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The defender : how the legendary Black newspaper changed America : from the age of the Pullman porters to the age of Obama
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"An extraordinary history...Deeply researched, elegantly written...a towering achievement that will not be soon forgotten." -- Brent Staples, New York Times Book Review


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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 for The Defender 's support. Along the way, its pages were filled with columns by legends like Ida B. Wells, Langston Hughes, and Martin Luther King.

Drawing on dozens of interviews and extensive archival research, Ethan Michaeli constructs a revelatory narrative of race in America and brings to life the reporters who braved lynch mobs and policemen's clubs to do their jobs, from the age of Teddy Roosevelt to the age of Barack Obama.
First Chapter or Excerpt
1   A Defender of His Race   On August 25, 1893, Frederick Douglass spoke to a crowd gathered for Colored American Day at the World's Columbian Exposition. At 3:00 p.m., the twenty-five hundred people filling Festival Hall--two-thirds black and one-third white, in the estimation of the Chicago Tribune --greeted Douglass with applause as he stepped onto the stage. In the three decades since the end of the Civil War, this escaped slave and former leader of the abolitionist movement had become a diplomat and elder statesman, the principal spokesperson for his people. Seventy-five years old, his long hair and beard now white, his six-foot frame lean and erect, the Sage of Anacostia smiled and waved to the crowd. In the years immediately following the Civil War, the ex-slaves of the South were making rapid progress economically as well as politically, exercising their newly won right to vote and electing their own to local and state governments as well as the U.S. Congress. But even before federal troops withdrew from the old Confederacy in 1877, southern whites used extreme violence to block African Americans from the ballot box and otherwise restore the antebellum racial hierarchy. More than one hundred black men had been murdered by white mobs across the South in the first six months of 1893 alone; three were burned alive. At the same time, millions of black men and women found themselves in conditions no better than slavery, as sharecroppers or as convict laborers under a system known as peonage, whereby they were charged with petty crimes and sentenced to long terms working on farms or in mines or factories--without pay, of course. The national government, in response to these troubling developments, did little more than shrug its shoulders. Both the executive and legislative branches of the federal government were dominated at this time by the Republicans, yet the party of Abraham Lincoln was backing away from its commitment to African Americans, lest it alienate southern white voters and their representatives in Congress. Such acquiescence to white supremacists extended to the U.S. Supreme Court itself, which increasingly applied the protections of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to corporations, rather than African Americans, ultimately leading to the justices' shameful sanction of legal segregation in the South and beyond under the "separate but equal" doctrine enshrined in Plessy v. Ferguson . So on that hot August day in 1893, Frederick Douglass did his best to stem the tide, striding onto the stage with an individual who represented the best of the nation's past, Isabella Beecher Hooker, sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose Uncle Tom's Cabin had been a fulcrum of the abolitionist movement. The program itself, meanwhile, showcased the talents of a new, freeborn generation of African Americans that included Paul Laurence Dunbar, a tall, cerebral twenty-one-year-old who would come to be seen as black America's first nationally known poet, as well as Will Marion Cook, an up-and-coming black composer who was then studying under the great Bohemian Antonin Dvorák. Cook had arranged the event's program of classical pieces, which featured a number of beautifully sung arias as well as a violin performance by Joseph Douglass, grandson of the Sage. Following all of these heartening appearances, the room was filled with anticipation as Douglass stepped back up to the podium to deliver the closing speech. But as he began to read from his papers, the