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Black Stories Matter

ISSUE:  Fall 2016

The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America. By Ethan Michaeli. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. 633p. HB, $32.

During the summer of 2013, shortly after George Zimmerman was acquitted of the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager named Trayvon Martin, word leaked out that a juror was already shopping around a prospective book about the case. One particular Twitter user, Genie Lauren, was so outraged that she logged on to condemn the literary agent who was representing the juror. As Lauren later explained, “I didn’t think it was right that someone would make money off of this tragedy.” Almost immediately, thousands of other people began tweeting at the agent, a protest petition circulated online, and the book project was dropped. 

By some readings of recent history, this episode marked the emergence of Black Twitter, a term that refers to the concentrated, effective, and proudly parochial use of the social-media platform by African Americans. In the years since the Zimmerman trial, Black Twitter has been an information-sharing and opinion-shaping phenomenon for everything from the BET Awards to the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, Missouri. Black Twitter, of course, gave birth to the hashtag that became a slogan that became a movement: #BlackLivesMatter.

The temptation in assessing a seeming innovation like Black Twitter is to mistake the newness of the technology for the oldness of the message. If Black Twitter is nothing else, it is the digital revolution’s manifestation of the great African-American newspapers of the twentieth century. These periodicals similarly gave voice to the experiences of millions of black Americans and very deliberately effaced the traditional journalistic line between uninflected reportage and clearly labeled opinion. (Let’s leave aside for this essay the question of whether “objectivity” has ever been more than a myth.)

Arguably the finest and most influential of the African-American newspapers was the Chicago Defender, and its history is the subject of Ethan Michaeli’s important, eloquent, and sometimes flawed book. A kind of institutional biography, The Defender: How The Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America traces the paper’s trajectory for the hundred years since its maiden issue in 1905. For virtually all of that time, the Defender expressed the vision of two men—its founding publisher, Robert S. Abbott, and the nephew who succeeded him, John Sengstacke.

The arc of the Abbott and Sengstacke years includes many of the landmark events in postbellum black America, from the Great Migration to the Double Victory campaign to the Emmett Till murder to the Selma marches to the early political career of one Barack Obama. The centrality of Chicago itself in African-American history allows Michaeli to tell a broad story, at times even international in implications, from a tightly defined focal place, the Defender’s newsroom in the South Side neighborhood known as Bronzeville.

Michaeli has made a major contribution to journalistic history as well as to African-American history. His book provides detailed and insightful portraits not only of Abbott and Sengstacke but of some of their most accomplished reporters and editors, including Ethel Payne and Louis Martin Jr. In compelling set-pieces on such topics as Abbott’s feud with Marcus Garvey and Sengstacke’s complex relationship with the elder Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, the author embeds in narrative action the newspaper’s guiding ethos. As Michaeli writes of Abbott, “[H]e was a radical proponent of interracialism and committed to the eradication of the laws and customs of discrimination as embodied in the first plank of The Defender’s Platform for America: ‘American Race Prejudice Must Be Destroyed.’ It was a creed that stood in opposition to…racial separatism and black nationalism…one that was as pragmatic as it was forgiving.”

For a moment in time, a moment that lasted decades, the Defender brought its combination of activism and respectability to a massive audience. A groundbreaking black student who had been inspired by hearing an aging Frederick Douglass speak, Abbott started the Defender on such shaky financial ground that at one point he had to borrow $50 from a gambling lord to keep it operating. Yet by 1915, the weekly newspaper reached readers all the way from the Mississippi Delta to Africa, Europe, and Asia.  In the years following World War I, with circulation at 250,000, Abbott owned a fourteen-room mansion and a Rolls-Royce. Sengstacke launched a daily edition in 1956, and as of 1960, the Defender had its own building, spin-off editions in other major cities, and a staff of more than 150.

These numbers translated into tremendous influence, making good on Abbott’s boastful subtitling of the Defender as the “Oracle of the Black Community.” After some early hesitancy on the matter, the publisher in 1916 threw his newspaper fully behind a proposed exodus of 1 million Southern blacks, which he called the “Great Northern Drive.” Abbott gave over his editorial page to a poem entitled “Bound for the Promised Land”:

From Florida’s stormy banks I’ll go, I’ll bid the South goodbye;
No longer will they treat me so, And knock me in the eye,
Hasten on my dark brother, Duck the Jim Crow law.
No Crackers North to slap your mother, or knock you on the jaw.
No Cracker there to seduce your sister, nor hang you to a limb.
And you’re not obliged to call ’em “Mister,” nor skin ’em back at him.

Through the stealthy efforts of Pullman porters on interstate trains, bundles of the Defender spread through the South like dissident samizdat later would in the Soviet Union. The extent of the Great Migration far surpassed Abbott’s initial goal of a million, and even after the founder died in 1940 and was replaced by Sengstacke, the paper’s formula of detailed on-scene reporting and fierce advocacy continued unabated. An editorial that chastised President Harry Truman’s weak follow-through on civil rights—under the headline “Promises vs. Performance”—was cited by the New York Times and read aloud by a liberal white representative on the floor of Congress.  In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision outlawing school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, the Defender declared in a banner headline, “Kill Jim Crow.” The newspaper’s correspondents showed not just idealism but personal bravery in reporting from the Southern bastions of “massive resistance,” as white bigots termed their strategy. One reporter, Alex Wilson, endured such a severe beating from a mob while covering the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, that he died years later of the lingering neurological damage.

