Kim Gallon is an assistant professor of history at Purdue University, a visiting scholar at the Center for Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and the founder and director of the Black Press Research Collective.
Where would Black Lives Matter be without social media? Some argue that the movement would not have achieved its international reach were it not for the simple hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Often forgotten in this discussion is that long before Facebook and Twitter, the black media was a powerful force in exposing injustices in the black community.
Ethan Michaeli’s sweeping book “The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America” is a forceful reminder. Before Black Twitter, the black press — and, specifically, the Chicago Defender — shaped discussions about social justice for much of the 20th century and beyond.
Founded in 1905 by Robert S. Abbott, the Defender was the largest and best-selling black newspaper in the first three decades of the 20th century. (Though its voice remains strong, the paper’s sales have declined, and in 2003 it went from a daily to a weekly, as it was in the early 20th century.) Famously, the Defender encouraged more than 1 million African Americans living in the South to migrate to cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia and New York between 1915 and 1925. Yet despite the paper’s storied past, few works — notwithstanding James McGrath Norris’s excellent book “Eye on the Struggle,” about Defender journalist Ethel Payne — have given it the sustained attention it deserves. This is surprising, as many historians of African American life acknowledge the Defender’s critical role in the struggle against racial injustice in the United States. Michaeli’s work helps to correct this oversight.
What makes the book so significant is that Michaeli not only details the history of the paper but also demonstrates its role in shaping the local and national political landscapes. The Defender may be best known for wielding the pen as a sword against racial injustice, but Michaeli shows how it also fostered the electoral conditions in which political figures such as Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy gained power. Recognizing the newspaper’s influence, presidential candidates courted the Defender and garnered its endorsements, which almost guaranteed the black electorate’s support at the polls.
One powerful example: Barack Obama’s ascendance from obscurity to political power in Chicago and then the nation. Michaeli argues that the Defender, in some sense, is responsible for Obama’s meteoric rise to the presidency. The paper extensively covered him beginning with his first failed candidacy for Congress in 2000 and ultimately endorsed him in his winning bid for the Senate in 2004. Michaeli reminds readers that Obama attributed his political success to the paper in Barbara Allen’s documentary “Paper Trail.”
Michaeli also offers an unusual perspective on the civil rights movement, shifting the narrative from the South to the North. He maps Defender reporters’ participation in and coverage of Martin Luther King Jr.’s protest march in Cicero, a Chicago suburb, in 1966. Michaeli also discusses the work of the paper’s longtime publisher, Robert Sengstacke, to call attention to the Chicago police force’s brutality against African Americans and in some cases the deaths of unarmed black men and women in the 1970s.
As a former editor and reporter for the Defender, Michaeli functions as both biographer and actor in his story. In one chapter, for example, he recounts his time at the paper in the ’90s as a young Jewish man fresh from the University of Chicago. Doing so discloses Michaeli’s personal investment in the paper while also illuminating the Defender’s attempts to recover the alliances that African Americans and Jews had developed during the civil rights era. Michaeli makes a point to note that Defender editors kept him on the Nation of Islam beat despite the paper’s failed efforts to bridge the differences between Abraham Foxman, the former executive director of the Anti-Defamation League, and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
Interestingly, Michaeli’s employment is representative of a long history of white people working for the newspaper. Relative to other papers, the Defender was a pioneer in its employment of an interracial staff. In the 1920s, with few skilled African American printers and stereotypists in Chicago, the paper was forced to rely on a largely white printing operation. By World War II, a thriving black press had proved that a critical mass of African Americans could produce a newspaper. Still, the Defender chose Ben Burns to serve as its first white national editor from 1941 to 1945.
Despite the book’s sweep, there are oversights. Michaeli writes relatively little about other newspapers or how the Defender fit within the overall structure of the black press. Perhaps most important, Michaeli largely neglects to include the voices of everyday African Americans who made the paper the voice of black America. Throughout the 20th century, the Defender hosted lively discussions in its letters to the editor. These mirrored the debate and the distinctive humor that contemporary black Americans express on social media in the face of their peculiar historical condition as descendants of America’s slave past.
Michaeli places himself at the conclusion of his story, indicating that his five-year tenure at the paper inspired in him a higher state of consciousness about racism. His personal revelation suggests that the Defender’s power in transforming America’s troubled history of race is its greatest legacy.
By Ethan Michaeli
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 633 pp. $32