great man's voice failed him, either because of the heat or exhaustion, and a group of white men in the gallery began to shout slurs and insults. Unable to make himself heard, Douglass paused, then slammed his printed speech onto the podium. He yanked the glasses from his temples and began speaking extemporaneously, his voice steadily rising in volume and depth until it succeeded in drowning out his hecklers. We hear nowadays of a frightful problem called a Negro problem. What is this problem? As usual, the North is humbugged. The Negro problem is a Southern device to mislead and deceive. There is, in fact, no such problem. The real problem has been given a false name. It is called Negro for a purpose. It has substituted Negro for Nation, because the one is hated and despised, and the other is loved and honored. The true problem is a national problem. There is no Negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have honesty enough, loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough to live up to their own Constitution. The applause shook the building at the end of Douglass's speech, ringing out into the White City and over the blue waters of Lake Michigan beyond. Douglass's decision to speak at this event had been controversial among many African American activists, who feared that a Colored American Day would simply be used to perpetuate the worst sorts of stereotypes and ridicule, if not provide a tacit recognition, even acceptance, of segregation. But Douglass felt that the fair was a singular opportunity to focus the world's attention, if only for one moment, on black achievement, and he succeeded, as the Chicago Tribune indicated in its coverage of the event. "There was classical music rendered by black men in a way that would grace the grand opera stage," the Tribune reported, "and there was an oration, which, with its vivid eloquence, burned itself into the memory of those who listened." Among those listening was the future founder of The Chicago Defender, who would remember every word. Then in his early twenties and a student at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, Robert Abbott had come to the World's Fair to sing tenor with the Hampton Quartet. Already absorbed by "the plight of my people," he was both radicalized and urbanized by his experience. What he saw in Chicago that summer convinced him that this city was the perfect place to realize his dreams. "Tell father if he will back me," he wrote to his family enthusiastically, "I will stay out here in the West and try and make a fortune. Let me know his intentions before I begin to make up my mind as to what steps to take." Robert Abbott was born in November 1869 in a cabin on St. Simons Island, just off Georgia's Atlantic coast. More than in most places, St. Simons's black inhabitants maintained a strong connection to the African continent by speaking Gullah, a language incorporating vocabulary and grammar from several West African languages as well as English. His parents' home was near Ibo Landing, a place that figures in a legend about a shipload of new slaves who jumped into the water wearing their chains, drowning themselves to escape further abuse onshore. Today their ghosts are said to be visible in the ocean's turbulent waves, their songs heard in the breeze blowing through the trees. Robert's biological father, Thomas, born around 1847, was a native of the island and lived most of his life as a house slave to one Captain Charles Stevens, who held a plantation there. After the Civil War, each member of the Abbott clan was awarded a plot of land on the island, but Thomas sought out instead the excitement and opportunity of nearby Savannah. There he met Robert's mother, Flora Butler, an intelligent, determined woman with a defiant streak, whose parents were slaves brought as teenagers from the Portuguese-held territories in West Africa. In an unpublished, unfinished autobiography included in Robert Abbott's files, Flora describes how she taught herself to read and write in secret, using tissue paper to trace the names of area families engraved on metal plates affixed to their homes. Excerpted from The Defender: How Chicago's Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America by Ethan Michaeli All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
Fiction/Biography Profile
Race relations
Newspaper industry
Political activism
Civil rights
Ethnic relations
African Americans
Chicago, Illinois - Midwest (U.S.)
Illinois - Midwest (U.S.)
