong weapon against racism. After meeting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Chicago in 1955, Durham enlisted the union to give strong material support to the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56. He also invented an effective “sting” tactic of sending a white job applicant to an advertised job after the hirers had told a qualified Black applicant that there was no job.

Addie Wyatt, who rose from the meatpacking floor to be a UPWA vice president, said Durham led union efforts to fight for equal pay and rights for its women members. She recalled that Durham “was there to encourage you, but also to feed you with information that you’d need so that when you spoke or you wrote, you’d have the facts and figures to work with . . . he was not fearful of our struggle. He embraced it.”

When the CIO-linked packinghouse union prepared to merge with the larger but less progressive American Federation of Labor, Durham arranged a Black Caucus meeting that effectively pushed to preserve the jobs of several African-American union officers as the merger went through. Other unions were not so principled.[10]

Du Bois Theater Guild

In the 1950's Chicago's Du Bois Theater Guild was one of the first groups to stress "Black Awareness" in its theater philosophy.

Founding members included Richard Durham, Vernon Jarrett, Oscar Brown, Jr. and Janice Kingslow.[11].

Nation of islam

After leaving the Packinghose Union, Durham worked as a freelance journalist. In the 1960s, he became the editor of Muhammad Speaks, the weekly publication of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. Durham sought to provide an international perspective to the newspaper and included several articles on the independence struggles of African nations in the 1960s[12].

Durham had participated in a failed coup to unseat the union president. The losers got their walking papers. So he started a novel and plugged away at scripts from 1958 into the early 1960s. Then he again found a way to use his story-telling skills to reach and inspire a mass audience, this time through journalism.

When he learned that the Nation of Islam’s (NOI) national newspaper Muhammad Speaks was reaching more than 150,000 readers a month in mid-1962, he seized the opportunity to succeed the paper’s first editor, Dan Burley, who had died unexpectedly. Within a year the paper was reaching almost 300,000 readers a week.

Neither Burley nor Durham was a Muslim, but they valued the paper’s financial independence and its fighting spirit expressed in its dedication not to publish “All the News That’s Fit to Print” a la The New York Times, but “to Freedom, Justice and Equality for the so-called Negro.”[13]

While Richard Durham was editor Elijah Muhammad purchased the four-story Muhammad Speaks Newspaper Plant and Cold Storage building. The facility housed a meat processing plant as well as a four-color Goss “Suburbanite” printing press, capable of turning out 50,000 copies per hour. In 1969 a fledgling Black printing crew helped the newspaper make the transition into printing industry, as well as journalistic, leadership, going on line and producing the 400,000 per week press run, entirely in-house.

Durham, who presided over a great expansion in the newspaper’s circulation and international respect during the 1960s, was succeeded by John Woodford, another former Ebony editor and writer in 1970. Woodford also became close to the Communist Party USA. John Woodford expanded the newspaper’s coverage beyond simply a hard news journal with arguably the best coverage of Africa and the non-aligned movement in any U.S. newspaper, with features on the arts and music which were richly illustrated with photographs by Chester Sheard, Hassan Sharrieff and Robert Sengstacke[14].

Durham made the paper one of the most hard-hitting anti-racist and internationalist news organs in the world. Many prominent figures from Third World governments and national liberation movements met with him in Chicago at their embassies.

The paper was staunchly pro-labor (including regular support of the United Farmworkers Organization), pro-women’s rights, anti-police brutality, anti-Jim Crow and an opponent of imperialist wars, especially the ongoing one in Vietnam.

Among his many domestic mentoring roles, he was also guiding Black policemen in Chicago as they formed the Afro-American Patrolmen’s League, which sought to improve relations between Black police and the community they served and to combat police brutality and corruption in general.

When the league’s founders Buzz Palmer and Renault Robinson recounted to him some of the goofy but embittering ways the white cops treated their African-American colleagues, Durham remarked that such stories “might make a hell of a serial program.”

So they did. By early 1969, already having begun to work on radio scripts, Durham was ready to leave Muhammad Speaks and branch into television. So he developed the first Black daily soap opera, “Bird of the Iron Feather,” for Chicago’s public TV station WTTW.

Durham titled the drama after an 1847 assertion by the abolitionist Frederick Douglass that “the sons and daughters of Africa in the United States” had been “a bird for the hunter’s grasp, but a bird of iron feathers, unable to fly to freedom.”

