The Chicago Defender announced in July that it was terminating print publication and becoming an online-only news source. The announcement ended a run that began in 1905, when the paper was founded as a weekly by Robert S. Abbott, a brilliant African American man who’d arrived in Chicago from Georgia.
The end of the print Defender is a sad occasion for the legions of journalists, printers, salespeople and executives who worked at the newspaper, as it is for its remaining readers. But it is also an apt moment to recognize the Defender’s accomplishments as a community institution, as well as its influence in the highest circles of power over the course of its history. What is needed to beat back the resurgent forces of white supremacy buffeting our society today are institutions like the Defender, in whatever form we can create them.
Abbott created the Defender at a kitchen table in a nascent African American community, which was then loosely concentrated — though not segregated, legally or actually — in a pocket on Chicago’s South Side.
The Defender was not the first African American-owned newspaper, but Abbott blazed a path by using the same techniques that had allowed William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer to build enormous numbers of readers: huge headlines, editorial cartoons, graphics and photographs, as well as special sections for sports and features. From the relative safety of Chicago, he printed unflinching news coverage of Southern atrocities and sent his newspapers to locations all over the country, working with Pullman porters, the famed valets of the interstate railroad, as sales and distribution agents and, occasionally, as roving columnists.
This reach, along with the Defender’s embrace of another journalistic innovation — a one-two punch that blended investigative journalism, sometimes called muckraking, on the news pages with incisive advocacy on the editorial pages — enabled it to build unparalleled trust with readers and speak on their behalf during key political moments for more than a century.
During World War I, with Northern factories suddenly clamoring for African American labor, Abbott saw that migration could be a powerful weapon in the fight for integration. It would deprive the South’s oligarchs of agricultural workers, farmers, stevedores, mechanics, teamsters and craftsmen: a large, skilled workforce that was underpaid and undervalued. This led the paper to encourage the mass migration of African Americans from the South to the industrial North.
Without sugarcoating the harsh realities of life awaiting African Americans in the North, the Defender’s editorials and cartoons exhorted the opportunities for individuals as well as the potential collective benefits of this “Exodus.” In all, hundreds of thousands heeded this call in what became known as the Great Migration.
As Abbott had hoped, this movement increased the leverage of African Americans who remained in the South even as the migration to the North enabled the accumulation of the political and economic power in such cities as Chicago. The Defender played a key role in channeling the flood of new African American residents into political organizations that elected African American candidates for aldermen and congressmen and tilted victory in contests for governors and mayors.
After Abbott died in 1940, his nephew and successor, John H. Sengstacke, focused and intensified that political power, leading the political migration of African Americans from the Republican Party to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Democrats. Nonetheless, Sengstacke also faced down Roosevelt’s attorney general over threats to censor or prosecute the black press during World War II.
The publisher also used his influence for advocacy, helping to persuade Harry Truman to issue an executive order integrating the U.S. armed forces and then supporting Truman’s 1948 campaign with fundraising, barnstorming and editorials. With white Southerners abandoning the Democrats in favor of the Dixiecrat candidate, South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond, building African American support proved pivotal. African Americans helped provide essential votes in Ohio and especially in Chicago (where enthusiasm for Truman was infamously underestimated by the Chicago Tribune), propelling Truman to a narrow victory.
In 1955, the Defender and Jet magazine, another Chicago-based national media outlet, published photos of Emmett Till’s mutilated body after the teen was tortured to death in the South for allegedly whistling at a white woman, illustrating vividly the violence inherent in segregation.
Competitive pressures from white papers, as well as the new medium of television, pushed Sengstacke to turn his newspaper into a daily publication, just as the battle for civil rights was accelerating in the mid-1950s. The new Daily Defender covered a young minister named Martin Luther King Jr. leading a bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., before the “mainstream” media discovered what would be known as the “race beat.”
While the newsroom covered civil rights, Sengstacke continued to use his influence at the highest level of U.S. politics to effect change. In 1960, he was even more involved in John F. Kennedy’s campaign than he had been in Truman’s, helping to provide yet another unlikely presidential nominee with a crucial margin of voters. The publisher used his clout to advance equality, helping persuade President Kennedy to name the first African American judge to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd District, among other advances.
In the following decades, Sengstacke was distracted by family crises while white-owned dailies regularly recruited the Defender’s reporters, columnists and photographers, or hired talented young African American journalists right out of college. Ironically, the Defender’s reputation for excellence made it an excellent training ground but also led to the newspaper’s decline, which accelerated after 1997, when Sengstacke died after 57 years at its helm.
Nonetheless, the paper remained formidable enough to advise an ambitious young politician named Barack Obama on how to win over the crucial African American electorate in his adopted state. Obama served multiple times as grand marshal of the Bud Billiken Parade, a massive annual South Side gathering that the Defender launched in 1928, and detailed staff members to serve as grand marshals after he became president.
The Defender, therefore, earned its place among the most influential publications of the 20th century, alongside the likes of the New York Times and The Washington Post. The paper played a seminal role in some of the biggest political moments, even while its bread and butter was serving as a hall of records for the community. The overwhelming majority of the newspaper’s column inches were dedicated to the significant moments in its readers’ lives, the births and deaths, graduations and promotions, lively classified ads pointing to the needs of the African American community — all of which were ignored completely in white-owned publications.
Being a community institution, in addition to wielding influence in high politics, helped safeguard the Defender long after competitor publications fell. But it’s also why the paper finally succumbed in 2019: The rise of social media has taken over the function of documenting and sharing quotidian events, with predictable effects on the Defender’s circulation.
The same thing has happened to publications targeting virtually every demographic, including the Forward, born in 1897 as the Yiddish-language Forverts, which terminated its print publication earlier this year, and Mad Magazine, which announced last month it would stop printing, its satirical cartoons suffering, apparently, from being neither animated nor easily meme-able. Print took another blow when Starbucks recently announced it would stop selling newspapers in its stores, cutting off one more distribution point for even the elite national newspapers the coffee chain carried.
In this moment when the very future of newspapers is in doubt, it is crucial to recall how valuable the Defender was as a community institution, an investigative engine and a voice that conveyed the wishes and needs of its readers to those in power. If print newspapers continue to decline, it is critical that these functions not be lost, too. Whatever the form, we need written outlets that invest in investigative journalism, serve communities and act as defenders of the dearly won rights that are being threatened by yet another clique of national leaders who obfuscate about racism and its insidious machinery.