Time Period
1905-2009 -- 20th-21st century
Trade Reviews
New York Times Review
FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT HELD an average of 84 presidential news conferences a year - 14 times the number given by Ronald Reagan and three to four times the output of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Barack Obama. Roosevelt charmed the White House press corps to within an inch of its life, leaked big stories to favored reporters and still made time for writers from obscure trade journals and others who were technically ineligible for press credentials. He nevertheless shunned the Negro press, shutting it out of the White House press corps until the last of his 12 years in office. By avoiding fire-breathing newspapers like The Chicago Defender, The Baltimore Afro-American and The Pittsburgh Courier, Roosevelt insulated himself from questions about what African-Americans saw as the burning issue of the 1940s: the government's decision to embrace segregation in the military. Separating military men and women - and even the plasma in the wartime blood bank - by race, the government ratified racial apartheid in the South and introduced Jim Crow segregation into parts of the country where it had been unknown. This meant humiliation for black men who rushed to enlist as the country rearmed itself for war. They were either turned away - because there were too few segregated units to accommodate them - or confined to all-black regiments that were mainly designated for jobs like building roads, loading ships and digging latrines. Men who were eager to prove themselves in battle grew demoralized marking time on bases that gave them ramshackle housing and confined them to Jim Crow buses and even "colored only" sections of movie theaters. The Pentagon made matters worse (if such a thing were possible) by intentionally placing black soldiers under the command of white Southern officers - on the premise that Southerners better "understood" black people. It should come as no surprise that many military bases were tinderboxes, one matchstick away from explosion. Roosevelt had no interest in submitting to journalists who might grill him on issues such as these. But as the former Chicago Defender editor and reporter Ethan Michaeli shows in his extraordinary history, "The Defender," the Negro press barons attacked military segregation with a zeal that set Roosevelt's teeth on edge. The Negro press warned black men against Navy recruiters who would promise them training as radiomen, technicians or mechanics - then put them to work serving food to white men. It made its readers understand that black men and women in uniform were treated worse in Southern towns than German prisoners of war and sometimes went hungry on troop trains because segregationists declined to feed them. It focused unflinchingly on the fistfights and gun battles that erupted between blacks and whites on military bases. And it reiterated the truth that no doubt cut Roosevelt the most deeply: His government's insistence on racial separation was of a piece with the "master race" theory put in play by Hitler in Europe. This was not the first time The Defender and its sister papers had attacked institutional racism. That part of the story begins with Robert S. Abbott, the transplanted Southerner who created The Defender in 1905 and fashioned it into a potent weapon. Abbott increased his readership by fully revealing the horrors of lynching and enticing the black people upon whom Southerners relied for cheap labor to move north in the exodus later known as the Great Migration. The Defender had already achieved national reach by the late teens and was far and away the most important publication in the colored press. Abbott was leading the way toward an indictment of military segregation, but came under federal pressure when the head of the Military Intelligence Bureau named The Defender "the most dangerous of all Negro journals." With a "hand in the lion's mouth," Abbott assured the Intelligence Bureau that his staff would refrain from, as Michaeli puts it, "incendiary" expressions. Soon after, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote the now infamous "Close Ranks" editorial in The Crisis, the house organ of the N.A.A.C.P., calling for African-Americans to suspend protests against discrimination and to fully support the war effort. The black press was considerably more powerful and self-assured by 1940, when Abbott died and his nephew John H. Sengstacke succeeded him. African-Americans who had come north to good jobs were flexing their muscles at the ballot box and were willing to spend money on subscriptions. Sengstacke convinced the most powerful black papers that they could better defend themselves and advance their business goals by speaking as one voice through an organization of his devising - the Negro Newspaper Publishers Association. (It elected him its first president.) Military segregation had overtaken lynching as the central object of black outrage. The Negro press found the perfect way to harness it, when The Pittsburgh Courier recast the war as a struggle for two victories - a victory over Nazism abroad and a victory over racism and segregation at home. The "Double V" campaign gathered the support of prominent whites like the Republican politician Wendell Willkie and the movie stars Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Things