The journalist and author Carl T. Rowan (born 1925) was U.S. ambassador to Finland (1963-1964) and director of the U.S. Information Agency (1964-1965).
Carl Thomas Rowan was born on August 11, 1925, in Ravenscroft, Tennessee. He was one of five children (two boys and three girls) born to Thomas David and Johnnie B. Rowan and was raised in McMinnville, Tennessee. As a youth Rowan worked hoeing bulb grass for 10 cents an hour, later performing hard manual labor for 25 cents an hour when there was work available. Like many other African American youths, Rowan's childhood was deeply affected by the "Jim Crow" attitudes so prevalent in the South. While the economic and social situation was dismal, Rowan was determined to get a good education. He excelled in high school graduating from Bernard High School in 1942 as class president and valedictorian.
Rowan left McMinnville for Nashville with 77 cents in his pocket and the dream of a college education. In order to earn his tuition for college, he moved in with his grandparents and got a job in a tuberculosis hospital the summer before enrolling in the Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College in Nashville in the fall of 1942. During his freshman year Rowan participated in a training program that led to his becoming one of the first 15 African American persons in United States history to gain a commission as an officer in the U.S. Navy. He was trained at Oberlin College in northern Ohio and at the Naval Midshipmen School at Fort Schuyler, The Bronx. Following his service with the Navy during World War II where he was assigned sea duty (and excelled as deputy commander of the communications division), Rowan returned to complete his studies at Oberlin College. He earned his bachelor's degree in 1947 majoring in mathematics. He received his master's degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota, supporting himself by writing for two weekly newspapers, the Minneapolis Spokesman and the St. Paul Recorder. In 1950 Rowan married Vivien Louise Murphy, a public health nurse; their children were Barbara, Carl Jr., and Geoffrey.
Upon completion of his graduate studies Rowan joined the Minneapolis Tribune as a copyreader. He became a general assignment reporter in 1950. Among his early pieces were a series of columns entitled How Far from Slavery? which he wrote after returning to the South to study racial issues. The articles earned several local accolades and contributed to Rowan being the first African American recipient of the Minneapolis "Outstanding Young Man" award. The articles also served as the basis for South of Freedom, his first book (1952).
He then spent a year in India, Pakistan, and Southeast Asia writing columns during 1954. These led to a second well-received book: The Pitiful and the Proud (1956), which was based upon his observations while in the Orient. A third book, Go South to Sorrow, was published in 1957. While his books received favorable acclaim, Rowan's writing skills were most commonly acknowledged for his journalism. He was the only journalist to receive the coveted "Sigma Delta Chi" award for newspaper reporting in three consecutive years: for general reporting in 1954; for best foreign correspondence in 1955; and for his coverage of the political unrest in Southeast Asia in 1956.
In January 1961 Rowan accepted an appointment as deputy assistant secretary of state for public affairs in the Kennedy administration. He was responsible for press relations of the State Department. He was involved in the area of news coverage of increasing US military involvement in Vietnam and was also part of the negotiating team that secured the exchange of Francis Gary Powers, who was shot down over the Soviet Union. He accompanied then Vice President Johnson on a tour through Southeast Asia, India and Europe. During this time, Rowan became the center of controversy with the rejection of his application for membership in the prestigious Cosmos Club—whose membership qualifications included meritorious work in science, literature, the learned professions, and public service—on racial grounds. The Cosmos Club then passed a rule prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, but Rowan's nomination was never resurrected. The controversy resulted in the withdrawal of President Kennedy's application to the club when Kennedy's sponsor resigned in protest.
Rowan went on to serve in both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations as ambassador to Finland (January 1963 to January 1964) and as the director of the U.S. Information Agency (January 1964 to July 1965). In serving as director of the U.S.I.A., Rowan became the first African American to hold a seat on the National Security Council. With a staff of 13,000, Rowan oversaw a vast government communications network that included the international Voice of America, the daily communiques to U.S. embassy personnel around the world, and a massive psychological warfare program to assist the Vietnam War effort. This last assignment brought him criticism, as it was felt that he was drawing away from other USIA activities. Rowan resigned from USIA in 1965 and returned to his first love— journalism, by accepting an offer to write a national column for the Field Newspaper Service Syndicate and to do three weekly radio commentaries for the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company.
As a national columnist and commentator, Rowan developed a reputation for being independent and often controversial. He publicly made statements, such as urging Dr. King to lessen his anti-war stance, because it was hurting the thrust of the Civil Rights movement and calling for the resignation of J. Edgar Hoover, the powerful FBI Director, citing abuses of power and corruption that brought him criticism. While Rowan has always been a spokesperson for civil and economic rights for African Americans, he has also been critical of those he feels should more aggressively address those issues affecting themselves.
Rowan received the George Foster Peabody Award for his television special "Race War in Rhodesia" and was awarded an Emmy for his documentary "Drug Abuse: America's 64 Billion Dollar Curse." His newspaper column was syndicated by the Chicago Sun-Times and reached nearly half of homes receiving newspapers in the United States. He was on numerous public affairs television programs and was a permanent panelist on "Agronsky and Company." He also aired "The Rowan Report," a daily series of commentaries on radio stations heard across the nation. He served as a roving reporter for the Reader's Digest and regularly published articles in that magazine. He was one of the most sought-after lecturers in the United States, speaking on college campuses and at conventions of teachers, business people, civil rights leaders, and community groups.
He once told Publisher's Weekly, "you gotta get tired before you retire" and went on to publish a number of books. They included: New York Times bestseller that "appeals to the whole spectrum of readers. Dream Makers, Dream Breakers: The world of Thurgood Marshall and The Coming Race War in America: A Wake-Up Call
Further Reading on Carl T. Rowan
For additional information, see Rowan's own works: South of Freedom (1952); The Pitiful and the Proud (1956); Go South to Sorrow (1957); and The Coming Race War in America: A Wake-Up Call Breaking Barriers.