The wildest dreams of Belva Davis made for a compelling hour's discussion at a recent Commonwealth Club event in Lafayette.
The history of the first black TV journalist in the West, from the volatile 1960s to the upcoming presidential election, was told with astounding grace, bold assertions and an old-school reporter's dedication to craft, moderated by Bay Area News Group's Josh Richman.
"Belva Davis helped change the face and focus of television news," Richman declared. "The fact that a racist group pummeled her just made her more persistent to persevere."
Davis, a diminutive 5-foot-1 physical presence whose impeccable attire is a first indication of the detailed, exquisitely fine-tuned mind behind her honey-toned voice, dove into a chilling account of her introduction to journalism.
"We were a part of the black press (at the 1964 Republican National Convention) and we got along pretty good for the first 24 hours. (Dwight) Eisenhower talked about criminals and the crowd just sort of went crazy. People worked themselves up into a frenzy. It was all right until I could feel the flow of a bottle going past me and crashing to the floor," said Davis.
Recognizing the power of both the media and citizens in an uproar, Davis and her radio news director, Louis Freeman, beat a rapid retreat. She claimed her boss's words as they escaped were an energizing release, even to this day.
"He said, 'If you cry, I'll break your legs,' " she
Flashing forward, Davis recounted her feelings on the night Barack Obama became the country's 44th president.
"You imagine change, but then, when you are confronted with real change, it just doesn't seem believable," she said.
Sandwiched between these pivotal moments, an astonishing, impressive career marks not only her personal journey, but the fitful, hard-won, ongoing fight for equality across gender and racial divisions in America.
"The whole issue of gender started to strike me. I had to either tolerate it, or fight it. I knew if I set myself separate, I'd never get ahead," Davis said.
Instead of rebelling, she befriended and learned from her peers, overlooking ignorance and prejudice to establish her position, especially at her first professional stop -- a radio station.
"I went from being no one to being named Miss KNEW," she laughed.
But no one was laughing at her solid reporting, including a series on dyslexia that she said won her a connection with the audience and a report on breast cancer that almost caused her to lose her job.
"We wanted to show videotape of a woman pressing against her breast and my news editors objected," Davis remembered. "We appealed it all the way to the president of Westinghouse broadcasting!"
Her professional stature blossomed, and she went on to win eight local Emmys, among other awards. Her long-lasting popularity was evident in comments and questions from the large audience gathered last month in the Lafayette Library and Learning Center's Community Hall.
"When I was growing up, she was the gold standard for journalism. She just seemed so knowledgeable," said Cecilia Kilmartin, of Lafayette.
Close friend Charlotte Myers said Davis is entirely modest.
"She expresses her amazement at how well she has moved through the obstacles and counts her success to the grace of providence as much as to any ability," Myers said.
Richman asked Davis about the Internet and objectivity.
"Journalism is part of educating people. We just do it with different tools now," she said. "How do we save ourselves from being overwhelmed by technology? In the olden days, unless I had three sources for everything, it didn't go on the air," she said.
She said advising students is difficult.
"Prepare yourself to know what your limits are. You have to decide that ahead of time, because it's a different world. Be a good writer and a fast writer. Don't fight technology: it's here, it's going to stay. Maybe we'll think of better ways to use it, but you can't come unprepared."
Research, she insisted, is the key to objectivity. And listening is the technique for discovering truth.
"I'm going in to learn, not to do combat," she said.
Which doesn't mean she won't fight, especially for basic rights like adequate pay ("The people who write deserve payment," she said, referring to a writers' strike against Huffington Post), education ("The failure rate for minority groups will mean we are in difficulty until we remedy this," she stated) and racial justice ("It was difficult, because people were not used to having a black person in the command chair," she recalled).
Davis plans to step away from her KQED post at "This Week in Northern California," but suggested "the yo-yo" effect may continue to bring her back to the news desk. In the meantime, her memoir, "Never in My Wildest Dreams," will continue to broadcast the story of a remarkable woman and journalist.