Mention James Lawrence, the former longtime editor of the Democrat and Chronicle's opinion page, and you'll likely get a wide range of reactions. Lawrence, who retired from the D&C six months ago, became something of an iconic media figure in Rochester. Almost every high-level city, county, school district, and community leader in the area met with Lawrence and the D&C's editorial board during Lawrence's 22 years with the paper. And it's probably safe to say that for many, it didn't always go swimmingly.
Some community leaders who asked not to be identified say that Lawrence didn't always give them a fair shake. And some D&C critics say that the paper's editorials under Lawrence were often anemic, and devoted too much attention to less-important concerns.
Lawrence's editorials in the mid 2000's, for example, slammed gangsta rap's glorification of profanity, the abuse of women, and gang culture. The editorials were seen by some as trivial.
Still, whether you were a dedicated Lawrence fan or staunchly disagreed with him, it's hard to dismiss his influence. In many respects, Lawrence was the principal voice for the largest daily newspaper in the Rochester region. He helped pick the topics and shape the tone of local and regional conversations, whether they took place in the halls of government or the corner diner.
Lawrence came of age during the civil rights era and entered journalism when the field was still dominated by white males. While Lawrence doesn't refer to himself as a pioneer, in many respects he clearly was.
Lawrence, like former Rochester mayor Bill Johnson, graduated from Howard University in Washington, DC. He was drawn to journalism, he says, because of his desire to make a difference in the lives of everyday people, especially African Americans.
"I've always felt this need when it comes to injustice," he says. "That's something that gets my blood boiling. As an African American, I've seen and been a part of injustices."
He says that he was inspired by the song "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)" by the late soul legend, James Brown. Released in 1968, the song became an anthem in black culture and has been sampled by numerous artists. Lawrence says that the lyrics gave him a sense of purpose and responsibility.
"After going to Howard, it really kind of shaped me for the need to address injustices," he says. "And this was the way to do it, as a reporter."
Following a stint with a black-owned weekly newspaper, Cleveland Call and Post, Lawrence landed a position as a reporter with United Press International. He applied for the job while he was in New York City in 1973 reviewing a movie. To his surprise, UPI hired him, but the job was in Denver, Colorado.
Lawrence says that he remembers wondering, "Are there black people in Denver?"
While he jokingly says that he and his wife, Betty, became full-fledged Westerners, donning cowboy boots and the like, it was in Denver with UPI that Lawrence says that he was challenged as a writer and as an African American.
After growing up in the segregated south and attending segregated schools, Lawrence says, "This was really my first foray into really even knowing white people."
Though Lawrence covered mainly sports and politics, UPI also presented other opportunities.
"I remember in Denver writing my first story that dealt with Kwanzaa," he says. "I felt as though I was not only reporting, but I was also educating the public about black culture."
Lawrence says that he doesn't know how readers responded to his work because UPI reporters competed to get their stories picked up by editors across the country. And reader feedback wasn't nearly as immediate as it is today.
Readers may not have even known that he's African American, he says, although he says he never viewed himself as a black writer.
"I viewed myself as a writer with a great deal of black consciousness — someone who was very, very cognizant of racial issues and concerns," Lawrence says.
But that may not have always been the way that his colleagues viewed him; he says that he was often called upon to give the "black perspective."
"Sometimes I resented it because you know black people are not monolithic," Lawrence says. "I resented the fact if you thought you could just simply come to me and get my perspective, and then you were covered as far as black people are concerned. There's diversity among people who are diverse, and I think that escapes a lot of people."
Transitioning from reporter to editor, first at the Orlando Sentinel and eventually at the D&C, gave Lawrence more opportunity to address what he says he saw happening in urban America. When community leaders met with the editorial board, Lawrence says he made a point of asking "what about" questions.
For instance, when a proposal for a new sports stadium in Orlando caused considerable excitement, Lawrence raised concerns about how gentrification would impact the mostly poor residents who lived near the site.
And he says that the D&C did more than just passively report job losses when it came to Rochester's economic woes or its stark demographic changes.
"I can't tell you the number of editorials we've written about the importance of the city to the entire region, why we must keep the city strong, why we can't afford a doughnut configuration at the center," he says.
And he says that the paper's Unite Rochester series — which he is especially proud of — is intentionally designed to provoke discussion about the economic, social, and racial differences in Rochester.
"There are two Rochesters, probably three or four," Lawrence says. "The issue really boils down to the haves and have nots. It's not unique to Rochester."
He says he is surprised that even though the minority population in the US is growing, that some media have been slow to embrace diversity. He attended a conference on the future of journalism and community engagement recently, and an editor there admitted that there are no people of color in his newsroom.
"This is 2015," Lawrence says. "That was disturbing, and I told him so."
He says that despite recent events such as the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, that left nine black churchgoers dead, the will to tackle the tough issues of race and social injustice isn't there yet.
"I hoped [through my work] to leave a better community, a better world for my children and grandchildren, and I'm not sure that's occurred," he says. "I didn't really expect at the end of my journalism career to find not only in this community, but across the country, the persistence of these injustices."