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Nommo's Presses Keep Running

UCLA's black student paper has been covering important issues since 1968.

May 19, 2000|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When black students crossed the country in the early '60s, leaving the limits of the South and East, looking for change, they found something all too familiar upon reaching the West Coast.

At UCLA, for example, these new students learned quickly that they might not get served if they wandered out to lunch at one of Westwood Village's quaint cafes. And certainly they understood very early not to flirt with the notion of renting one of those charming Spanish or colonial-style apartments on those idyllic tree-lined streets close by. Too often, they'd be told there was "no vacancy" despite a sign stating otherwise.

Despite Civil Rights victories, the Watts Riots and the emergence of a Black Power movement, black students and their issues were but a blip on the UCLA campus and consciousness for a good part of the decade.

But that wouldn't be for long.

In December 1968--weeks before two Black Panther leaders, Alprentice "Bunchy" Carter and John Jerome Huggins, were killed in a campus shootout, months before Angela Davis' bitter battle with regents over her Communist ties and almost two years before the Center for Afro-American Studies was established--a group of students launched Nommo, a newspaper of black culture and politics that is believed to be one of the oldest of its kind.

Chronicling a sweep of monumental events over three decades, including Tom Bradley's first bid for mayor, the demise of apartheid in South Africa, and the effects of California's three strikes law on communities of color, the Nommo staff had readers not only at UCLA but around the world.

Nommo's circulation, now at 5,000, has been as high 20,000. And while its frequency and format have changed over the years--going from a newsprint tabloid to a glossy-covered quarterly--the spirit and purpose fueling the students at its helm have yet to dim.

Today at a late 30th-anniversary event organized by Nommo editor Terelle Jerricks and a committee of Nommo alumni, Angela Davis will give the keynote address commemorating the publication's staying power and influence. Past editors, writers, students and supporters will share stories, jar memories and celebrate its focus and longevity despite the odds and political switchbacks.

On Dec. 4, 1968, the first issue of Nommo rolled off the presses. And, recalled Ivan Webster, Nommo's first editor in chief, in that charged climate, "it was important to build solid, sustained bridges to the community outside."

At the outset, the administration provided funds and office space, and promised the staff editorial autonomy. After the first issue in 1968, it took about a year for Nommo to begin regular biquarterly publication.

In hammering out Nommo's philosophy, scope and direction, its founders ultimately embraced both revolutionary and evolutionary change. "Everything was important," said Webster, now a writer living in New York. "And when we ratified the name, Swahili for 'the magic power of the word,' that was important to me as an English major. And we knew particularly for black people that it was ideal. It would be resonant and forceful. It wasn't just a phrase. It was our talisman. Our beacon."

Repressive Political Environment

The air was thick. Lines were drawn not just between racial groups but within them. And both the Center for Afro-American Studies and the paper served to cut the tension. It gave black students a place to express themselves. "You have to put this all into a certain political context," said Cheryl Dearmon, who was Nommo's managing editor in 1971 and 1972 and now works at UC Irvine in transfer-student services.

"Ronald Reagan was the governor. Sam Yorty was the mayor. Richard Nixon was the president and J. Edgar Hoover was alive and well. So you had this type of repressive environment. That was the political context. Then you had this whole Panther connection. And on this campus you were either a revolutionary nationalist or a cultural nationalist. But I was just a girl from Compton."

As chairwoman of the Black Student Union, Dearmon said that working with emerging campus organizations awakened her to the power and possibilities of grass-roots politics, such as the time the newspaper staff came to Davis' aid in print. "This really was an issue of academic freedom. She had a right to teach. And we would defend that. What was going on with Angela and all of that was a moment in time. We were in a position that you either did nothing or you rose to the occasion."

The newspaper saw its mission extending to events beyond UCLA's borders. "Nommo," said Dearmon, "was . . . a reflection of what went on in the greater L.A. community, as well as the greater United States. It was very international in its scope--with all of the liberation movements going on, particularly in Africa. We tended to be everywhere."

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