Sunday, February 26, 2017

Never Too Late to Say You've Died

The most unusual of all obits appears in today's NYT. It is an obit, in a way, for a man who passed away in 1996, but who was first reported dead in 1969. The story about the circumstances is not in itself very long, but two reporters got bylines telling it.

It turns out Grady O' Cummings III, a black Harlem politician in the early 60s, reported his own death to the Times and the Amsterdam News in order to convince the Black Panthers that he was no longer among the living. He had been getting death threats from them, and supposedly his wife was attacked. He hid out in Buffalo, New York, and then reemerged in public four months later. Why it only took four months for the Black Panthers to lose the scent is not known anymore. Mr. O'Cummings finally did pass away in 1996.

It is interesting to me that the news item obituary that Mr. O'Cummings managed to get the Times to print does not appear in their doorstopper print and online compilation of all the NYT obits ever published.  It didn't make the cut, or was scrubbed from obit existence.

Today's "obit," actually a story about the fake obit, and the obit he never got when he did pass away, shows a sharp black and white 1963 photograph of Mr. O'Cummings talking to a group of Harlem youngsters. Mr. O'Cummings has one foot resting on a garbage can of the era, as he leans in to the boys telling them something. All the boys are black, save for one white youth seen off to the right. That by itself is interesting, but it's the garbage can I love.

That's right, those heavy as hell, even when empty, steel cans with reinforced rims and bottoms, that were set out on the street for the Sanitation Department to pick up. Every building of the era set those out. Even with lids.

There were no plastic bags then. No heavy rubber, yet light barrels. The garbage cans, sometimes referred to as "ash cans," because in buildings where the furnace might have been coal, ashes were set out in the can at the curb.

But my real favorite part of the reporters' story is that even after Mr. O'Cummings managed to report his own death and get several column inches devoted to his life to appear in the NYT, (talk about fake news!)
he was able to reappear in public four months later and give a news conference in Brooklyn, a news conference that the Times admits it didn't attend, despite the contradiction that a "dead" guy was talking to the press. (The Amsterdam News covered it.)

To me, it is completely understandable why the NYT may not have attended Mr. O'Cummings's news conference, even after he had gained notoriety as a presidential candidate in 1964 for the National Civil Rights Party, It was held in an "outer borough."

Although "outer borough" is not at all mentioned in today's story, it is the elephant in the room. Anyone who has read any of these posting knows I love it when I can point out what has been the Times's Manhattan-centric approach to the city's news. All those outlining precincts connected by bridges and tunnels, are often referred to as "outer boroughs." I love it.

I know. I grew up in Flushing.

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