NPR’s Michele Norris Teaches University of Alabama Community How To Talk About Race

On the same day as her Race Card Project was named a winner of the Peabody Award for excellence in electronic media, NPR’s Michele Norris shared her journey to get people to talk about race during the Frank Nix Lecture at the University of Alabama.

Michele Norris takes questions from University of Alabama students.
Michele Norris takes questions from University of Alabama students.

Hours after learning her “Race Card Project” was chosen for  one of journalism’s highest awards ,  National Public Radio’s Michele Norris shared her strategy for starting a dialogue on race on a campus that’s been talking a lot about race lately: The University of Alabama.

“I understand the grace of silence, but I also understand the power of history,”    Norris explained as she showed students how to open up the conversation about race, which she admits is hard at a place like the University of Alabama.

While trying to gauge Americans’ views on race,  Norris discovered those in her own family had been silent about a history in her family, some of which she shared this evening at the 17th Annual Frank A. Nix Lecture, sponsored by The Blackburn Institute.

“The most important thing I do as a journalist is not talking,” the former host of NPR’s All Things Considered explained.  “The most important thing I do is listen.”

Listening was the goal of an NPR project with NPR Morning Edition Host Steve Inskeep where the two journeyed to York, Pennsylvania to engage 16 voters on their ideas about race.

Listening to Voters

Tonight, she shared her strategy for getting those 16 voters to open up for a deeper, honest conversation.    “The York Project: Race and the 2008 Vote” won an Alfred Dupont Award in 2010.

She talked about the effect of a fireplace (Inskeep’s idea) and food (her idea).

“I don’t know if it was the fireplace or the lasagna, but people really did get comfortable,” she said.

Blackburn Institute Director Philip Westbrook assisted Michele Norris during a book signing following the Frank Nix Lecture on April 2 at University of Alabama.
Blackburn Institute Director Philip Westbrook assisted Michele Norris during a book signing following the Frank Nix Lecture on April 2 at University of Alabama.

Timing of UA Visit

Earlier today on CBS This Morning, the Peabody Board announced winners of the 73rd Annual Peabody Awards.

The Race Card Project was among those recognized for excellence in electronic media. The Awards will be presented at a ceremony in New York next month

The Peabody judges said those six-word submissions “became the basis of compelling reports about race, pride, prejudice and identity.”

Norris’ visit to the University of Alabama also comes only a few months after efforts on the campus to integrate its Greek system made national headlines, during a year the University celebrated the 50th anniversary of its integration.

She commended the current students who were instrumental in leading conversations about race on the campus.

“I did not want to be the person who’s always talking about race,” Norris recalled as she shared a series of what she called “left turns” that her journalism career took.  “But I couldn’t be happier.”

Journey of Left Turns

“It’s good to have plan, but write your plans in pencil,” she told the students.

The former ABC News correspondent and staff writer for The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times has been called “one of the most respected voices in American journalism.”    In 2009 she was named Journalist of the Year by the National Association of Black Journalists.

Norris shared an excerpt from her book, The Grace of Silence: A Memoir, which came about after she learned some things about the experiences of her own family members involving race, some that those family members themselves were not willing to share.

Her father, who Norris called ” a son of Alabama”  was shot by a Birmingham police officer while trying to enter  The Pythian Temple, near the Alabama Theatre, on February 7, 1946.   He never told her about the incident.   Norris learned of it from her uncle and did her own investigation of the details by talking to other family members, some of whom were from Alabama.

“It’s really good to be back here in Alabama, ” Norris told the UA crowd.  “Alabama feels like home to me.”

Scan 6The Project Continues

As she closed her address tonight, Norris encouraged those in the sparse crowd of about 100 students, faculty and staff, to complete their six-word essays as the state of Alabama is under-represented among the  race cards that have been submitted, many through the Race Card Project Web site.

While Norris has not yet traveled outside the United States, those from at least 45 countries have posted their six-word sentence thoughts on the web site.

In the years since the project started, tens of thousands of 6-word essays about race have been submitted.




Author: George Daniels

George L. Daniels is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Alabama. After spending eight years in the local television newsroom working as a producer at stations in Richmond, Virginia; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Atlanta, Georgia, Daniels moved from the newsroom to the classroom. He’s conducted research on diversity issues in the media workplace and change in the television newsroom as well as media convergence. Before going to work in television news, Daniels worked briefly as a freelance writer for The Richmond Free Press in his hometown of Richmond, Va.

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