Pamela Sherrod camouflaged her troubled life with the trappings of success. She endured hazing to pledge the right sorority; secured the right internship at the Capitol for a closer view of power; and when she landed a job at ABC News, she put her life in jeopardy for an assignment on the right show.
Working with famous and powerful figures, however, would never match the miracles she found when she left it all behind her.
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"Crossing The Burning Sands"
ABC News was going through a transitional period, particularly with regard to World News This Evening. Frank Reynolds, the show's anchorman in Washington, had been suffering from a lengthy illness. Prior to this, the program had been structured around a three-anchor format, with Reynolds based in Washington, Peter Jennings stationed in London, and Max Robinson, the country's first Black network anchor, based in Chicago. I'd never met Frank Reynolds. He was in the hospital when I arrived. However, I'd heard a wide range of speculation about what the network might do if he passed away. Essentially, the plan was to adopt a new single-anchor format using one of the two remaining anchors.
...When Peter Jennings was given the new World News anchor spot, and Max Robinson was handed a position anchoring the weekend news programs and the late news briefs, the rift between black and white employees seemed to deepen. To avoid getting caught up in the conflicting views about Robinson, I'd continue to follow my trusted motto: "Stay busy...stay out of trouble."
Increasingly, it felt as though I was going into combat and I stepped as cautiously as a soldier would maneuver around land mines. Worried about my career, I tried to tiptoe over any sensitive issues and stay focused on my work. I needed to establish myself "the right way," which meant I'd have to work extra hard to move up the ladder. So, I accepted double shifts, long hours, and short turnarounds (when you work until 11:30 or 12 midnight, and return around 5:00AM). Sometimes I'd sleep at the bureau, borrowing one of the the couches in an upstairs office.
...Still, I realized that I'd need a monumental breakthrough to get an assignment to a show. It would come from an unexpected source.
One night, a crisis at the bureau would make the evening news. "There's a gunman somewhere in the building!" announched an editor, trying to sound calm. "He's taken one of the security guards hostage," he told us, "and he's threatening to blow up the building unless he can talk with Peter...on the air!" For a brief, unprecedented moment, there was an awful silence throughout the newsroom, as though everyone's breath had stopped, all at once. "This guy wants to speak with Peter during the show," exclaimed the editor. "He's trying to get on the air!" The phone rang. It was my job, but everyone leaped to get it. The entire building was evacuated, except for Peter Jennings, the show's staff and technical crew, the news editors, and myself. I was given a choice, and when I learned that World News was going on as scheduled, I elected to stay.
Peter Jennings and the show staff were soon moved into the newsroom, and for the first time, I noticed that the back door was not only closed, but locked. Additional police and security officers were positioned throughout the building. A helicopter circled above and spectators began to gather outside. The phones were ringing with the fervor of a national telethon, with reporters seeking updates on our situation. The wire stories were buzzing with the news of our siege. For a while these sources seemed our only contact with the outside world and our main supplies of information. Neither the gunman nor the guard had been spotted since the crisis began. Oddly enough, I wasn't frightened. There was so much to do that I didn't have time to worry. The World News show was short-staffed, so I helped them copy and build the script pages. Along with the editors, I kept them updated on the developments, as we received them.
We were getting close the air-time of our first half-hour telecast at 6:30PM. We almost always taped two shows, unless the first was absolutely flawless. The second one started at 7:00. The phones were still ringing and we were given bits and pieces about the gunman's description, but his whereabouts and his cause were still unknown. It was five minutes to air-time. Glancing over at Peter, I thought he looked a little nervous. The show D.A.s looked haggard as they finished the last preparations. When the stage manager began the count-down, it was the most frightening moment of all, for his voice signaled more than just the beginning of the broadcast. It meant that we were approaching the designated hour, the cue for a confrontation or whatever action the gunman might take. It intensified the reality that we were in a hostage situation. Everyone in the room knew that if the building was going up in flames, it would be within the next few minutes. It was the only time when I'd see the human, vulnerable side of many people who were fiercely competitive and coldly indifferent. When we looked at each other, it was with a new, unique perspective: the face you looked upon could actually form your last memory.
For many years, I'd thought my decision to stay was reached solely out of concern for my career. Now, however, I realize that, even within that harsh environment, I was searching for a place of belonging. I simply wanted to know that, in a moment of crisis, a sense of goodwill and compassion would triumph over the distrust that had accompanied ruthless ambition. In that regard, I wouldn't be disappointed. Although we were all harried and under-the-gun (literally), there was a sense of oneness as we reinforced in each other the courage to get through the night. In those unprecedented moments, we were all very human again.
"What really happened in Washington?" friends asked. Unable to return to those disturbing days, Pamela Sherrod dodged the question for several years, letting her past remain a secret.
Here, in this sometimes shocking story, the author invites you to revisit her journey toward truth, and the stunning secret that she eventually discovered.