Tom Wicker, RIP
The New York Times reports:
Tom Wicker, one of postwar America’s most distinguished journalists, who covered the assassination of President John F. Kennedy for The New York Times and became the paper’s Washington bureau chief and an iconoclastic political columnist for 25 years, died on Friday at his home near Rochester, Vt. He was 85 and also the author of 20 books. ...
His most notable involvement took place during the uprising by 1,300 inmates who seized 38 guards and workers at the Attica Correctional Facility in Upstate New York in September 1971. Having written a sympathetic column on the death of the black militant George Jackson at San Quentin, Mr. Wicker was asked by Attica’s rebels to join a group of outsiders to inspect prison conditions and monitor negotiations between inmates and officials. The radical lawyer William M. Kunstler and Bobby Seale, chairman of the Black Panther Party, also went in, and the observers took on the role of mediators.
Mr. Wicker, in a column, described a night in the yard with the rebels: flickering oil-drum fires, bull-necked convicts armed with bats and iron pipes, faceless men in hoods or football helmets huddled on mattresses behind wooden barricades. He wrote: “This is another world — terrifying to the outsider, yet imposing in its strangeness — behind those massive walls, in this murmurous darkness, within the temporary but real power of desperate men.”
Talks broke down over inmate demands for amnesty and the ouster of Russell G. Oswald, the State Corrections Commissioner. Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller rejected appeals by the observers to go to Attica, and after a four-day standoff, troopers and guards stormed the prison. Ten hostages and 29 inmates were killed by the authorities’ gunfire in what witnesses called a turkey shoot; three inmates were killed by other convicts, who also beat a guard to death. Afterward, many prisoners were beaten and abused in reprisals.
Mr. Wicker wrote a book about the uprising, “A Time to Die” (1975). Most critics hailed it as his best book, although some chided him for sympathizing with the inmates. “Attica,” a television movie starring Morgan Freeman as a jailhouse lawyer and George Grizzard as Mr. Wicker, was made by ABC in 1980.