When veteran journalist Samuel Yette started writing a provocative book that dealt with plots within the federal government to contain, control and destroy the U.S. Black population, he gave his two sons stern orders not to let anyone know what he had in the works.

“As children, we were not permitted to tell anyone that he was writing that book,” recalled Michael Yette, referring to his father’s 1971 treatise titled The Choice: The Issue of Black Survival in America.

Being the first Black Washington correspondent for Newsweek magazine, Michael Yette said, his father predicted that the magazine’s management would disapprove of his work and dismiss him from his post.

“So he did it privately,” the younger Yette recalled in an interview with the AFRO. “And when it was released in 1971, it did create a furor. It was very controversial.”

So controversial, in fact, that Yette lined up a teaching position in the journalism school at Howard University in anticipation of being let go from Newsweek – something that ultimately took place but which Newsweek denied was based on Yette’s controversial book.

Such was one of the critical turning points in the life of Samuel Frederick Yette, a revered reporter, journalism professor and civil servant who began his long and storied journalism career in the 1950s at Life magazine alongside famed photojournalist Gordon Parks, and later at the Baltimore and later the D.C. offices of the AFRO. While a staff writer at the AFRO, he largely covered Deep South cities hit with the social upheaval that ensued upon the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement.

Yette, 81, died last week at Morningside House, an assisted-living facility in Laurel, Md., after a battle with Alzheimer’s.

An award-winning writer, Yette – who later served as a adviser to Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign and official photographer for his 1988 campaign – is celebrated as one of the most groundbreaking journalists of his day

“During the ‘70s, it was a time of turmoil, and Yette had cut through all of that and sorted out, as a news magazine would, what the burning questions were and what the issues were and he connected the dots,” recalled Ron Taylor, a former {Washington Post} reporter, who worked at the newspaper at the same time that Yette covered the U.S. Capitol for Newsweek.

Yette was born on July 2, 1929 in Harriman, Tenn., the 12th of 13 children born to Mack and Cora Lee Rector Yette, a paper mill laborer and housewife, respectively.

Yette – who earned a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts from Tennessee A&I State University and a master’s degree in journalism and government from Indiana University – got his first big break in journalism when Life magazine tapped him to serve as a special assignment researcher during the summer of 1956 for a four-part series on segregation in the South, which he produced with famed photographer Gordon Parks.

“The series was considered a milestone in bringing racial restraints to the nation’s attention through a national news medium,” a biographical sketch of states.

After the series, Yette began working for The AFRO-American in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., covering cities besieged with racial strife over school and bus desegregation. His stories ultimately caught the attention of John H. Johnson, publisher of Ebony magazine, which brought him on board as associate editor in Chicago.

He also worked stints at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he set up and directed an information bureau; as aviation and science writer at the {Dayton Journal Herald} and in 1963 he was selected to serve as executive secretary for the Peace Corps, then directed by the late Sargent Shriver, who also passed away earlier this month. Yette later served as special assistant for civil rights under Shriver when he was director of the Office of Economic Opportunity.

Yette later went to work for Newsweek, where his reporting ultimately led him to produce the controversial book that precipitated his departure from the news magazine.

The award-winning book has been described as “an African American insider’s view of the relationship between the Vietnam War, the War On Poverty and African American survival.”

Yette’s son, Michael, said of his father’s book, which was later used as a textbook at Howard and other universities: “He wanted it to be a warning signal to let people know what your government is really up to and what they could do if you don’t pay attention. That’s why he called it The Choice: The Issue of Black Survival in America.”

Besides Michael, Yette is survived by another son, Frederick, and two granddaughters.

Click here to view the Celebration of Life program for Samuel Yette.

 

Jamaal Abdul-Alim

Special to the AFRO