Forthright Editor/Journalist With Fresh Take on U.S. & Iran
Percival Leroy Prattis (1895-1980) was a journalist, reporter, foreign correspondent, and executive editor of the highly influential, nationally circulated black newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier.
A World War I combat veteran, Prattis first gained notoriety as a newsman for exposing racial discrimination in the military. In 1947, he became the first “Negro journalist” to be admitted to the U.S. Congress (House and Senate) press galleries.
During his distinguished career Prattis also met, interviewed or corresponded with such figures as John F. Kennedy, Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, Lena Horne, Averell Harriman, Haile Selassie, Eleanor Roosevelt, Malcolm X, Jackie Robinson, W.E.B. Dubois, Adam Clayton Powell, Richard Nixon, Paul Robeson, Carl Rowan, Ralph Bunche, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Langston Hughes, Thurgood Marshall, Elijah Muhammad, Kwame Nkrumah, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Martin Luther Ling, Jr.
In addition to his duties as editor of the Courier, Prattis also wrote a weekly column, The Horizon which evinced his rational, humanitarian perspective on a variety of pressing topics. One theme which animated him was the connection he saw between the racial divide domestically and the Cold War.
“If the United States can find a way to win the friendship of the colored peoples of the world, there need be no fear of Russia or communism”, he wrote in 1951. “But the United States cannot win that friendship without demonstrating that she is friendly and fair to the colored peoples within her borders. That is why the fight for the rights of Negroes in this country is in essence a struggle to put the United States right with the world and to strengthen its hopes for the future.”
Prattis saw the fight for racial emancipation as a patriotic duty, and was unreticent in saying so. “Negro leaders who contend for the rights of their people, who try to change the heart of America, are helping their country”, he argued. “When they back down, they betray their people and their country.”
While on an NBC radio panel with news colleagues in March 1951, Washington Evening Star reporter Doris Fleeson challenged this approach, suggesting that the black press “tone down” its coverage of race discrimination in order to not feed Soviet propaganda interests. Prattis disagreed completely, responding further in a subsequent column:
Prattis’ unflinching dedication to civil rights was intertwined with his conception of being a dutiful citizen. “What seems good for only the Negro is for the good of all Americans”, he wrote. Yet segregation, he maintained, to the nation’s detriment, “denies Negroes access to the blood stream of American society”.
The conscription of young black men in the U.S. Army, then fighting and dying in Korea to defend “the democracy they did not enjoy”, also rankled. Remarked Prattis in June 1951, “How can a man, a real man, who is spat upon, cheated, segregated, jim-crowed, humiliated and insulted almost every day of his natural life as a civilian, be expected to forget all of this when he becomes a soldier and be made to feel that his country offers him something for which he should give up his life?
The Iranian oil crisis was a topic which he returned to repeatedly in a series of mindful and probing columns. He once explained why it engrossed him: “My interest remains alive because what is taking place in Iran is a prime example of the kind of behaviour on the part of Western nations which angered the peoples of Asia and Africa, white, black, brown and yellow.” Prattis believed the British were treating the Iranians as inferior, and criticized them for refusing to work for Iranians and for not sharing knowledge on oil production methods.
Prattis’ writings on the nationalization dispute, in fact, would come to the attention of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. itself, which directly responded to his charges point-by-point. Prattis published them without comment in an August 1951 column.
When Iran accepted Averell Harriman as mediator, Prattis was heartened by the news and believed the U.S. ambassador would act in good faith. In his estimation, the stakes were dire. Invoking the possibility of World War III, Prattis warned, “Why should we go along with a British policy of domination which is bound to lead to war? Americans may think Iran has little significance to them. But if war breaks out over Iranian oil and the Iranian desire for independence, we “ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.”
The outcome may not have been war, but it was still calamitous. Three weeks after the U.S. and British sponsored overthrow of Iran’s democratic government, a disappointed and exasperated Prattis wrote a column calling into question U.S. foreign policy in various international spheres. He observed that the United States always found itself going against the people—and Mossadegh, he emphasized, definitely represented the people.
Throughout his distinguished journalistic career, spanning roughly half a century and two world wars, Percival Prattis advocated equal rights at home and engaging with nations in a “spirit of brotherliness and mutual dependence” abroad. Generations later, his thoughts still resonate.
When Black Lives Matter, Iran’s Anti-U.S. Propaganda Suffers
Indian Writer Hails Dr. Mossadegh As “Hero of the East” (1954)
Sociologist Horace Cayton, Jr.: Black People Can Learn From Iranians — November 17, 1951
MOSSADEGH t-shirts — “If I sit silently, I have sinned”