Of the 100 planned Bird episodes, only 21 ran from January 1970 into spring. Station management used second-class budgeting and other methods to stifle the program, perhaps bowing to pressure from Mayor Richard J. Daley, corporate donors and the police department. Unrealistic job demands and other forms of interference by Black nationalist opportunists and ultraradicals also contributed to the program’s demise.[15]

Writing and broadcasting

In 1971, Durham created a television series, Bird of the Iron Feather, which aired on WTTW, a local PBS station in Chicago. Described as a "soul drama" and funded by the Ford Foundation, this series was praised for introducing more authentic television programming and for portraying African American life in a more realistic fashion. Given the dearth of blacks in television production, Bird of the Iron Feather broke new ground by being almost exclusively written, directed and produced by blacks. While working as an editor for Muhammad Speaks, Durham was asked to assist Muhammad Ali in writing his autobiography, The Greatest, which was published in 1977[16].

Afro-American Patrolman's League

After being on the police force for about a year, Officer Buzz Palmer experienced the “shoot to kill” order issued by mayor Richard J. Daley during the Black uprisings and looting that occurred on the Westside of Chicago following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Those events had a significant impact upon him.

Several Black police officers became concerned for the safety of unarmed Black leaders and Black citizens in general, being killed by white reactionaries. Officer Palmer decided to organize Black officers and began with a small cadre who also had not been on the force very long. Renault “Reggie” Robinson, Curtis Cowsen, Willie Ware, Wilbur Crooks, Jack Dubonnet and Tom Mitchell, who was not a police officer and Palmer, became the Afro-American Patrolman’s League. Howard Saffold and others came shortly, thereafter. They met initially in Palmer’s apartment and later, after chipping in, opened their first office on east 63rd Street.

Understanding that in order to adequately defend and protect the Black community, this small band of Black officers would need an umbrella of support. The endorsement of Black organizations in Chicago was imperative.

Richard Durham, although not a Muslim, editor of Muhammad Speaks was recruited. He convinced Palmer that Black police needed to demonstrate their support of the community and thus the slogan “We Support the Black Community” was born. [17]

Working for Harold Washington

Richard Durham wrote numerous speeches for Chicago's first African American mayor, Harold Washington, in the 1980s[18].

He also served as a key adviser behind the scenes for Harold Washington, in Washington’s hard-fought, successful 1983 campaign to become the first African-American mayor of Chicago.

Sukarno connection

A mild heart attack, coupled with other health issues, began to slow Durham down in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He also pursued some shaky business schemes with Rukmini Sukarno, a daughter of the Indonesian leader Akhmad Sukarno, who had been unseated during a genocidal “anti-Communist” coup masterminded and stage-managed by the CIA and other imperialist intelligence agencies.

The following year saw him again seeking to use his story-telling prowess, this time to write Rukmini Sukarno’s autobiography while also perhaps making a bundle in business deals with her. He flew to New York on April 27, 1984, to discuss matters with Rukmini and her husband Franklin Latimore Kline, a former soap opera actor.[19]

Death and memorial

Richard Durham died on April 27, 1984 while on a trip from Chicago to New York. At the time of his death, Durham was researching the life of Hannibal, the illustrious Carthagenian warrior who planned to conquer Rome. Mayor Harold Washington delivered the eulogy at his memorial service and a number of famous Chicagoans including historian Dempsey Travis, entertainer and former Destination Freedom cast member Oscar Brown Jr. and Congressmen Charles Hayes and Gus Savage attended the service.

In August 2007, Richard Durham was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame[20].

Black Press Institute

In 1987 Richard Durham (in memoriam) was on the Board of Directors of the Black Press Institute. Durham was a founding board member[21].


  3. [ A Word Warrior for Freedom — John WoodfordMarch-April 2016, ATC 181]
  4. [ A Word Warrior for Freedom — John WoodfordMarch-April 2016, ATC 181]
  10. [ A Word Warrior for Freedom — John WoodfordMarch-April 2016, ATC 181]
  11. Black World/Negro Digest Apr 1973 p 28
  13. [ A Word Warrior for Freedom — John WoodfordMarch-April 2016, ATC 181]
  15. [ A Word Warrior for Freedom — John WoodfordMarch-April 2016, ATC 181]
  17. Founding of the Afro-American Patrolman’s League, written by Edward “Buzz” Palmer titled “A Voyage of Discovery” and can be read in its entirety in a publication being written by Dr. Useni Perkins scheduled to be published in 2008 by Third World Press.
  19. A Word Warrior for Freedom— John WoodfordMarch-April 2016, ATC 181
  21. Black Press Institute Letterhead October 5 1987