Lee Hawkins, Jr. has had a very successful career in journalism for over 20 years, working for the Wisconsin State Journal, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wall Street Journal and American Public Media. Recently, he became a Pulitzer Prize Finalist and wrote his own book. His passion for his work and the causes he advocates for draws attention to his various pieces. 

Hawkins is not new to the scene, as he started his journalistic career with his high school newspaper. “For me, starting with the school newspaper in high school was a major deal because whatever it is that you aspire to do for a career, you should strive to be doing some version of that when you’re in high school,” said Hawkins. Similarly, in college, he became the editorial page editor of his college newspaper at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he explored opinion pieces and current events. 

Through his experience in the press during college, Hawkins learned that “it is a huge, huge educational disadvantage when you’re locked in any space that isn’t allowing you to fully explore intellectually and freely,” he said. “I just want to impart to the students at Pace to continue to keep an open mind and to read as many books as you can, to have as many discussions as you can about civics and about your role as an American citizen, what your obligations are to your fellow citizens.” He followed this with further advice, saying, “Don’t ever go to college where there is examples of censorship.” Instead, “if you disagree with someone, that should be a reason to want to get to know them, so that you can go and talk to them and fully begin to understand the intricacies of the arguments that they’re making, because the best way to exemplify the strengths of your own argument is to know the other side’s argument better than you know your argument.”

Hawkins’s first job in journalism was at a small paper called the Wisconsin State Journal. He moved on to Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, covering business. He then began working for the Wall Street Journal in 2003. When he started, he was covering General Motors, one of the nation’s largest companies, which was a very competitive area to be covering. “General Motors was a bellwether for the health of the broader economy in many ways, so usually if General Motors wasn’t doing well, the economy wasn’t doing well, so it was a good opportunity to learn how to cover, or to continue to cover, publicly traded companies on a major scale,” said Hawkins. 

All of these opportunities provided Hawkins with a foundation that gave him the basic skills that he used to cover more subjects that he was interested in. “You never know why you’re being asked to do these very fundamental, rudimentary things, but those are the things that I did in the beginning that led to the success that I’m having now,” said Hawkins.

In March 2022, Hawkins left the Wall Street Journal and became a special correspondent at American Public Media, which has a division called APM Studios that does podcasting. Hawkins also won the O’Brien Fellowship for Public Service Journalism at Marquette University, who are backing his podcast that he’s doing with APM that is called What Happened in Alabama, based on his forthcoming book, Nobody’s Slave: How Uncovering my Family’s History Set Me Free.

However, before leaving the Wall Street Journal, Hawkins worked on many other notable stories. While working on his last assignment as an education reporter, he worked on a side project. “Me and a group of other reporters, mostly black, came together and we decided that we were going to pitch to the Wall Street Journal a series about the Tulsa Massacre,” he said. This was a racial massacre, where the black community of Tulsa, Oklahoma was attacked by the white residents and burned to the ground. It was one of many massacres in reaction to black prosperity in America.

“This is a story that has been widely underreported in our country,” he said. “We thought it was important to do it because so much of the time people love to talk about America and that it’s the most fair and just place in the world and that we live in a meritocracy, but the truth is African-Americans, since the beginning of history in this country have been among or probably the most hardworking people, without equal rights. We actually worked for free for over 300 years, then we experienced another century racial segregation. And we have always played by the rules, but the more prosperity that we got, we were met with violence, especially after emancipation. After the enslaved people were emancipated, there was a lot of racial resentment from white people who were not as skilled. We are seeing that now in this country. For many in our working class, equality is feeling like oppression.”

The 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre was in 2021, so these reporters came together and decided to do a series on the Tulsa Massacre. “It turned out pretty well, and the Wall Street Journal nominated it for the Pulitzer Prize, and we were one of two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in the explanatory reporting category,” said Hawkins. “We were proud and honored to become finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.”

Most recently, Hawkins has been working on his book, Nobody’s Slave: How Uncovering My Family’s History Set Me Free. “When I was a kid I was always curious as to what my family’s experience in America was,” explained Hawkins. “I had a father who was raised in Alabama in the 1950s, and that was, of course, during the Jim Crow segregation period where there were laws that went into effect after slavery, that were designed to keep black people from advancing and to keep us from being able to live to enjoy life, liberty and happiness.”

Hawkins did an investigation and researched his family history back to the 1600s, and the book is about how that experience in America led to the way that he was raised. “I had to go all the way back to the 1600s, and I found out that I’m a descendant of Revolutionary War soldiers, I’m a descendant of soldiers who fought in the war of 1812, and on both sides of the Civil War, and I was born on an Air Force base,” said Hawkins. “My father enlisted during the Vietnam era to serve our country as part of the Air Force, even though in the South, black people had just gotten voting rights. So generations of my family hadn’t even had voting rights, and I had many, many family members who fought for freedom in America and for America to be American.” While discovering this, “I also discovered that I had family members who were murdered every generation,” said Hawkins. 

Hawkins shared that his book is “in some ways similar to the book called Roots, which was written by Alex Haley, and that was a very famous book and movie. It was a movie that I saw when I was a young person and it made me curious about my own family history, and so now with the advancements that have been made in being able to access DNA tests and to understand your lineage for less than $100, I recognize that I have more tools at my disposal than Alex Haley had, and so I utilize those tools in order to tell this story.”

Hawkins wanted to send a few more messages to the Pace student body. “Since your school is in Georgia, I think it’s really important for students in GA to push their administration, to push their families, to push their religious institutions, to push their community to be more honest about history and the way that the role that injustice played in the history of this nation and how that has shaped us into the nation that we are right now, so that we can begin to understand better the remaining work that has to be done in order for us, for America, to finally become American,” he said. “If you look at the push to censor books and to control the lesson planning of teachers and things like that, a lot of it, unfortunately, is being done to revise and to hide the ugly truth about American history. So it is very important for us in order for us to advance and improve as a nation to study the truth because we can’t enter a process of reconciliation until we go through the process of truth-seeking.” 

Reading the book will likely give us Hawkins’s solutions to the historical injustices that will likely range from acknowledgment, acceptance, truth-seeking and potential other remedies. 

Hawkins’s final pieces of advice were as follows, “Don’t allow the adults to screw up your future and to limit your academic experience because of their own political biases,” he said. “A lot of times I was the only black person in a lot of the circles that I was in and situations I was thrown into.” Therefore, he said, “If there’s any advice that I can give to everybody of all races, don’t segregate yourself because that makes it harder to be successful. Get out and see the world. Make friends and connections with all kinds of people, of all races, religions and backgrounds.”

Lee Hawkins wrote his book, Nobody’s Slave: How Uncovering My Family’s History Set Me Free, which will soon be released for public eye. (photo: Star Tribune)

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