When America thinks about some of its greatest newspapers, publications like the New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal come to mind. But, The Chicago Defender should also be on that list. It was certainly one of the most influential papers of the 20th century.
Roland Martin, Host of NewsOne Now and former Executive Editor/General Manager of the Chicago Defender, spoke with Ethan Michaeli, author of The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America.
Michaeli told Martin, “The Defender reshaped the political landscape of the country, it was responsible for starting the Great Migration, John Sengstacke negotiated with Harry Truman to integrate the U.S. Armed forces, he then helped elect Harry Truman, he helped elect John F. Kennedy, and it (the Chicago Defender) gave a start to Barack Obama.”
“The newspaper has impacted the country in many different ways,” said Michaeli.
Martin addressed the impact The Defender had on the Great Migration, saying African-Americans were “driven from the South to the North and (publisher) Robert Abbott was the one who was the greatest cheerleader” of that movement.
Michaeli agreed with Martin’s statement saying, “Robert Abbott was himself someone who had grown up in the South in the years after Reconstruction, so he knew full well the effects of segregation and Jim Crow. He understood the migration as a means to seek retribution against the Jim Crow system. He understood that by removing the best workers from the South, what he was really doing was undermining the entire economic system of the White-controlled South.”
He added, “The Chicago Defender was at various points seized or censored by authorities in the South and it had to be more or less smuggled to different communities in the South. It was the Underground Railroad in reverse.”
A quote from The Defender reads:
“Abbott preached and exemplified the American values of self-reliance and capitalist success, along with the constitutional gospel of freedom of speech and legal equality. Ignoring death threats and circumventing southern authorities who tried to ban his young newspaper, he drafted Pullman porters, the famed valets of the interstate train system to smuggle bundles across the Mason-Dixon Lin and sell subscriptions.”
Michaeli said of the quote, “What I think is missed in that transaction is that those papers were bought and paid for, somebody had a subscription and somebody was signed up as a distributor to sell those papers. And if you can imagine the trust that there must have been between people in small communities all over the country and especially throughout the South, who worked very hard for their money — if you can imagine the trust there must have been there for them to send a dollar or two to a newspaper in far off Chicago, hoping that newspaper would arrive — Robert Abbott took that responsibility very seriously, he made sure that every newspaper was delivered on-time every week … he built that trust not just with reliability of the newspaper, but also with the content.”
Michaeli added, “He was an advocate for the migration as we talked about, but it was also strongly against lynching, strongly against all of the atrocities of the Jim Crow South.”
From Amazon.com about The Defender:
Giving voice to the voiceless, the Chicago Defender condemned Jim Crow, catalyzed the Great Migration, and focused the electoral power of black America. Robert S. Abbott founded The Defender in 1905, smuggled hundreds of thousands of copies into the most isolated communities in the segregated South, and was dubbed a “Modern Moses,” becoming one of the first black millionaires in the process. His successor wielded the newspaper’s clout to elect mayors and presidents, including Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy, who would have lost in 1960 if not forTheDefender’s support. Along the way, its pages were filled with columns by legends like Ida B. Wells, Langston Hughes, and Martin Luther King.
Watch Roland Martin and author Ethan Michaeli discuss The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America in the video clip above.
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