A man named George Floyd was arrested by Minneapolis police on May 25, 2020 after a convenience store employee called 911 and told the police that Floyd had purchased cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. Seventeen minutes after the first squad car arrived at the scene, Floyd was unconscious and pinned beneath three police officers, showing no signs of life.
Floyd eventually died in police custody, an event which spawned racial justice protests and civil unrest in cities across the country.
CBS Saturday Morning co-host and network correspondent Michelle Miller has covered racial justice movements for years. But this event really set her off and she felt as though she needed to get something off her chest. Miller delivered a personal piece for the June 5, 2020 edition of CBS This Morning (now named CBS Mornings) during which she shares her own complicated history with race.
She discussed growing up in South Central L.A. in the 1970s and being “the product of an interracial union.” Her African-American father, a well-known surgeon and activist, celebrated the union, but her Latina mother left shortly after birth and does not even acknowledge her to this day. Her birth mom’s side of the family doesn’t even know she exists.
Fast forward nine months and a half months after that on-air essay, and Miller has published Belonging, a memoir chronicling the search for a mother who abandoned her at birth and the efforts to make sense of her mixed-race background.
We spoke with Miller earlier this week about Belonging, which debuted this week at No. 11 on the New York Times Bestseller List for Print Hardcover, the complicated process of seeking out her birth mother, Miller’s career at CBS News and issues facing a city we both love.
TVNewser: Belonging came from a social justice segment you did for the morning show tied to the recent murder of George Floyd. Mid-segment, the camera focused on you, and you described your own life experiences. How did that segment turn into a memoir? Walk us through the development process.
Miller: I didn’t think about it as I was doing it. I got off the phone with my senior producer, turned the dictation on my phone and just stream of conscious started writing the piece. It came out almost in a way that I didn’t expect. I started talking about my 30 years of covering social justice issues. The fact that I’ve covered so much about policing and communities and the nexus between and the violence and the marginalization. Then, I just sort of went there, I don’t know how else to describe it, in the dictation. What I dictated into that phone became that three-minute piece. My producer, Deanna Fry, asked me once she read the script, “are you sure you want to include this?” I said,” Yes.” There was no hesitation. The fact that one, she moved forward with it, and it went forward to the senior producer and Brian Bingham [the senior producer] said, “let’s go.” And we did.
There was a trust that what I was saying in this piece, and how it reflected back to me, was the right tone.
Right. So then after that, was there any thought that this could become a memoir someday? I imagine that wasn’t on your mind when you were live on the broadcast.
Miller: So again, all of this has been such a gift. It started with Gayle King’s reaction to the segment, and really her concern. After the show, she called me and said, “Michelle, are you okay? This is something that is so far from what I expected knowing about you and your origin story” to 37 minutes after the piece was broadcast, receiving an email from a HarperCollins publisher by the name of Lisa Sharkey. She said, “Wow, that was an incredible story. It is a book, and may I publish it?”
You make clear in the book that one of your father’s final wishes was for you to reach out to your birth mother. Was that something you were always interested in doing and kind of just needed that extra nudge? Or had your stance previously been, “You know, I’m actually not really interested in reconnecting with her”?
Miller: I think my father gave me permission to seek out my mother. A lot of people who are estranged from their parents, certainly kids who are adopted by other families, there’s a sense of, “am I betraying those who stayed with me or who came and made a home for me, those who nurtured me?” I think that for them there is this sense of, “is it okay for me to go and seek out my birth parents.” For me, that was the same inclination.
I never thought of going out to find my mother until my dad requested I do it. I always wondered about her, but the thought of actually finding her never entered my mind until he gave me the permission to do it.
Do you and your birth mother have any sort of relationship now?
Moving to your day to day at CBS Saturday Morning. How have you changed as a journalist since joining the show in 2018, and how has the show evolved over that time?
