The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America by Ethan Michaeli

The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America

Available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in hardcover for $20.oo.

Throughout the 20th century, African-Americans faced extraordinary difficulties as they tried to earn a decent living and break the barriers that kept them down. The Chicago Defender has seen all of this trouble and everyone on its staff, from the publisher to the newsboy went to great lengths, sometimes risking their lives, to bring the news to its community. Ethan Michaeli, a former reporter for the paper, has written a history of the paper that chronicles black Chicago and a history of 20th century America that views the country through the eyes of its most downtrodden citizens.

Michaeli begins his book at what is arguably the beginning of 20th century America, and is certainly Chicago’s beginning as a world city: the 1893 World Columbian Exposition. African-Americans saw it as an opportunity to work, but the organizers denied most of them employment. In response, Frederick Douglass used his position as a co-organizer of the Haitian Pavilion to exhibit African-American culture. He co-wrote a pamphlet with Ida B. Wells against this decision that rallied African-Americans. Wells had just become internationally famous for her pamphlet Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All its Phases that detailed the horrors of lynching and brought the issue national attention.

Among those who appeared on its stage were the Hampton Quartet, and its tenor, Robert Sengstacke Abbott. Abbott listened to Douglass, Wells and the others on stage and wrote to his parents in Georgia to say he wanted to resettle in the West to try and make his fortune.

It took a few false starts and years of struggle, but Abbott started the Chicago Defender in 1905 with an initial investment of 25 cents. It took a few more years for Abbott to get it off the ground, but when he died in 1940, he was a self-made millionaire.

The paper was circulated around the country, largely thanks to the Pullman Porters, who would drop off copies to subscribers in the deep south. When promises of work and relative safety beckoned, millions of African-Americans migrated from the deep south to the cities of the North, and hundreds of thousands moved to Chicago. Many of them first heard of the city’s promises of opportunity in the Defender. The Great Migration unnerved the European populations of these cities who feared losing jobs to African Americans.

In Chicago, tensions simmered until July 27, 1919, when riots erupted on the south side and spread to the rest of the city. By the time the smoke cleared on August 3rd, 38 people were dead, 23 of them African-American, and hundreds of homes and businesses had been torched. The Defender sent out its newsboys with a special bulletin urging its readers to stay indoors, to not provoke white rioters and to cooperate with the police.

Throughout the book, the Chicago Tribune‘s reporting is presented as a counterpoint, highlighting how the paper underserved African-Americans. During the race riots, the Tribune gave the riots minimal coverage and its op-ed page blamed them on the Industrial Workers of the World. This lack of coverage made its way into Lloyd Wendt’s 861 page history of the paper, where the riots were only given two paragraphs of bland facts and statistics. The Defender actually called itself “The World’s Greatest Weekly” for a while, possibly in reference to the Tribune’s old slogan “The World’s Greatest Newspaper.”

The Defender served as a regular paycheck for struggling writers. Willard Motley’s first writing job was writing stories for children under the name “Bud Billiken,” a character invented by Abbott. Some of Gwendolyn Brooks’ first poems were published in the Defender, where she wrote the poetry column “Light and Shadows.” Langston Hughes wrote a column for the paper for 20 years where he published some of his most powerful work. It was also one of his most reliable paychecks.

Chicago Defender newsboy. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division LC-USW3-000698-D

The murder of Emmett Till became a landmark event in the Civil Rights Movement, especially after his mother asked for an open casket funeral so the world could see what happened. Photos of Till’s mangled body hit the front page of the Defender and “Ebony” magazine and outraged the nation. Michaeli mentions the extensive debate in both newsrooms concerning this decision, but I wish this had been expanded upon.

The book has an enormous cast, with brief appearances by the likes of Carl Sandburg, Timuel Black, Martin Luther King, Richard J. Daley, Richard M. Daley and more. At one point Michaeli himself recalls how he once picked up the phone in the newsroom and a voice on the other end said “This is Michael Jackson.”

Michaeli began working for the Defender in 1991, first as a copy-editor, then as an investigative reporter. He tells of his colleagues, who were old hands on a traditional newspaper powered by shoe-leather reporting on difficult subjects. Many of the staff lived through the Civil Rights movement and other calamitous events in the nation’s history and had lots of stories to tell. Michaeli left the paper in 1996 to start a magazine written for, and by, residents of public housing.

The Defender has a lot to take in, but any devotee of Chicago history will be engrossed in it given its large focus, eclectic cast and an embrace of the larger historical events surrounding the paper’s tumultuous history. Like any good history of a newspaper it’s not just about the staff, but the world the newspaper wrote about, and how its staff participated in it. The Chicago Defender took on some of the most monumental struggles of the 20th century, and its influence was so powerful that major politicians and activists used it for their causes. The book ends with Barack Obama’s election to the White House, and how his relationship with the paper helped start his career in politics.


Robert O'Connor
Robert O'Connor