Civil rights award honors newspaper figures

Two local journalistic icons will take center stage later this month as part of the Sixth Annual Heschel/King Award Celebration sponsored by Jews United for Justice (JUJ).

Dr. Donald Suggs, president/publisher of the St. Louis American, and Robert A. Cohn, editor-in-chief emeritus of the St. Louis Jewish Light, will be honored with the dual award, which every year jointly recognizes contributions by a member of the Jewish community and a member of the African-American community, echoing the cooperation of civil rights leaders Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Past recipients have included such prominent names as Sister Antona Ebo, Rabbis Bernard Lipnick and Jerome Grollman and Norman Seay.


The festivities are set for 4 p.m., Jan. 24 at the 560 Music Center, 560 Trinity Avenue. There is no charge for admission.

“In the month of January there is a confluence in the lives of Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King,” said Rabbi RandyFleisher, who noted that both men’s birthdays fall during the month. “We wanted to make sure that their relationship could be an example to another generation of activists, especially those who want to work in partnership and alliance with those from other communities.”

Fleisher, vice-chair of JUJ, said that the group first came up with the idea for recognizing this year’s honorees during the 2008 election campaign while watching the manner in which their respective organizations served as an outlet for information about the closely fought race.

“The community newspaper is an important niche part of journalism,” he said. “They play a role in enlightening, informing and motivating their communities.”

Suggs, 77, a native of East Chicago, Ind., is a graduate of Indiana University and Washington University Dental School. He later served as chief of oral surgery at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and was the first African-American to serve as an associate clinical professor at St. Louis University Dental School. Active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 70s, he served as chairman of the Poor People’s March on Washington in 1968. Later, he became founder and chairman of the African Continuum, organized to bring African-American artistic endeavors to St. Louis and served as president of the Alexander-Suggs Gallery of African Art as well as being a founding member of the Center for African Art and the first African-American president of the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Bureau.

In addition to sitting on a wide array of local boards, Suggs is the recipient of a number of awards including St. Louis Citizen of the Year for 2004, the Presidential Medallion from Harris-Stowe State University and the Lifetime Achievement Award from Big Brothers/Big Sisters. For the last 20 years, he has been involved in the American, assuming sole ownership of the paper about five years ago.

Suggs said he was flattered by the award, was honored to be selected with Cohn and hoped the event would play a role in promoting positive social change.

“A big problem in St. Louis is our huge racial divide and any attempt to address that is important,” Suggs said.

Suggs said he grew up in an era of segregation but attended integrated schools in a diverse community. His first three jobs were working for small local Jewish retailers and he was befriended by a Jewish woman whom he called “the most significant person outside the African-American community to take an interest in me.” After moving to St. Louis, and becoming immersed in civil rights, he began to take even more notice of the Jewish community.

“In the Civil Rights Movement during those early days there were a lot of Jewish people involved,” he said. “I was very impressed with that. They were engaged with social issues and there was a lot of cooperation between blacks and Jewish people.”

Today, he said that schisms within both communities make the relationship between them a complex one but that the Jewish community’s tradition of social justice still speaks strongly to African-Americans.

“In almost every progressive cause in which I’ve been involved there was a Jewish presence,” he said. “In every case.”

Cohn, 70, a native St. Louisan, is a graduate of Washington University and the Washington University School of Law. He has served as President of Legal Advocates for Abused Women, the St. Louis Region of the American Jewish Congress, the Press Club of St. Louis and Congregation Shaare Emeth. He is also a life member of the board of the Anti-Defamation League and presently chairs the St. Louis County Human Rights Commission, a position he has been reappointed to through five county executives.

In addition to other honors, Cohn holds two lifetime achievement awards from the American Jewish Press Association and serves as editor-in-chief emeritus of the St. Louis Jewish Light, a position he assumed after more than three decades of leading the paper.

Cohn remembers his own experiences in the University City schools where despite his teachers’ lessons about equality for all, state law still mandated a segregated educational system.

“I was going to school when Brown vs. Board of Education was handed down,” he said. “The first African-American to graduate from U. City High School was in my class of 1957.”

Later, at Washington University, Cohn’s fraternity would become among the first on campus to admit a black member causing them to be refused service at some area restaurants, an experience which hardened his determination to editorialize in favor of integration of public facilities and schools while serving as editor of the campus newspaper. Meanwhile, he was deeply affected as controversies erupted over integration in Little Rock, Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s famous confrontation in the schoolhouse door and the murder of civil rights workers in Mississippi.

“It really provided a backdrop to my whole adolescence and young adulthood to witness this unfolding drama,” he said.

Cohn noted that the upcoming award ceremony will take place in the building that formerly housed Shaare Emeth and in which he was confirmed. He said he felt humbled to be in the company of past recipients of the award and reflected on the importance of the relationship between the black and Jewish communities.

“Because of our shared sense of having been an enslaved people and a persecuted minority, there was this connection,” he said. “The overall partnership between our two peoples is an important one to maintain.”