stood thus in 1942, when Sengstacke traveled to Washington to meet with Attorney General Francis Biddle. Sengstacke found Biddle in a conference room, sitting at a table across which was spread copies of black newspapers that included The Defender, The Courier and The Afro-American. Biddle said that the black papers were flirting with sedition and threatened to "shut them all up." Sengstacke responded that the papers were within their rights and that because they had urged African-Americans to support the war, they had an obligation to tell those readers about federal policies that showed contempt for them. He then added: "You have the power to close us down. So if you want to close us, go ahead and attempt it." Biddle was stunned. He must have seen that shutting down the papers would entail a public fight and perhaps even riots in the streets. His tone changed from hostile to solicitous when Sengstacke complained about being unable to reach federal officials with reporting questions. Doors that had been closed began to open. In 1944, Roosevelt, who had kept his distance since taking office, invited the Negro press barons to the White House and turned on that thousand-watt smile. Three days afterward, the first Negro press reporter started work in the White House press corps. A year later, Roosevelt was dead and the office fell to Vice President Harry Truman. It was by no means certain that Truman would end military segregation the way he finally did - with an executive order in 1948. Some of the most fascinating passages of this book show Sengstacke the canny editorialist alternately praising and criticizing Truman - all the while dangling the black vote - as he channeled the president toward the executive order that would change the nation. Michaeli's insights into Sengstacke's relationships with the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations add considerably to what we know of an influential figure who preferred working behind the scenes. THE END OF hard-core segregation meant the beginning of the end for the Negro press. When white papers suddenly needed black faces to cover the urban riots, reporters who had worked in the black press out of a sense of mission - or because white papers refused to hire them - moved on to bigger paychecks. Readers who had once been confined to traditionally black areas had begun to move elsewhere, beyond the need for the papers that had sustained them through the American dark ages. Ethan Michaeli was an aspiring novelist with a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Chicago when he came to work at The Defender in 1991. Sengstacke was nearing the end of a long, extraordinary life and the once great paper was on the verge of collapse. Michaeli, who is white, knew nothing about the glory days of the Negro press and had been surprised to find while walking through the newsroom for the first time that almost everyone was black. He developed a love for the ailing paper and for what it and the Negro press had once been. This deeply researched, elegantly written history is a testament to that love. It is also a towering achievement that will not be soon forgotten. BRENT STAPLES writes editorials on politics and culture for The Times and is the author of "Parallel Time," a memoir.
Library Journal Review
From the Golden Isles of Georgia, Robert Sengstacke Abbott (1870-1940) made his way to Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition-and a meeting with the incomparable civil rights advocate Frederick Douglass, whose example as a black leader and publisher inspired Abbott to complete studies in the printing trade at the Hampton Institute in Virginia and later return to Chicago where, in 1905, he invested $25 to found a newspaper he sold door-to-door. The longtime weekly became one of the nation's most influential publications, known widely as "America's Black Newspaper" with its title The Defender declaring its role. Chicago-based journalist and former Defender reporter Michaeli unfolds the paper's story from its first 2¢ four-page issue to its endorsing the presidential campaign of Barack Obama in 2008. Michaeli details the story of the newspaper and the family of "race men" who operated it, moving from Abbott to his nephew John H. Sengstacke (1912-97) and reviewing the history of black Chicago and signal events of the 20th-century African American struggle for civil rights as the newspaper covered it. VERDICT Engagingly written and copiously sourced, Michaeli's stimulating read treating central personalities and an iconic institution offers general readers and scholars alike a focused look back at 20th-century battles against America's pervasive racism. [See Prepub Alert, 7/20/15.]-Thomas J. Davis, Arizona State Univ., Tempe © Copyright 2015. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Publishers Weekly Review
