Your Black History Month Reading Assignment: The Defender


Defender Pic

For the last half year one story that has dominated the news is the Laquan McDonald story. The unjustified killing of the black man by a Chicago policeman and the lengthy time between incident and arrest of the cop has led to street protests during the Christmas season, the resignation of the Superintendent of Police, and a call for the departure of mayor Rahm Emanuel. Today’s paper carries news that Emanuel is bringing in Chuck Ramsey, recently retired Superintendent of the Philadelphia police department (and Lewis University graduate) to lead the reform efforts.

Reading Michaeli’s thorough history of the nation’s pre-eminent black newspaper in the 20th century, one realizes that little has changed in the area of race relations in Chicago. Granted, we have no recent incidents that compare in magnitude to the race riots of 1919 or the confrontations between angry whites and black marchers who followed Martin Luther King into Marquette Park in 1966 to protest housing discrimination.

Yet the current situation is reminiscent of an episode in 1972 that Michaeli features. From the perspective of The Chicago Defender and the wider African-American community, Richard J. Daley was unresponsive to complaints about police misconduct. He seemed eager to reform but did not press for substantial changes in police administration once the meetings were over. Daley’s inaction provoked an angry response from US Representative Ralph Metcalfe, a former teammate of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympic games. Metcalfe’s protest represented a break from the subservience that the Daley administrations had expected from black members of the Machine. Michaele reads the conflict as the first break in the Democratic organization and a harbinger of the election of Harold Washington a decade later, an event that spurred a young law school graduate Barack Obama to come to Chicago to work as a community organizer.

One thing has changed however. The Chicago Defender, which was in the forefront of so much of the movement for full citizenship for African-American citizens and for an end to racial injustice, was no longer a voice. The McDonald case was more than amply covered by the mainstream media and the increasingly powerful world of social media. Even the once arch-conservative Chicago Tribune under the leadership of Robert McCormick provided full coverage and argued in its editorial pages for swift action to remedy the problems.

Indeed, The Chicago Defender ceased publishing in 2003 after 98 years in operation. In some ways it was a victim of its own success. Most Americans have embraced civil rights legislation that The Chicago Defender promoted and black reporters and editorial writers are employed by all large city newspapers. Vernon Jarrett, the dean of African-American newsmen, started at The Chicago Defender but jumped to The Chicago Tribune that offered him more money and a platform from which he would reach many more readers. By the end of the last century a shrinking readership, once as high as 400,000, and a loss of revenues made the paper unsustainable. Other black papers, like the Pittsburgh Courier, met the same fate.

One poignant moment in the history offers a parallel. In 1948 Defender sports writer Fay Young attended a Negro League game at Comiskey Park. Negro League games produced full capacity crowds but Young was struck by the noticeable decline in attendance, a condition that Young had to attribute to Branch Rickey’s signing of Jackie Robinson and the removal of barriers to major league participation by gifted African-American baseball players. The efforts of The Chicago Defender had borne fruit, but it was a bitter-sweet moment. A precious dimension of African-American life, games between the Chicago American Giants and the Kansas City Monarchs, would quickly become a thing of the past.

Michaeli came to Chicago in 1985 from suburban Rochester, New York to attend college at the University of Chicago. After graduation the aspiring writer stayed in Chicago and in need of a job applied for a job at The Chicago Defender, a job that a friend of his was leaving. An English major, he beat out a Northwestern journalism major for the job. Assigned to the copy editing desk initially, he moved into reporting, a position that he held from 1991-1996. Asked to work on commemorative issues of the newspaper and on obits of recently deceased Defender figures, like the amazing Ethel Payne, he immersed himself in the archives and came away with a solid understanding and deep appreciation for the Herculean work of his employer. His historical account is indeed a labor of love.

If there is a foundation myth about The Chicago Defender it is about founder Robert Abbott’s presence at a speech by Frederick Douglass at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Jackson Park. Abbott was there as a member of the Hampton College chorus. Inspired by Douglas, other civil rights advocates like Ida B. Wells and by his mother’s second husband, the German immigrant John Sengstacke, Abbott vowed to be a leader of his people, to lead them out of bondage and full integration into American society.

The opportunity to produce a newspaper for African-Americans arose in 1903 when he moved to Chicago, one of the Northern cities that was experiencing the first wave of Southern migration. During the initial years copy was written and the paper laid out on the dining room table of Mrs. Lee’s boarding house.

Abbott devised a unique method of information gathering and distribution. The well-respected, all-black Pullman Porters worked on trains that ran between Chicago and the Mississippi Delta, New Orleans, and other southern cities like Birmingham. They brought back to Chicago tales of gruesome lynchings which many southern cities had turned into spectator sports. The elimination of lynching became a cause celebre for the new publication. Returning south, the porters carried bundles of paper which were distributed by a network of newsboys. Young Vernon Jarrett, growing up in rural Tennessee, first becomes aware of The Promised Land and race consciousness as a result of faithful reading The Chicago Defender. The newspaper’s depiction of black life in vibrant Chicago and the availability of factory and industrial jobs for black men during World War I initiated the first Great Migration, a massive population relocation so ably documented in The Warmth of Other Suns (2010) by Elizabeth Wilkerson.

Robert Abbott and John Sengstacke, Robert’s nephew who succeeded him as CEO in the 30’s and was still on duty when Michaeli joined the paper, were unabashed accommodationists. American patriots, they wanted nothing less than full integration of blacks into American society. They stressed the necessity of bringing African-American men into the Armed Forces, and yet were massively disappointed that service in the America’s 20th century wars did not confer full citizen benefits to black men mustered out. While Sengstracke and editor Louis Martin were instrumental in getting Truman to integrate the military, they were painfully aware that the GI Bill, which enabled white men to go to college and to buy homes, were not extended to African-American servicemen.

Michaeli does a wonderful job of documenting the fissures in the African-American community, showing how Abbott and then Sengstacke offered alternative visions to the black separatist movement in the 1920s lead by Marcus Garvey and the black power movement of the 1960s lead by Stokely Carmichael and others. While sometimes impatient with King’s tactics, especially when he moved into a West Side apartment, they were thoroughly in his corner. One of the objectives and accomplishments of this book is find a place for Abbott and Sengstacke alongside the more famous names mentioned in this paragraph and elsewhere in the book (Thurgood Marshall, Langston Hughes, Harold Washington).

The Chicago Defender both documented and agitated for greater freedom for black citizens. The behind the scenes advocacy – like the efforts on the part of the Defender to turn out the vote for Kennedy in 1960 after some reluctance to endorse the Democrat – are fascinating reading. Other sections of the work are less compelling because The Chicago Defender is more witness than player. To be sure, the newspaper provided thorough coverage of the efforts to integrate the Little Rock, Arkansas public schools and James Meredith’s desire to attend the University of Mississippi, yet it was not intimately involved in the fight. To be sure, The Chicago Defender provided the most graphic photographs of the disfigured body of Emmett Till, as his mother Mamie would have wanted it, and ample coverage the farce of a trial which followed, but it was not at the center of things.  Yet, given the way that these sections evoke the spirit of the times, I’m happy that Michaeli included them.

African-American History. Media History. Chicago History. Michaeli’s masterful interweaving of these stories makes his book a pleasure to read. It should be at the top of your February reading list.


About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *