April Ryan fired the question heard around the world.
“Mr. President,” the veteran White House correspondent called out during a Jan. 12 event honoring Martin Luther King, “are you a racist?”
The response was swift. Critics objected to the timing of the question. Supporters said it was about time. But for Ryan, who’d covered four U.S. presidents, the decision to ask it had been an agonizing one.
She recounted the moments leading up to it—and those that followed—while delivering a keynote address at the University of Mary Washington’s Martin Luther King Jr. celebration Wednesday night.
A night before posing the controversial question, Ryan had learned that Trump allegedly used a derogatory word to describe Haiti, El Salvador and some African countries during immigration discussions. The journalist had called the NAACP to get its definition of a racist.
“If you don’t ask it,” Ryan recalled telling herself, “no one else will. There won’t be another time to ask it.”
So she did.
“The president’s silence was deafening,” Ryan told the hundreds who gathered to hear her speak in the University Center’s Chandler Ballroom. “Even if he had scolded me, it would be better than nothing.”
Ryan said she cried after asking the question. “It was a tough day for me.”
In the end, she decided, “I was within my rights to ask. No one in the history of the nation has asked a president if he was a racist. Now the history books will say I did it.”
Ryan, who heads the Washington, D.C., bureau of American Urban Radio Networks (AURN), has worked as a reporter on Capitol Hill since 1997. She’s covered the presidential administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Newsweek has called her “one of America’s most successful black journalists,” and she is one of a handful of African-American correspondents in the White House. She’s the only black female reporter writing about urban issues and is one of only three African-Americans to serve on the board of the 100-plus-year-old White House Correspondents’ Association.
Yet she was catapulted to fame less than a year ago during an exchange with Trump when he infamously asked the journalist if she could organize a meeting between him and the Congressional Black Caucus—and whether its members were “friends of yours.”
Ryan, who also works as a political analyst for CNN and has written two books, described herself during Thursday’s address as a “black girl from Baltimore from a working-class family.”
That she would grow up to find success—and fly on Air Force One with the nation’s first black president—is testament to King’s legacy, she said in her address, which was sponsored by the Office of the President and hosted by the James Farmer Multicultural Center.
Ryan told how she grew up listening to King’s speeches on vinyl in a house where portraits of King and John F. Kennedy hung on the walls. Her mother constantly encouraged her to look up information and told stories of African-Americans’ contributions.
She encouraged those gathered to ask themselves what King would do if he were alive today. For those short on optimism, Ryan had a message. “Where there’s life, there’s hope. Where there’s love, there’s hope.”
She went on: “It takes all of us. I’m not talking about a political party or a person. I’m talking about you.”
Ryan ended her address by reminding those gathered that King “did not die in vain. Aspire to inspire,” she said. “And what will YOU do?”
It was a message UMW freshman Nina Burges, a self-described CNN junkie who has followed Ryan for nearly a year, took to heart.
“It’s really neat to see someone who looks like me on CNN,” she said as she stood in line to meet the journalist and ask her to sign a flyer.
Ryan represents what is possible, Burges said, echoing how King’s legacy paved the way for so many.