Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Greatest Advocate for Civil Rights was the Black Press

By Julius Kane

In 1827 a group of black businessmen were fed up with the negative depictions of African-Americans in their local newspapers, so they decided to start their own. A few months later America's first, 'race' newspaper was born. At the helm were two young black men; 28 year old college graduate John Russwurm and 32 year old preacher  Samuel Cornish. Freedom's Journal, as it was called, made certain every article and editorial had a deliberate slant that showed blacks in a positive light with dignity and class. Cornish and Russwurm knew they not only had to report the news but they had to inspire as well. Any news worthy item involving "Africans" was to be included.

"Too long have others spoken for us…." was part of a bold statement written on the first page of every issue. The newspaper was an immediate hit with African Americans and a shock to the white establishment. A black newspaper contradicted the image of the Negro whom the white press had portrayed as dense and stupid. Freedom's Journal exposed the ingenuity and intellect of black folks that had long since been suppressed. But Cornish and Russwurm, who were both the Editors and Publishers, strongly disagreed on the direction the newspaper would take and after only two years, Freedom's Journal closed its doors.

But little did they know their vision and fortitude had paved the way for 24 other black owned and operated pre Civil War newspapers. Among them was The North Star. Published in 1847 by former slave Fredrick Douglass, The North Star was immediately called an abolitionist newspaper; and it was.  The self educated Douglass advocated the end of slavery and published the horrible treatment of slaves and the ungodliness of the institution itself. His fiery speeches and editorials caught the ears of both black and white abolitionists, as well as members of congress who secretly read his paper. It made Douglass the most prominent African-American of his day.

After the Civil war, over 500 black newspapers pulled black America back together again. Many of them used the printing presses of nearby churches to print weekly updates on lost and missing loved ones. Black newspapers were like food to starving children; offering guidance, hope and direction to millions of newly freed slaves. They became instrumental in their migration north, and created a new sense of pride. The white landowners and shopkeepers began to lose money to blacks who started their own businesses and others who were moving north in search of better opportunities.

In southern states white newspapers condoned and suppressed the terrorist beatings, lynchings and murders of newly freed blacks by organizations like the Klu Klux Klan. But a young journalist by the name of Ida B. Wells was determined to get those stories out. Wells traveled the south, sometimes with two guns beneath her dress, documenting, writing and publishing articles for her newspaper; The Memphis Free Speech. Despite death threats and the total destruction of her office and printing press, Ida B. Wells became the premier black, female journalist of her era. By the time Robert Abbott and the Chicago Defender opened its doors the groundwork and foundation had already been laid. Still considered by many to be the greatest black newspaper of all time, the Chicago Defender included names like Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks and J.A. Rogers among its staff. The defenders popularity and influence was so vast it's credited with jumpstarting the great migration. Ten thousand blacks left the south each month in search of a better life up north. Robert Abbott would print everything from job openings waiting for southern blacks when they arrived to train schedules headed to Chicago. It became so problematic to white southerners that black newspapers were banned throughout most southern states. Paper boys and distributers were often beaten and arrested for selling black newspapers. But that didn't stop innovators like Abbott who received the help of black porters to literally toss newspapers from their moving trains to waiting distributers. It was those types of methods and dedication that made the Chicago Defender so popular and made its publisher, Robert Abbott one of the first black millionaires.

While in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania another maverick businessman, Robert L. Vann sometimes employed white reporters to infiltrate the Klu Klux Klan to uncover a challenging story. His newspaper, The Pittsburgh Courier, is considered to be the first black national newspaper and solely credited with bringing millions of blacks over to the Democratic Party. It included columns from W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey and Zora Neale Hurston. Meanwhile, in California, a reluctant Carlotta Bass made a promise to take over as publisher of the longest running black newspaper in the west; the California Eagle. From 1912-1951 the determined journalist and activist was the most powerful voice against discrimination, oppression, and racism on the west coast.

For over a hundred years  black newspapers like the Amsterdam News and the New Journal & Guide  were counted on to pull black America through the most difficult times in history. The black press showed white folks pictures of themselves they didn't want anyone to see and shaped the collective thinking of black folks everywhere. And no matter what city they were located the black press had one goal, spoke with one voice and heralded one cause; equality. They didn't profess to be neutral or unbiased because they couldn't afford to be. Before the black press came along blacks folks in this country didn't exist; we were invisible and our lives were lived out in the shadows of white America's fears. Since such obscure beginnings today's black press have indeed changed. And I wonder; would the black publishers, editors, and journalists of yesterday be proud of what we've done with their legacy?

Writer and Publisher Julius Kane is the author of 'The Fruits of Sarah Bartmaan' and five other novels. Visit him at,,

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