Even as the Defender unflinchingly inveighed against the legal version of white supremacy (and its vigilante enforcement) in the South, the paper quickly lost any illusions it had about the putatively promised land above the Mason-Dixon Line. As early as 1919, Abbott’s staff was covering anti-black riots on Chicago’s South Side lakefront, whose beaches were tensely divided along racial lines. Perhaps the most gripping pages of Michaeli’s book concern Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign in 1965 and 1966 to bring open housing to Chicago. That effort drew him into an intricate and finally hostile tango with Mayor Daley, a political boss who believed he could adequately address black constituents through obedient black aldermen in segregated neighborhoods. Before King’s sojourn in Chicago was over, he had been bloodied by a white crowd’s hurled rock and left to tell journalists, “I think the people in Mississippi should come to Chicago to learn how to hate.”

Sentence to sentence, Michaeli proves himself a highly skilled writer, one attuned to pacing, flow, word choice. He is capable, too, of building vivid and dramatic scenes. From the very first pages of the Defender, with Michaeli offering a panoramic portrait of the newspaper’s annual parade through the South Side, a reader is aware of being in the hands of a diligent researcher and a gifted writer.

Yet the commitment and passion that Michaeli brings to the subject create some liabilities, too. He worked for the Defender for five years in the 1990s as a copy editor and an investigative reporter, and as he recounts in a poignant first-person chapter that concludes the book, the experience transformed his life: “The newspaper had changed the way I saw Chicago, the United States, and the world, taught me about journalism, and afforded me unparalleled access to the political and cultural figures of my day. It had filled in so many of the blanks in American history left by the textbooks of my youth and showed me how things really work.”

Michaeli, though, appreciates his subject a bit too indiscriminately. The problem is less with his tone than his scope. Though Michaeli maintains enough critical distance to see the Defender’s situational failings, he errs on the side of the encyclopedic. By my rough estimate, this book runs toward 200,000 words, and it reads as if Michaeli found it difficult to omit any anecdote, any factoid. He has delivered what Aristotle described as a “simple plot”—by which he meant not simplistic, but episodic to a fault, composed of all the things that happened in a protagonist’s life. Think of the Defender as Michaeli’s protagonist.

Especially in the first half of the book, Michaeli undermines his own great talents by flitting from topic to topic, and often doubling back again, in his effort at being all-inclusive. The habit subsides once the book moves into the post–World War II years. Yet even then, Michaeli will interrupt a bravura section on civil-rights activity by dropping in an inconsequential digression—how the Defender covered the early Jackson 5, for instance, or Sengstacke’s first trip to the People’s Republic of China.

At the same time, Michaeli shortchanges one essential element of the Defender’s operation: It was a business. A reader rarely finds out if the paper is making or losing money, and if so, how much. The wonderful portraits of staff members do not extend to anyone on the advertising or circulation side. Their absence is a shame, because it seems to me that the Defender played a historically important role in identifying and cultivating a black consumer base that most white businesses ignored. Books like The Real Pepsi Challenge by Stephanie Capparell and Ericka Blount Danois’s Love, Peace, and Soul, about Don Cornelius and his Chicago-based television show Soul Train, offer the kind of insights into the African-American market that Michaeli largely overlooks.

In keeping his gaze so firmly on the granular elements of the Defender’s history, Michaeli winds up exceptionalizing it and understating some broader themes. Make no mistake: Based on his compelling evidence, I do consider this newspaper exceptional. But it was not the only significant African-American newspaper in the country, and Michaeli tends to mention the others only when the Defender acquires them. In a larger way, the Defender formed one part of an array of black institutions—African-American churches, the HBCUs, the funeral-home and burial-insurance industries—that paradoxically thrived because integration was so nearly impossible. Black self-determination was as much a necessity as a choice. One wishes that Michaeli had periodically stood back from the Defender to set it in such context.

In an implicit, incident-by-incident way, Michaeli does suggest the overarching irony of a “for us, by us” enterprise like the Defender. The very social changes that it fought for helped to create the conditions of its own demise. By the late 1960s, the newspaper’s top writers and photographers were being snapped up by previously all-white Chicago dailies. Hard-won open-housing provisions allowed the better-educated, upwardly mobile portion of Bronzeville to move into suburbia, leaving the poorer, more vulnerable remnant warehoused in public-housing towers and ravaged by deindustrialization. A victim of these forces, the Defender limped into its second century having been forced to sell its building and revert back to weekly publication. 

Michaeli dutifully charts this poignant saga, this astringent tale of the unforeseen consequences of success, yet he rarely pauses to lift it up as a metaphor to make a larger point about black America. In fighting for desegregation, in demolishing the legal scaffolding of white supremacy, African Americans never intended for integration to become the solvent of their own proudest creations.

But if the Defender, now in its 111th year of publication, seems sadly in need of an obituary, then it could not have received a more fluent, fulsome, and literally loving one than it has from Ethan Michaeli in this worthy book.


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