A 'Most Dangerous' Newspaper

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Author: Brent Staples
Date: Jan. 10, 2016
Publisher: The New York Times Company
Document Type: Book review
Length: 1,430 words

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How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America From the Age of the Pullman Porters to the Age of Obama

By Ethan Michaeli

Illustrated. 633 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $32.

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.



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Gale Document Number: GALE|A439407753