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May 18, 2021, 11:10 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Darnella Frazier, who filmed George Floyd’s murder by police, should win a Pulitzer Prize

It would be an unusual prize, and Frazier would be the youngest winner in Pulitzer history. But she should win it.

The announcement of Pulitzer Prizes, usually in April, has been delayed until June 11, 2021.

With so much news over the last 18 months, I look forward to the eventual bittersweet celebration of great work. I add bitter to sweet because much of the year’s coverage will be about events in which people have suffered and died.

At times it will be about the suffering of millions across the globe. At others it will be about the suffering and death of one man, George Floyd, outside of a Cup Foods store in Minneapolis.

On May 25, 2020, a 17-year-old named Darnella Frazier stood on the sidewalk as police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost 10 minutes. She stood there pointing her cell phone at a murder in progress, capturing video that spurred massive protests and resulted in Chauvin’s conviction on three counts.

Frazier, now 18, testified at the trial. She’s been showered with praise from President Biden and from celebrities and filmmakers, such as Michael Moore, Spike Jones, Meryl Streep, Anita Hill, and Sen. Cory Booker. “No film in our time has been more important than yours,” Moore tweeted. Ann Marie Lipinski, the curator of the Nieman Foundation, called the video “one of the most important civil rights documents in a generation.”

Such appreciation has led to the question of whether the video should be awarded a Pulitzer Prize. I believe that it should. Whether it will be so honored will depend upon the judgment of the members of the Pulitzer Prize Board.

It would be an unusual prize, to be sure. The material and the creator fall outside the traditional boundaries. At 18, Darnella Frazier would be the youngest winner in history. The prizes in various categories of photojournalism since 1942 have gone to still photographers, not videographers. Frazier was working for no news organization, acting instead as a concerned citizen within her own community in the face of a brutal injustice.

I come to this topic having served as a Pulitzer juror on four occasions — for commentary, feature writing, and twice for nonfiction books.
I have one additional vantage point. In 2016, the Pulitzer Prizes marked their centennial. The Poynter Institute was one of four institutions (the Nieman Foundation was another) to conduct a celebratory gathering and program. The theme of our event in St. Petersburg, which I was honored to lead, derived from Pulitzers won over 100 years on the topics of social justice and racial equality.

The record of the Pulitzers on these issues — like the record of most American institutions — is a mixed one. In the first decades of the award, women were under-represented among the winners. The contributions of the Black press were largely ignored, even during the Civil Rights era. No Black artist was honored until the poet Gwendolyn Brooks in 1950. No Black journalist as an individual was honored until photojournalist Moneta Sleet, Jr., won “for his photograph of Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow and child, taken at Dr. King’s funeral.”

That said, our research counted more than 100 prizes from 1918 to the present that honored work that revealed terrible injustices, held corrupt and racist power accountable, and spoke up, often in the face of physical danger and economic ruin.

Many of the earliest such winners were white reporters and editorialists — many from Southern news organizations — who spoke up against the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan. An early example was Grover Cleveland Hall, editor of the Montgomery (AL) Advertiser. Outraged about the flogging of a young Black man at a rural church, Hall led his newspaper on a crusade designed to bring the Klansmen to justice. He exposed Klan members, worked to limit their activities, and supported a law to make it illegal to wear a mask in public.

Progressive white editorialists, such as Ralph McGill and Gene Patterson in Atlanta, rejected any praise for their “courageous stand” against racial injustice. Patterson argued till his dying day that the real heroes were the young Black men and women who put their bodies on the line in protest against American apartheid. He often singled out the late John Lewis, who was the keynote speaker at Poynter’s Pulitzer celebration, and who urged journalists to cause “good trouble.”

Mention of Lewis should remind us that during the 1950s and 60s, it was often photographic images or film footage of violence against protestors that shocked and enraged Americans at large. This helped Lyndon B. Johnson push landmark civil rights legislation through Congress.

From Birmingham, I remember footage of peaceful protestors facing firehoses and police dogs. From Selma, we saw Lewis and his colleagues getting their skulls cracked with billyclubs as they tried to march for voting rights. In 1955, Mamie Till published the open casket funeral photo of her tortured and lynched son, 14-year-old Emmett Till.

Darnella Frazier’s work lives in that tradition. Her excruciating video had a social and ethical purpose, one that aligns with journalistic values: To give voice to the voiceless, to speak truth to power, to reveal secrets that the corrupt seek to hide, to stand strong in a moment of personal peril, and to document a fleeting reality that is fraught with meaning.

I called my friend Rev. Kenny Irby, who taught at Poynter for many years before becoming the pastor of the Historic Bethel AME in St. Petersburg. He also serves as the director of community intervention and juvenile outreach for the police department. If that were not enough, Rev. Irby happens to be one of America’s most influential photojournalists.

When I asked Rev. Irby about the contribution of Darnella Frazer, he invoked the history of street photography and what was once called “amateur” photography as important complements to the work of professionals. He added the emergence of “citizen journalism” in the digital age; the evolution from still photography to more and more video; the reality that our smartphones make us all photographers. Tomorrow any one of us may find ourselves on the scene in a moment of danger, crisis, or news.

I will admit to a concern about this proposal. Is it a healthy thing for such a young person to receive such an honor? Veteran journalists and artists have not always worn such recognition happily. But then I think of young Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg addressing the United Nations. I think of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl shot by the Taliban, who at the age of 17 won the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest person so honored in any category. I think of the first Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, and how at 22 she electrified the Biden inauguration.

In journalism and other enterprises, we have surely outgrown the generational ladder that required young leaders and creators to wait their turn.
The Pulitzer Prizes in Public Service and other categories are often evaluated based on their measurable effects in rooting out corruption and contributing to the public good. Frazier deserves the prize.

Roy Peter Clark is a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute and has taught writing there since 1979.

This May 25, 2020, file image from a police body camera shows bystanders including Alyssa Funari, left filming, Charles McMillan, center left in light colored shorts, Christopher Martin center in gray, Donald Williams, center in black, Genevieve Hansen, fourth from right filming, Darnella Frazier, third from right filming. Source: Minneapolis Police Department.

POSTED     May 18, 2021, 11:10 a.m.
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