Jerry Freeman met Mel Reeves about 30 years ago, before they began their long editor/writer collaboration at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. Like Reeves, Freeman was an activist, supporting causes important to the Black community in the greater Twin Cities.
Even then, Reeves — the longtime Spokesman-Recorder columnist and community editor who died earlier this month — was a charismatic leader, taking charge with a passion that endeared him to those who knew him well.
Freeman’s first impression of Reeves, however, was anything but endearing. “We were preparing for a march of some kind, trying to find a staging area to make signs and set up some things,” Freeman, the Spokesman-Recorder’s senior editor, recalled a few days ago. “I stopped to pick up some people, a couple of guys got in, and one of them was Mel. He started giving directions like I didn’t know where I was going. And I’m thinking: Who is this guy?
“I found out. It was a rewarding relationship for so long.”
Reeves’ death on Jan. 6, of complications from COVID-19, silenced one of the Black community’s most influential voices, with columns that often sprung from his activism, addressing topics from police brutality to mass transit to popular culture.
The prolific Reeves did some of his best work in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, Freeman said, and wrote his final three stories from his hospital bed at Hennepin County Medical Center. “It’s a devastating loss,” said Spokesman-Recorder Digital Editor Paige L. Elliott, who also worked closely with Reeves. “To be honest with you, I’m still kind of shocked that he’s gone.”
Originally from Miami, the youngest of 13 children, Reeves attended Northwestern College in Iowa and moved to Minneapolis in 1980 to join a friend in a church summer youth program. From there, he gravitated to activism: racial justice, jobs and housing. He wrote for the Spokesman-Recorder on and off in the 1990s before moving back to Miami in 2002 to care for his ill mother. Returning to the Twin Cities in 2009, he resumed his activism — and his writing.
Though Reeves didn’t officially rejoin the Spokesman-Recorder, the state’s oldest Black-owned newspaper, until 2018, Freeman often turned to Reeves to contribute commentary for the paper’s editorial page, where Reeves’ fearless writing set him apart. Often straddling the line between journalist and activist, Reeves sometimes had to be reminded that what’s right for the bullhorn isn’t always right for the page.
“What I drilled down to him was, this newspaper is not an activist newspaper,” said Spokesman-Recorder publisher Tracey Williams-Dillard. “This newspaper is a community newspaper. We’re here to tell the stories and let people make their own decisions based on the information we provide them with.
“I always had to remind Mel there was a tightrope he was walking between his lifelong love (of activism) and his other lifelong love, which was being a journalist. And he had great editors that worked side by side with him … to help him stay balanced. Between them and him, they made a great team.”
Said Freeman: “He always felt, and I always agreed with him, that his activism was a great asset, his ability to interpret what was going on and help people understand and make sense out of events. He was very good at doing that and very devoted to doing that. But we always had that fine line issue between strict reportage, that kind of news analysis category in the middle, and commentary.
“We sometimes debated over whether something should go on the opinion page, or whether we should put it on the front as a news analysis, or whether to strip out all the non-objective stuff and run it as straight news … Overall, our goal was to serve our readers the best we possible can. Sometimes that was by reporting the facts, and sometimes that was by interpreting the facts and putting him in some context. Mel was really good at that.”
Among the public figures Reeves took on was former Minneapolis Police Federation President Bob Kroll, most notably after Kroll spoke at a 2019 rally for President Donald Trump at the Target Center. In that piece, Reeves wrote: “The support that Kroll said the Federation extended to President Trump begs the question: Can police who openly support Donald Trump be trusted to act in the best interests of immigrants, refugees, Muslims, Latinos and other People of Color?”
Even when Reeves took ill and was hospitalized in late December, he insisted on writing the paper’s 2021 Year In Review. Lacking a laptop, he wrote it on his phone. “Who does that?” Williams-Dillard said. “I can’t even stand texting half the time on my phone.”
When Reeves’ email containing the story failed to arrive, Elliott coached him through texting the document instead. “He was so happy,” Elliott said. “I could just hear him beaming over the phone: ‘I did it, Sis, I did it!’ He was like a little kid. His voice was pure falsetto. You could just hear the joy.”
Williams-Dillard brought Reeves a laptop to compose his final two stories: A feature about the first George Floyd Jr. Memorial Classic high school basketball tournament, and — hauntingly — a news story about how the Black community should protect itself from the Omicron variant. The latter, Elliott said, came out of nowhere, based on a phone interview Reeves did with University of Minnesota infectious disease expert Dr. Michael Osterholm.
“His mind was so sharp, even to the end,” Elliott said. “My last conversation with him … was full of ideas about the Spokesman. ‘I’m going to hit the ground running, as soon as I get better.’ He was just really excited about the future, right to the end.
“I just miss that energy, that passion he had — passion for the community, passion for the pride of Black people, passion for the Spokesman.”
Besides his writing, Reeves promoted the Spokesman-Recorder at every turn and mentored up-and-coming journalists of color, and his death leaves the paper without its most notable voice. “When my grandfather (Spokesman-Recorder founding publisher Cecil Newman) passed, everyone told my grandmother the paper would not carry on without the founder,” Williams-Dillard said. “And my grandmother said, ‘He’s going to be sorely missed, but it will go on.’
“I say that about Mel. He will be sorely missed, but we’ll find another editor that will bring maybe a different perspective. The mission will be carried through no matter who steps into that seat. They still have a mission to inform, educate and inspire this community. How they do it is going rely largely on who they are, but they still have to reach out with the mission. That’s how we’ll continue on.”