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Let It Shine

After five decades in public television, Everett Marshburn still has stories to bring into the light

Ask anyone who’s worked with award-winning television producer Everett Marshburn to describe him, and the consensus is clear.

“Great storyteller.”

“He’s committed to telling the untold stories of the Black community and the Black condition.”

“Great listener and ultimate professional.”

“Whatever he puts his stamp on, you know it’s going to be great.”

“He is a great researcher who understands how to showcase a story.”

“Incredible eye and a man loaded with an encyclopedia of journalistic knowledge.”

Friends and colleagues Everett Marshburn and James Causey. Photo by TJ Lambert/Stages Photography

I, too, have nothing but praise for Marshburn. For nearly a decade, I’ve worked with him as a news reporter at Black Nouveau, one of the country’s longest-running series on public television and an Emmy-winning program of Milwaukee PBS. Marshburn has produced the show, now in its 32nd season, since his arrival in Milwaukee in 2006.

As a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, I was a frequent guest on Black Nouveau, discussing a variety of topics. After several appearances, Marshburn saw enough in me to put me on the other side of the camera, interviewing people who were having a positive impact in the community. The switch was not easy, but Marshburn took his time mentoring me, and I started to see the improvements.

His advice was simple: “You know what you’re doing. Just relax and be yourself.”

Marshburn has accomplished much and received many honors in his nearly 60 years in public television. He’s won five Emmy Awards, 14 National Association of Black Journalists Salute to Excellence Awards, and two Milwaukee Press Club Awards. He was the 2014 recipient of the Bayard Rustin Leadership Award from Diverse and Resilient in Milwaukee, the 2012 Black Excellence Awardee in the field of Media from The Milwaukee Times, and a was a 2013 Inductee into Maryland Public Television’s Alumni Wall of Honor. In November, it was announced that Marshburn would receive one of the highest honors in television when he was inducted into the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences 2024 Gold Circle, the first person in the state to be bestowed with this honor.

Marshburn’s award goes beyond his five decades in the business, honoring his lifelong commitment to storytelling and shedding light on issues important to the African American community.

Breaking into the business

Marshburn’s love of media began as a teenager with his passion for spoken word, poetry, music, Broadway, theater, and, of course, film and TV. The Baltimore, Maryland, native wrote plays for his church and continued to write several plays as a student at Morgan State University. When Marshburn switched his major from education to history, he became friends with Thomas Cripps, a professor at Morgan State, who wrote and lectured about the history of African-American cinema. Marshburn helped Cripps with research and editing, and in 1968, Cripps introduced him to Ken Resnick, a film director and producer. Resnick had been hired to head what was to become the film department at the Maryland Center of Public Broadcasting. Maryland was starting to build a public television system to serve its 23 counties and the city of Baltimore. In April of 1968, Marshburn received a call from Resnik to come in and talk.

Milwaukee PBS Producer Everett Marshburn with Clayborn Benson, founder and curator of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum. Photo by TJ Lambert/Stages Photography

“I was looking for a summer job so I could go back to school to work on my degree, and he offered me a full-time position as a production assistant that started that summer,” says Marshburn.

By the late 1960s, the nation was in steady conflict. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Protests and riots erupted in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Cleveland, and the Kerner Commission Report warned: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one Black, one White – separate and unequal.” The Commission criticized newspapers and television for failing to report on African-American life adequately or to employ more than a token number of Blacks. The bottom line was that Blacks wanted a kind of journalism that spoke to them and provided them with news and information they could use. At the young age of 20, Marshburn would become part of this change.

“I always said I didn’t choose television; television chose me,” says Marshburn. “I’ve just been lucky enough to meet the right people and be able to make some impact.”

The entry-level position got Marshburn in the door and within a year he was a film cameraman. One of the shows he shot was called Strategy for Action, an urban affairs program that featured people and organizations finding solutions to the problems of urban America. In 1974 Marshburn created a series for the show called “Burglar Proofing,” documenting how easy it was to break into homes, using three ex-burglars as sources. Viewers could call in to request informational packets on how to prevent home invasions. The program earned him his first Emmy.

NABJ hosted a panel on AIDS

For Marshburn, public television was an effective and influential vehicle to tell stories about African Americans through a more authentic lens. In the late 1980s, as the AIDS epidemic was sweeping the country, Marshburn again used public TV as a platform to raise awareness. Marshburn understood that AIDS was not just a gay, white man’s disease but a public health emergency that the African American community had yet to fully comprehend. This became apparent in 1988 when he attended a National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) convention, which hosted its first panel on AIDS.

“There were five people on the panel and three in the audience, and I was one of the three,” Marshburn says.

While the panel provided great information, the stigma and homophobia surrounding the disease kept people from attending. When Marshburn returned home, he knew he had to get information out to communities, which led to his nearly two-year project, Other Faces of AIDS.

“The thing that struck me was that the time from diagnosis to death for a white person with AIDS was two years at that point, and the time for a Black person was six months,” says Marshburn. “I wanted to know why and what was going on.”

