Booker Izell dies at 82: championed diversity, shaped Black Atlanta journalists

Booker Izell championed diversity in Atlanta business and shaped a generation of Black journalists. (JOEY IVANSCO/AJC staff)

Credit: AJC staff

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Booker Izell championed diversity in Atlanta business and shaped a generation of Black journalists. (JOEY IVANSCO/AJC staff)

Credit: AJC staff

A knack for asking tough, probing questions. An eye for detail. Dogged persistence.

Booker Izell was not a journalist, but embodied those qualities.

The Ohio native changed the face of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and its parent company Cox Enterprises by championing diversity, attracting more employees of color and mentoring a generation of Black journalists.

As head of diversity and inclusion, he guided those changes with a combination of affability, compassion, ability to communicate and directness — when necessary.

“Booker was no pushover,” said retired senior managing editor of the AJC James Mallory. “And he had a way about him of getting his point across.”

His directness could be single minded, said Izell’s daugther Gwendolyn Izell. She recalled the time he bought a Christmas tree that turned out to be slightly too tall for their home. His solution: cut the bottom off with a chainsaw without taking it back outside.

Wood chips flew everywhere, “and we ended up having to take the carpet up,” she said. A friend at the AJC took to calling him ‘Chainsaw.’

Booker Izell, 82, died Feb. 16 after an extended illness. He is survived by his wife Birdie, daughter Gwendolyn, sisters Ethel Jenkins and Betty Clay and a number of nieces, nephews and goddaughters. A funeral service was held Thursday.

His first newspapering job at the Dayton Daily News in Ohio involved supervising youngsters who threw the paper onto doorsteps.

“He loved mentoring young people,” said his wife Birdie.

Gwendolyn said a number of those carriers were inspired to choose newspaper careers.

Heading to Atlanta and the AJC in 1984 as circulation manager, he evolved into instructing top Cox executives in the ways and means of diversity and inclusion, later bouncing back to the AJC to wear the twin hats of diversity and community affairs manager.

Facing resistance at times, Izell used a combination of talks, role-playing and exercises to move even the recalcitrant to at least an awareness of the issue.

At the newspaper, he started with the obvious, said Reed Kimbrough, who succeeded Izell after Izell retired in the early 2000s.

Their analysis showed that obituaries appearing in the paper with attached photographs primarily portrayed white men and women.

“Once we audited that, we were able to move the newspaper to a position that was more diverse,” he said.

“He had a combination of strength and gentleness that helped people navigate the whole notion of diversity and inclusion,” Kimbrough said.

Former co-workers said his door was always open to mentor many young Black journalists and other employees of color.

Mallory sought out Izell to talk about navigating career choices while he was rising through the ranks. That included the challenge of being a younger Black male in a rapidly changing business. “One thing he taught me,” said Mallory, “was that you have to have the ear of people who can make sure change happens.”

Capturing those ears extended well beyond the walls of the AJC and Cox.

Izell once testified before Congress on diversity issues. He also maintained close and influential ties with a host of community groups, such as the United Negro College Fund, the Alliance Theater, Leadership Atlanta and the 100 Black Men of Atlanta.

“It wasn’t a community meeting unless Booker Izell was there,” said Condace Pressley, director of community affairs for WSB-TV.

“He cared,” said she said of her mentor. “And what you saw was what you got.”

After his retirment, Izell suffered a debilitating stroke in 2008, but did not lose his drive and forge-ahead style.

Left without the ability to walk or talk, he embarked on months of grueling physical, occupational and speech therapy.

“He was in bad shape,” Birdie Izell told the AJC in 2014. “When the doctors talked to him, his only response was to hold up three fingers.”

Izell was eventually able to walk-with a cane-and converse again.

ExploreRead and sign the online guestbook for Booker Izell

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