Long live the Bay State Banner

Bay State Banner publisher Mel Miller with his nephew Yawu, the paper’s editor. Bill Forry photoBay State Banner publisher Mel Miller with his nephew Yawu, the paper’s editor. Bill Forry photo
Melvin B. Miller left the rostrum at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate on Tuesday night in much the same manner in which he took it 18 minutes earlier: to a standing ovation. The 81-year-old publisher of the Bay State Banner delivered an eloquent recollection of the people and events that helped to make his newspaper a Boston institution that has stood the test of time.

Many of them were in the room: People like the legendary photographer Don West; Miller’s nephew Yawu, who has been the paper’s best reporter and editor over the last 20 years; and Brian Wright O’Connor, the Irish kid who took an eight-year turn as Miller’s editor in the 1980s. Also on hand: Miller’s wife, Sandra Casagrande, his longtime business partner whom Mel credited with navigating the paper through its roughest seas.

“Her commitment and effort saved the Banner from becoming defunct,” said Miller, a reference to the newspaper’s brief hiatus during a financial crisis in 2009.

The 20-minute film retrospective that preceded Miller’s remarks serves as a reminder of why the 50th anniversary of the Bay State Banner is a milestone that should be celebrated in all quarters of the city and region. Miller and his friends saw the need for a black-themed newspaper in the grim years of the 1950s. He was able to launch the product in 1965 at a pivotal moment for Boston and the nation. The early Banner shined a spotlight on the shameful segregation of Boston’s schools and helped to rally black Bostonians to the cause. It also served as a key gateway to economic opportunity— plugging readers into jobs in the city and suburbs that had long — and deliberately— been denied to black Boston. The Banner not only billboarded these jobs, but the paper also offered rides for applicants to get to the interviews.

Throughout his tenure, Miller has exerted a firm hand in the voice of the Banner from his editorial perch. His philosophy is consistently and refreshingly pro-black, but has never veered into ad hominem attacks or divisiveness.

In an introduction written for a beautiful commemorative edition distributed at the EMK on Tuesday, Miller writes: “Until America loses its racial bias, there will continue to be a need for the Bay State Banner and similar publications that are committed to truth and justice. The Banner will never mindlessly pursue a point of view just because it is most accepted by blacks. That is where the Banner wants to be— within the aura of common sense.”

Before he took his leave from the rostrum on Tuesday, Miller invoked the writer Dylan Thomas as he reflected on the work left ahead: “I don’t plan to leave and I will not go gently into that good night, I will rage, rage, rage… until all those things are done, and the Banner is strong and the city can become beautiful.”

Amen. Long live the Bay State Banner.

– Bill Forry