Michaeli, a former copy editor and investigative reporter for the Defender, delivers an encyclopedic narrative of African-American history via the publishing legacy of one of the country's largest and most influential African-American-owned newspapers. Georgia native Robert Abbott, who founded the paper in 1905, had decamped to Chicago for law school but failed to find work as an attorney because of his darker skin and Southern accent. In less than two decades, Abbott secured new printing presses and offices, offering a generation of African-Americans their first jobs in journalism. At the outset, the paper relied heavily on Pullman porters for various duties, and women played a critical role in the ranks of reporters and editors. The paper was a Chicago political force, a persistent critic of lynching, and an early chronicler of the first Great Migration, during WWI. Abbott became the "Moses of Black America," urging blacks to flee Southern oppression. The complexity of the Defender's place in the political ecosystem comes alive as Michaeli documents events such as Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1960s activism in Chicago and Barack Obama's political rise. Though the closing chapters are uneven, Michaeli has produced an accessible and valuable history. B&w photos. Agent: Rob McQuilkin, Lippincott Massie McQuilkin. (Jan.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Booklist Review
*Starred Review* Named for its founder's aspiration to be a defender of the race, the Chicago Defender was exactly that in the early years of its long history. The newspaper condemned lynching, urged multitudes of blacks to leave the brutality of the South for opportunities in the North, and encouraged the political clout of African Americans. Robert S. Abbott founded the paper in 1905 and used it as a platform to challenge the injustices of a nation that failed to live up to its ideals. Defying the southern power structure that banned his paper as subversive, Abbott enlisted the help of Pullman porters to circulate his paper throughout the South. As the Defender grew in clout, Abbott gained wealth and huge status in black and white America. His successor and nephew, John H. Sengstacke, took the paper into the modern age, influencing local and national politics as the paper got out the black vote, even helping to support the political career and eventual presidency of Barack Obama. In its heyday its staffers included Langston Hughes and Ida B. Wells. By the 1970s, the paper was losing prestige and circulation with the rise of black radicals who viewed the Defender as too conservative and as mainstream media began hiring black reporters. A penetrating look at a paper whose story is the story of African Americans in the twentieth century.--Bush, Vanessa Copyright 2015 Booklist
Kirkus Review
This chronicle of the influential black Chicago newspaper simultaneously tracks the important issues pertaining to African-American history from the turn of the 19th century. A copy editor and investigative reporter at the Defender from 1991 to 1996, journalist Michaeli tackles an enormous swath of American history in his thorough, painstaking account of the newspaper's rise to prominence. The story begins with the Georgia-born Robert Abbott, who had been so impressed by the accomplishments of the black professionals he met while visiting Chicago's World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 with his singing group, the Hampton Quartet, that he stayed in the city to attend law school. He was resolved that the city needed an African-American newspaper that would " wake them up,' expose the atrocities of the southern system, and make demands for justice." With scant resources, depending on subscriptions from the South Side black community, and using his landlady's dining room as a newsroom, Abbott launched his first issue of the "defender of his race" in May 1905, with a print run of 300. Subsequently, Abbott led the newspaper to prominence over four decades, becoming the mouthpiece for the seminal race issues of the day: exposing the spate of lynchings in the South; advocating for the integration of sports teams; covering race riots; agitating for the huge migration of blacks to find industrial jobs in the North, known as the Great Northern Drive; and supporting the troops in a "Jim Crow army" while carefully avoiding undermining the war effort. As the Defender's mantle of leadership was assumed by Abbott's nephew John Sengstacke in 1940, the paper took on the role of galvanizing the black electorate, which would become key in the presidential elections of Harry Truman (1948) and John F. Kennedy (1960), the Chicago mayoral upset by Harold Washington in 1983, and Barack Obama's astonishing homegrown surge in 2003. Michaeli has obviously put a considerable amount of care into the research and crafting of this important history. A pertinent, well-fashioned American success saga. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Table of Contents
Preface: Delphi on the Prairiep. ix
1A Defender of His Racep. 1
2If You See It in The Defender, It's Sop. 22
3Getting the South Toldp. 39
4The Great Northern Drivep. 61
5The Greatest Disturbing Elementp. 80
6The Bonds of Affectionsp. 97
7Reaping the Whirlwindp. 119
8Bombing Bingap. 137
9Chicago Vindicatedp. 156
10The Burdens of the Futurep. 175
11Well Take the Seap. 195
12Farewell Chiefp. 218
13Victory Through Unityp. 242
14Santa Claus and a World Warp. 268
15Promises vs. Performancep. 295
16The Daily Defenderp. 321
17One Vote per Precinctp. 348
18A Socratic Gadflyp. 368
19A Prayer for Chicagop. 394
20A Dark Hour in the Life of Americap. 420
21The Last Remains of Nonviolencep. 441
22Victories Are Contagiousp. 461
23Stick Around for a Whilep. 495
24The Roar of the El Trainp. 524
Acknowledgmentsp. 537
Notesp. 540
Sourcesp. 606
Indexp. 610
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