But as a national narrative coalesced about how the forces of race and gentriﬁcation had undone the District’s reformist mayor, Milloy came off like Chocolate City’s version of Glenn Beck. In Milloy’s view, the story bouncing around was that D.C. had no idea what was good for it. Fenty had tried to change things for the better, only to be thwarted by blacks too resentful of the District’s inﬂux of white residents to realize how essential the mayor was to a better future. In this version, Milloy and those who thought like him were a mirror image of the Tea Party. Issues had been ginned up, but at their base was racial anxiety. In other words, Milloy and his supporters were nothing but bigots.
And, like the other Tea Partiers, they faced a backlash: Six weeks later, write-ins captured nearly a quarter of the city’s general election votes. It’s a good bet that wouldn’t have happened without the post-primary racial agita that began with Milloy’s column.
Milloy arrived in the District in 1974 after two years at The Miami Herald. He was 23 years old, without a job but sure he’d ﬁnd one. He camped out in The Washington Post’s lobby for a day. He was hoping to meet the editor in charge of recruiting, Elsie Carper. Milloy had neither an appointment nor any idea what she looked like.
Growing up in Shreveport, La., in the 1960s, Milloy felt his destiny was to become a journalist. Though he has bitter memories of enduring discrimination and racism, his upbringing was auspicious. His parents were both teachers: His father taught journalism and his mother typing. “These two things made for a calling, don’t you think?” Milloy asks. When he was old enough to attend Booker T. Washington, the revered black high school where his parents worked, he joined the school newspaper and began writing a column. When he gave one of his columns the headline, “The Cure for Boredom in the Classroom,” he learned what it was like to be at the center of controversy. “It created a buzz,” he remembers. “I’d never created a buzz before.”
From there, Milloy headed to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill. After college, he scored the job at the Herald, but he knew he wasn’t staying. He was anxious to leave the South behind, to live in a place that had an energy and potential that matched his own. Big newspapers were starting to hire more black reporters, prompted in part by the civil rights struggle they’d been chronicling in their own pages. Milloy ﬁgured he’d try the Post.
During the hours he lurked in the paper’s stolid lobby, Milloy befriended a security guard. At the end of the day, Carper came through the lobby and made a beeline for the exit. The security guard pointed her out. Milloy talked fast. A few months later, he was working for the newspaper that was toppling a president. Milloy’s beat was somewhat less glamorous: He’d be covering “cops and courts” in Prince George’s County.
Milloy found himself a part of a small group of rising black Washington journalists. “Courtland came along at a time when media opened its doors to black employment,” says Phillips. His peers were people like Maureen Bunyan, Kojo Nnamdi and Juan Williams. According to Phillips, it wasn’t uncommon for black reporters to run into each other at a private club called the Fox Trap, at the corner of 16th and R streets NW.
It could be a pretty wild scene, but Courtland was reserved: “A typical newspaper guy,” recalls Phillips. Milloy’s friend and onetime Post colleague Richard Prince remembers him as “balanced.” Prince was known for opening his Dupont Circle house up for late-night get-togethers that catered to the black media elite. Milloy was often in attendance, and always friendly, but definitely not a party animal.
Milloy’s temperament kept it hidden, but he did have a wild side, and slowly, it began getting the best of him. By 1988, he’d been sucked into a spiral of drugs and alcohol. “You wind down after one of those days on deadline,” he remembers. But as quietly as Milloy slipped downhill, he surged back. “The time came when my party was over,” he says. “When you’re like that, it’s hard to be creative.”
Milloy never talked much about his addiction, and it might have stayed a secret if not for Marion Barry. At a Post luncheon in 1994, Barry, campaigning for mayor, was speaking about his own drug and alcohol use as Milloy sat by, listening. When asked to name the major mistakes he’d made Barry digressed. “Before we get to that, let me just talk about myself a little bit, personally. Again, I think I’ve had a remarkable recovery…I often use the example of [WRC-TV’s] Jim Vance and, I hope he doesn’t get offended by this, Courtland Milloy, who’ve gone through difficult situations but come back to work.”
In a July 3, 1994, column (“Barry’s Healing Example”), Milloy tried to come to peace with suddenly being lumped in with the politician whose own drug use led to the immortal line, “Bitch set me up.”