SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Hollywood stars will mingle with marquee politicians and glamorous journalists like Robert Siegel in Washington, D.C. tonight at the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner. The black-tie event has evolved or descended into a kind of comedy roast. This year, the Correspondents' Association celebrates its 100th anniversary and it plans to honor the first African-American reporter to cover a presidential news conference. As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, this recognition is 70 years overdue.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: It was 1944 when Harry McAlpin finally broke the color barrier in the White House Press Corps. National Journal reporter George Condon, who's writing a book about the Correspondents' Association, says black newspaper editors had complained for years that the white reporters covering the president weren't asking the questions their readers wanted answers to. At their urging, Franklin Roosevelt finally opened the door to McAlpin, a reporter for the Atlanta Daily World.
GEORGE CONDON: He knew there was one black face in the room where there'd never been one before. So after the press conference, Roosevelt, seated in his chair, called him over and shook his hand and said that, glad to see you here, McAlpin.
HORSLEY: Ordinarily, Condon says, the head of the Correspondents' Association would have introduced a new reporter on the beat. But McAlpin didn't get that courtesy. The Association was an all-white club at the time, and its leader actively tried to prevent McAlpin from entering the Oval Office.
CONDON: He told him, it's possible it's so crowded in there that you might step on a white reporter's foot and then there could be a riot in the Oval Office. And McAlpin was privately furious but he maintained his calm. And he said, well, I'd be surprised if that happened, but if it does, that would be a hell of a news story. I want to be there for that.
HORSLEY: McAlpin's son Sherman says that sounds like his father, a man who was rarely confrontational but who could be persistent in pursuit of a goal.
SHERMAN MCALPIN: He was not into aggressive or truly overt means of achieving integration and so on. That doesn't mean that he wasn't about to fight for equal opportunity and would press in a very measured way to achieve that.
HORSLEY: The elder McAlpin later served as a war correspondent in the South Pacific and eventually settled in Louisville, Kentucky, where he led the local chapter of the NAACP. Harry McAlpin died in 1985. Even though he covered the White House under presidents Roosevelt and Truman, Sherman McAlpin says his father was never allowed to join the Correspondents' Association or invited to the annual dinner.
MCALPIN: Internally, I think it would have bothered him, but he was one of those people that simply would soldier on and would not be about to let it show.
HORSLEY: It was 1951 before the first black reporter was allowed to join the Association. Women were excluded from the dinner until 1962 when President Kennedy threatened to boycott unless they were allowed in. Tonight, the Association will award its first-ever Harry McAlpin Scholarship in honor of the trailblazing correspondent. Association President Steve Thomma says the goal is to keep McAlpin's story alive, inspire young reporters and acknowledge the organization's past mistakes.
STEVE THOMMA: Well, that's the definition of history. We're going to tell the whole story.
HORSLEY: McAlpin himself will finally receive an honorary membership in the group tonight. Seventy years is a long time to wait for an apology. But George Condon, who's historical research led to the scholarship, says it's never too late to try to set things right. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.
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