We are in the middle of what is officially black history month. These days, so far as I can tell, that mostly means elementary school kids have to do a report on Martin Luther King Jr., and read a few paragraphs from the famous speech.
The rest of us mainly ignore it. Which is too bad, because black history is filled with fascinating and untold stories, and I want to tell you about a riveting new book about one.
Newspapers are mainly in decline these days, though for most of our history, they were our most important communications medium. But what few realize is that in the century following slavery, newspapers were even more important to black America.
We lived in a rigidly socially segregated world. What we think of as the mainstream press did not hire African Americans. They almost never reported on them, unless they committed a crime. But a thriving black press made up for that.
Indeed, some historians think that black newspapers were the key ingredient in helping establish a sense of community. And the most important of all these papers was the Chicago Defender, run by a family who also owned and ran the Michigan Chronicle.
Ethan Michaeli, a white journalist who worked for the Defender in the 1990s, is the author of Houghton Mifflin’s new book The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America.
That’s not too strong a title. During both world wars, the Defender played a huge role in the Great Migration that caused millions of blacks to leave the Deep South to work in the factories of Detroit and Chicago and elsewhere in search of better lives.
The Defender would print train schedules from southern cities to Chicago –one way – and tell migrants how to live and shop and look for work in the north.
The paper’s story is far more fascinating and improbable than Citizen Kane. Its founder, Robert S. Abbott, started the Defender on his landlady’s dining room table in 1905. He had no money, so he wrote it all himself, and also sold ads and delivered it, often going hungry to pay the printing bill. Before long, he had a going concern that swiftly gained nationwide reach.
Abbott turned heads with lurid headlines exposing lynchings, and advising blacks that if they must die, to take at least one of their killers with them. Not surprisingly, southern whites tried to suppress the Defender, but they were outwitted by sleeping car porters, who smuggled bundles aboard their trains.
Later, the Defender would play a powerful role in politics. One of the final photographs in this book shows a skinny young politician asking the newspaper’s editorial board for an endorsement in a congressional race he had no chance to win.
The man, of course, was Barack Obama. Many black newspapers went out of business for the same reason Negro baseball leagues died; the end of hiring segregation, a cause they ironically had crusaded for.
The Defender still exists, however, though it is much smaller. Years ago, an old man who had sold it on the streets told me,
“That was a fine newspaper. It always stood up for the race.”
Michaeli’s book shows that the Defender stood up for all of us as well.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.