By Tim Rice, Student Journalist, Hope City Summer Career Camp
Writing was once a challenge for the publisher of 30-years and the owner of Chattanooga’s premier black-owned weekly newspaper, but John L. Edwards, III came from a community of people who achieved goals despite adversity, and he expected no less of himself. He had a talent for sales, a love for photography, and admired African Americans in business and leadership. It would be up to him to push past challenges until he reached success.
At age 73 John Lloyd Edwards III stands as publisher of the Chattanooga News Chronicle, the longest operating black-owned newspaper in the city since the years of the Chattanooga Observer (1933-1968). He prides himself in producing a positive newspaper that inspires and informs readers.
“Our people need to see our victories,” said Edwards. “That’s what I was interested in: Highlighting African-American accomplishments, showing people working together, black and white, for the good of the community and the country.”
He shared his story this month with a group of high school and college journalism students in the Hope City Summer Career Camp.
“Obviously your mentality is very inspiring,” said 20-year-old Currey Halliday, a UTC creative writing major. “It shows me the things I need to do to be successful.”
His story, however, isn’t without heartfelt challenges which included several failed business ventures, ‘lay-off’ from a good paying job at Combustion Engineering, and divorce; but he never gave up.
Edwards was born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, known as the Athens of the South, because like the capital of Greece it has an abundance of educational institutions, including historically black institutions like Meharry Medical College; Fisk University; America Baptist College; and Tennessee State University where he studied fine arts and history. As a combat soldier in Vietnam, he was awarded a Bronze Star, Army Commendation Medal, and a Purple Heart for wounds received in action. “That’s another story by itself,” says Edwards.
Edwards’ father was active in 1960’s Civil Rights movement, which allowed the younger Edwards to meet several civil rights leaders during his youth such as the late Congressman John Lewis and Diane Nash, who organized sit-ins in Nashville. He also marched in Birmingham, Ala. with Nobel Peace Prize Winner Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Civil Rights activists Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Rev. C.T. Vivian. But it was the African American business owners whom Edwards most admired. “Even though many of the Black business owners didn’t march in the movement, they provided food, money, and places for us to stay.”
“It was in 1963 at a meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Birmingham, Ala. that I first stayed in a hotel. Blacks were not allowed to stay in the ‘Holiday Inns’ of those days. It was owned by a wealthy black man named A. G. Gaston. He owned a block of different types of businesses in the downtown area,” Edwards related.
“When Dr. King and Rev. Abernathy got arrested for leading the march that morning, it was A.G. Gaston who posted bail for them,” said Edwards.
Edwards took his first step towards becoming a publisher at the age of 34 when he joined the local Jaycees, a leadership training organization. The Brainerd chapter needed someone to produce their newsletter. Edwards who was serving as the chapter’s Public Relations Director volunteered, but the chapter didn’t have money in their budget to fund it. Since Edwards was laid off from his job, the chapter allowed him to keep the money he secured from advertising as long as the newsletter was produced. He did so well that the President of the State of Tennessee Jaycees asked him to work on their newsletter staff. That year Edwards was chosen as “Public Relations Director of the Year” at the State Conference in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
“Almost every leader and successful businessman in Tennessee had been through the Jaycees at that time,” remarked Edwards. “The City Mayor, County Mayor, the Governor, a lot of influential people including John Germ, a very influential businessman who was nationally considered the “Godfather of the Tennessee Jaycees. It was people like Germ who gave me good advice and used their influence to help me along the way.”
He continued demonstrating his knack for sales as the assistant advertising sales director for a local newspaper, The Chattanooga NorthStar, owned by Clarence Scaife. Scaife was the first black reporter for The Chattanooga Times. He eventually quit The Times and started The North Star. Edwards landed an advertising contract with the now defunct Red Food Store that greatly benefited the publication. But Edwards wanted to do more than sell. After attending the 20th Anniversary of the March on Washington and with the assistance of Bernice King (Dr. M.L. King’s daughter), he received recognition for his full-page pictorial essay in the NorthStar newspaper depicting the numerous celebrities who attended the event. His next goal was to write. That proved to be a challenge, but with the tutelage of Scaife, he sharpened his writing skills.
Mr. Edwards said he really enjoyed the power he felt as a photographer. He noticed that when he had a camera, he could tell people where to sit and move and they followed his instructions.
“I’m telling the governor to move over here. To the mayor, I say I want you to stand here. And they’re saying where do you want me? Some of them even remembered my name. This camera is something else,” he said as he smiled and winked. Mr. Edwards also confided in me about one of the main reasons he volunteered to take pictures for the newspaper. “I wasn’t making much money, so I jumped at every opportunity to take pictures at numerous events where food was served. A free meal was God sent.”
Scaife’s newspaper ended about four years after it began because of several management issues.
A few years later, a group from Nashville came to Chattanooga to start a newspaper targeting African Americans. It was to be called The Chattanooga Courier. They came looking for the previous owners of the NorthStar. Scaife had left town by then and none of his previous partners were interested in operating a newspaper again. However, several people told the group about Edwards. He says it’s because of that experience he encourages people to “tell others about your interest. An opportunity may come through someone else and not directly to you.”
Pride Publishing Groupoffered to put Edwards in an office and give him a salary. Edwards told them he would get his own office and raise his own salary in exchange for a portion of the business. He got 25 percent; and then leveraged to 50 percent. He eventually took control of the paper. It was during that period that his former employee, Combustion Engineering called him back to a job from which he was laid off. He had made good money at Combustion and the benefits were great, but they could not ensure that he would not be laid-off again.
Mr. Edwards reflected, “I remember telling myself, this newspaper is going to work! So, I turned them down. The best decision I ever made at the time.”
In 2008 Edwards left Pride Publishing Group and started The Chattanooga News Chronicle. His family supported him. Son, Adrian, brought the necessary computer skills needed to enhance design and layout of the paper. While wife Faith, a former executive secretary, and Human Resources Trainer for EPB (retired) provided administrative skills to enhance the workings of the paper for better efficiency. “We’ve been doing this for 30 years, but we’ll always have room to grow and improve,” Edwards said. “We are currently going through a major company reorganization that will include bringing in new talent and leadership to help develop a multi-media platform. Next level stuff.”