Defending Chicago's 'Defender'

It's possible to trace much of 20th Century America’s history through the pages of the Defender, a local paper with a national impact.

Before Black Twitter, there was the black press. Before websites from NewsOne to WorldStarHipHop, there was black print media. Before Robert Johnson built Black Entertainment Television (BET) into a billion-dollar enterprise, black newspapers were establishing their own economic impact. As the primary source for news and opinion about and by the black community, black papers predate even black radio.

The black newspaper is both the starting point and the dominant channel of the 190-year lineage of black American media and journalism. Within that lineage, the Chicago Defender stands especially tall.

In the best of its days, the Defender didn’t just report the news, it often drove it. The newspaper was critical to shaping the nature of black Chicago for the better part of a century. As black Chicago grew in size, the Defender grew in importance. It became a strong and fearless advocate for black progress on all fronts, especially the political front. It was a kingmaker for local and national politicians, from the outbreak of World War I to the first campaigns of a local community organizer named Barack Obama. Its leaders had the ear of mayors and presidents, all the while keeping its own ear to the street.

It's possible, in fact, to trace much of 20th Century America’s history through the pages of the Defender, a local paper with a national impact. That’s the effect of reading The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America, a richly detailed biography of the paper by Ethan Michaeli, one of its former reporters. It belongs on the same shelf with the weighty histories of the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal; in its day, the Defender was black America’s paper of record.

That day began in 1905, when Robert Abbott published the first weekly issue from a desk in a real estate office. He was a one-man shop -- reporter, editor, circulation manager -- fueled by a passion stoked a decade earlier, from hearing Frederick Douglass speak at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Abbott, a college student at the time, moved to Chicago after graduation, found work as a printer, and slowly began to make his way within the black community. Michaeli uncovers, among facts and factoids too numerous to count, the origins of the paper’s name: Abbott wanted his enterprise to be a “defender of the race”. Soon after that first issue, he set up shop in his landlady’s dining room.

Abbott’s non-stop grind earned him admiration and notoriety throughout the community -- even, Michaeli reports, from the proprietor of a local pool hall/gambling den, who loaned Abbott some badly needed cash in those early days. But the paper was uniquely positioned to succeed, despite the presence of three competing publications. Chicago was already an epicenter of urban black life by the 1910s; the Defender not only chronicled its impending growth, it also fueled it.

In the mid-'10s blacks began leaving the rural South en masse, fleeing hostility and poverty for a chance at a better life up North. The Defender didn’t champion what came to be known as the Great Migration at first, calling instead for the federal government to address the southern issues. But by August 1916, Abbott had come to see that migration from the South was black folk’s best bet for advancement. The paper started reporting on departures from the South and arrivals in Chicago, highlighting new arrivals in print as if they were visiting dignitaries. Many were encouraged to move to Chicago by seeing copies of the Defender brought down south by black Pullman porters working the railroad cars (and acting as de facto subscription agents for the paper). The migrants remade Chicago’s black community, whose South Side core came to be known as Bronzeville. The Defender was right there, with its own building near the heart of Bronzeville, to document it all.

Thinking of extending his business into a legacy, Abbott brought his carefully groomed nephew, John Sengstacke, on board in 1933 as a bookkeeper. Sengstacke quickly noticed some chicanery going on with accounts controlled by the current office manager, Nathan McGill, who was also secretary of the paper’s governing board. Sengstacke convinced his uncle, who was going through a nasty public divorce at that moment, to get rid of McGill, and was eventually put in charge of the entire operation. The paper had grown substantially over the years (at its peak, a weekly circulation of more than 250,000), and even launched a Detroit-based edition (The Michigan Chronicle), but Sengstacke still needed to visit those same shady characters his uncle had tapped to help keep cash on hand.

The Defender would flourish under Sengstacke’s direction. Sengstacke convened the publishers of all the major black papers to Chicago in 1940 for a meeting that birthed the Negro Newspapers Publishers Association (NNPA) (the meeting was almost overshadowed by the news of Abbott’s death just after it started). Sengstacke led the fight against Federal Bureau of Investigation efforts to brand black papers as hostile to the war effort as American entered World War II. In 1944, he and other NNPA publishers had a face-to-face meeting with President Franklin Roosevelt; White House meetings with any group of black people were extremely rare back then. One of the indirect results of that meeting was the first inclusion of a black reporter, Defender correspondent Harry McAlpin, in the White House Press Corps.

The Defender’s national influence continued during the ‘50s, with reporters including Ethel Payne and Alex Wilson filing stories from across the globe. But the 1955 Mississippi trial of white men accused of murdering Chicago teenager Emmitt Till highlighted a burgeoning disadvantage -- no weekly paper, no matter how black and proud, could compete with daily papers offering up-to-date coverage of breaking news. In 1956, the Defender ramped up to a daily schedule, and just in time too, as the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, led by a young preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr., was gathering its legs.

The paper’s most audacious and ingenious act of political influence occurred in the 1960 presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy. After realizing black voters were unhappy with the candidate’s tepid support of civil rights (and selection of Texan Lyndon Johnson as its vice-president), the campaign tapped Louis Martin, a longtime Defender reporter and editor, to head up its outreach efforts. Martin, who was still listed on the paper’s masthead even though he had recently left for a post in Nigeria, skillfully directed exclusive editorial copy (and badly needed dollars) to the Defender and other black papers, and built a get-out-the-black-vote machine.

He also helped write history a few weeks before the election. Martin helped engineer a phone call from the candidate to King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, after he had been jailed in Atlanta after a sit-in, and convinced the candidate’s brother Bobby to lean on the local judge to release King on bond. Then he made sure all the black papers had enough information about the call to run a full story in their final issue before the election (most of them were still weeklies, so he only had one shot at them), and printed up leaflets to distribute to every black church in Chicago, recounting the entire case. The gambit worked: the Defender’s election day issue included King’s support of Kennedy, and black voters (not, as legend has it, dead ones) delivered Chicago, and essentially the presidency, to Kennedy. Martin was rewarded with a job in the administration, and Sengstacke with access to yet another White House.

The Defender provided critical coverage of the tensions surrounding race in Chicago, from King’s 1966 campaign there to the 1969 police murders of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark -- and in a manner far more sympathetic to the black community than the mainstream media were inclined to provide. But the days of its greatest influence were clearly on the wane by the time Chicago finally elected a black mayor, Harold Washington, in 1983.

The Defender is primarily concerned with the great arc of the paper’s history, and the protean work of Abbott and Sengstacke in shaping it. But Michaeli also mentions the many reporters and behind-the-scenes people who gave the paper its spirit: from managing editor Lucius Harper, who conceived the character Bud Billiken in the ’20s as the figurehead for a youth column (and later a parade that remains a Chicago tradition), to the recently passed Theresa Fambro Hooks, who chronicled the black social set in her “Teesee’s Town” column for years (Michaeli notes her journalistic skills weren’t always deployed for soft news; she was among the reporters who hit the streets and phones on 4 April 1968, in the hours after the news of King’s assassination broke).

Michaeli pulls off an impressive feat here: he’s captured the evolution and essence of a business that’s part national history, Chicago history, black history and media history. But that’s just a function of the unique place the Defender holds within all those histories. All the major black papers of the 20th Century -- the Pittsburgh Courier, New York Amsterdam News, Atlanta Daily World and more -- were certainly important to their local communities, but only the Defender was important to every black community.

There’s only one problem in reading The Defender: it calls attention to how far the latter-day version is from its majestic heritage.

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