Miller: I recall the show before it became SATMO (CBS Saturday Morning) in the sense that it more closely resembled those other [weekend morning] shows on those other networks. When [CBS Saturday Morning ep] Brian Applegate came on board, he had a vision to create this Saturday Morning special with limited resources that could give people a sense of culture through food, through music through books, in a way that we perhaps hadn’t seen before. He built out the show in a way that staked a claim, that struck a nerve.
When I came on board as a correspondent, it was like one of those places of belonging, because he gave you the time to explore the subject that you want, he gave you the access to stories that weren’t necessarily being told by other shows. It really was a place that a lot of people found a home at.
When I came on board as an anchor, I kind of pushed through. I’m at home, I’m going to make it at home, and everything that I’ve covered – there has been such an evolution in terms of things that I’ve wanted to do, and in terms of stories I hope to explore.
I’ve done everything; from going overseas and covering refugee camps, and specifically the story that I did was about mental health in a place where people are trying to find some belonging when they absolutely estranged from their homeland; to stories of triumph; to covering [Dr.] Anthony Fauci or I’m out here now doing in Los Angeles covering a story about a toy company called Purpose that gives young girls of color a way to see themselves through the textures of their hair and skin tones.
What is really wonderful about what I do is I have the freedom and the access through CBS Saturday Morning to tell stories all over the world, and show people through a lens perhaps something they’ve never once thought of themselves, seen for themselves and expose them to a different way of life.
You’ve covered a wide variety of stories over the years. Is there something you want to dive deeper into?
I have such a variety of interests, and there hasn’t been anything that hasn’t been available to me across the spectrum of stories and the spectrum of platforms. I work for everyone from 48 Hours to CBS Sunday Morning.
There’s a story I’m very proud of that you will soon learn is getting a level of recognition that really speaks to the triumph of a woman who could have very well given up on life, and she didn’t, and she has soared. It was a 48 Hours piece that I did last year that I’m extremely proud of on Katrina Brownlee. I can’t tell you what I’m speaking of specifically, but I am very pleased that we are right on the cusp of announcing something very big.
I’m currently based in New Orleans, your husband was previously mayor of the city and you worked at the CBS affiliate here. What’s one New Orleans story you feel deserves more national attention right now?
When I arrived in New Orleans in 1994, the No. 1 concern of people in that town was the state of policing. I think about what was accomplished through a community wide effort, and here comes my form of – ironically, my husband was mayor at the time. When I first got there, it was the murder capital of the nation, if not the world. There was a corrupt force that was already under a consent decree. The previous administration had been highlighted by the FBI, and through a myriad of community efforts, grassroots, business, the police department itself and the local government, they were able to shore up a police department that provided not only raises for police, but a community policing effort that was accessible to the community and had a level of empathy that they had never seen before. And they reduced overall violent crime by 60%, the murder rate by 70%. You haven’t seen numbers like that in some time.
Those efforts and those policies that were established by [the late New Orleans Police Department] chief Richard Pennington from 1994 all the way through 2002. They were structural, they were methodical, and then with the next administration were tossed aside. You had Hurricane Katrina  come through and decimate the community, and the structural government to some degree.
The sort of rebuilding of trying to grasp what’s going on in policing – I always think context is queen, and I think that people revisited what worked in the past and could also take a real community approach to policing things – things could be accomplished, and I think that’s where the focus [should be].
I would certainly like to do a contextual story to see if people feel as though what is needed. I feel so much for that city right now. It is suffering through a crime problem of monumental proportions. There are so many factors that play into what is happening there. But that is where I would love to see. Improvement direction. I would love to see effort and a coalition of people from every from every aspect of that town to come together and push forward.
It is so hard to watch what is taking place [in New Orleans]. That’s where I think some of the focus should be and sometimes identifies not only the problems but perhaps some of the solutions if you take a step back and look at what has been attempted before.
- Miller’s husband Mark Morial was New Orleans mayor from 1994-2002.
- According to his 2017 NOLA.com obit, the late NOPD Chief Richard Pennington fulfilled his promise to slash the city’s homicide rate by half.