With what was considered a meager $25,000 budget, Marshburn and his team told stories from the frontlines in Miami, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, he met Bishop Carl Bean, who led a congregation that served as a haven for the Black LGBTQ community, and also founded an organization that brought care and attention to poor people of color living with HIV and AIDS in South L.A., when most of those efforts were being funded by white communities.

The one-hour segment aired in 1989 and featured then-U.S. Surgeon General Charles Everett Kopp, who cautioned against the stigma associated with AIDS and HIV: “We are fighting a disease, not people. Those already affected are sick and need our care, as do all sick patients. The country must face this epidemic as a unified society.”

Marshburn remembers the AIDS story as one of the most difficult projects he encountered in his career. Sources would go on the record and then back out. Interview subjects feared how the story would be told–how they might be portrayed in a negative or stereotypical light. Yet, he persevered, knowing that the Black community was on the edge of a life-threatening catastrophe unless people were made aware of the dangers of HIV and AIDS.

Welcome to Milwaukee

After a string of layoffs in Maryland, Marshburn would make his way to Milwaukee after seeing an opening for a producer job at Milwaukee PBS on the NABJ listserv. He had visited Milwaukee during NABJ’s national convention and saw similarities between Baltimore and Milwaukee in terms of their proximity to even larger metropolitan areas and similar demographics for African Americans. Joe Savage, co-creator and former producer of Black Nouveau, was familiar with Marshburn’s work—they often competed against one another for NABJ awards—and felt confident Marshburn would take the show to the next level.

“I first met Marshburn 25 years ago,” recalls Savage. “We met in different cities, and over time, we became friends. His journalism integrity is unmatched. I had no doubt he would be excellent. I’ve never questioned his ability, and he’s never questioned mine. We have mutual respect, so when he came to Milwaukee, there was nothing I taught him that he didn’t already know. He’s a good storyteller, and we need someone to tell our stories.”

Liddie Collins, Emmy-winning co-creator, producer, and host of Black Nouveau, says Marshburn’s focus on positive change and impact has been one of his greatest contributions to Milwaukee and beyond.

“What I love the most about Marshburn is that he’s never been afraid to tackle tough issues,” says Collins. “What he does and stands on is what we will do about it to improve our conditions.”

“I just really wanted to speak up,” said 5th grader Zaida Smith on why she entered the citywide student speechwriting contest on the topic of “What Affects One … Affects All,” the central theme from Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Smith (pictured here with Marshburn) had the opportunity to give her speech on the Black Nouveau program. Photo by TJ Lambert/Stages Photography

Over the years, Black Nouveau has changed and evolved with the times. Once a weekly, the show now airs once a month. Personalities have come and gone. What has remained, though, is the quality of and commitment to the genre of storytelling. In six-minute segments, the program offers its viewers a slice of Black life that often goes untold.

In many ways, Marshburn’s work is its own form of activism as evidenced in two of his best-known documentaries: Freedom Walkers for Milwaukee, which aired on PBS Milwaukee in 2011, followed the city’s historical importance in the Civil Rights struggle of the mid-1900s, leading to its nickname, “The Selma of the North.” In 2017, a Black Nouveau special, Crossing the Bridge, depicted the tumultuous protest marches that pushed for the Fair Housing Act in 1968. The piece, for which Marshburn earned an Emmy Award, brilliantly forged a connection between the veteran marchers and the activism of today’s youth, who express themselves through spoken word and social justice movements, tackling the challenges that remain these 50 years later.

A crew member frames Everett Marshburn in their camera monitor. Photo by TJ Lambert/Stages Photography

Veteran broadcast documentary producer Greg Morrison calls Marshburn a “complete journalist.” In characterizing Marshburn, Morrison reflects on an old saying that the job of the media is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

“Marshburn truly comforts the afflicted,” says Morrison. “He listens to them, and he gives them a voice. You can see it in everything he does.”

Morrison and Marshburn met in Chicago in 1997 while working with young journalists at the NABJ convention, and discovered they shared many of the same acquaintances in Baltimore. Morrison considers Marshburn a great friend, who loves great food, like Baltimore-style yakamein, the Baltimore Ravens, and a competitive game of pinochle.

I asked Marshburn, 75, if he was ready to slow down—maybe watch more football and play more pinochle: “Well, I still think I have something to offer because there are still stories out there that need to be told.”

He left me with a quote by civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, who organized the 1963 March on Washington but was nearly written out of history because he was openly gay.

“God does not require us to achieve any of the good tasks that humanity must pursue. What God requires of us is that we not stop trying.”

“This is what I live my life by,” says Marshburn.

Torean Smith, a student in the Milwaukee Area Technical College’s TV Production Course, had the opportunity to be part of the studio crew for Black Nouveau. Photo by TJ Lambert/Stages Photography

Milwaukee PBS Multimedia Producer/Journalist Alexandria Mack with her daughter, Gia. Photo by TJ Lambert/Stages Photography

Contributors

James E. Causey is an award-winning special projects reporter and columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He has spent over 30 years as a professional journalist after becoming the first African-American high school intern at the Milwaukee Sentinel at age 15. He worked for the paper every summer through high school.

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