Date: Wed, 10 Feb 1999 09:38:38 -0800 (PST)
Precedence: bulk
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] The Black Press is Black History

The Black Press is Black History

By Lee Hubbard, 10 February 1999

We wish to plead our own cause, wrote John Russworm and Samuel Cornish of the Freedom’s Journal. For too long have others spoken for us.

It was with this declaration in 1827, that the first black newspaper was launched fighting for the rights of African Americans. Up until the time that Russworm and Cornish started Freedom’s Journal, white abolitionist ran newspapers that featured the views of black people speaking out against slavery.

Although the abolitionist presented favorable views, Russworm and Cornish felt it was time for blacks to define themselves in the fight for freedom. Freedom’s Journal lasted for two years before the paper stopped due to internal differences over the direction of the paper between the two publishers, but the establishment of the Journal helped start a black press boom that shot up to 24 black papers at start of the U.S. Civil War.

Since the inception of the black press, it has shaped and defined all the major issues of importance to black people, and besides the church, the black press has been the strongest institution black people have had. This history however, was never shown in a film until now. The new PBS film, The Black Press: Soldiers without Swords, by Stanley Nelson, documents this history and the important stands the black press has taken over the years.

I have done a few films on black history and I found myself always using the black press for historical references, said Nelson. I started to find out who was behind the black press and I found out that it was a fantastic story.

It took Nelson almost 7 years to raise the $500,000 for the 90 minute documentary that will air in February of 1999 during black history month. In his research, Nelson said the black press offered a view into a world of blacks that mainstream papers had ignored and that many blacks had forgotten.

Soldiers without Swords showed the legendary journalism of Ida B. Wells who reported the lynchings of blacks so diligently, that a mob of southern whites tried to kill her, and burned the offices of her newspaper down to prevent her from telling the truth in print.

Newspapers such as the Pittsburgh Courier that featured the writings of intellectuals like W.E.B. Du Bois, George Schuyler, and Zora Neale Hurston, were shown in the film. Along with the legendary Charles Abbott, the publisher of the Chicago Defender, who became the first black publisher to become a millionaire. The Defender had a weekly black readership of over 200,000 and it was monumental in helping to spur the migration of millions of blacks from the South to Northern cities, with Abbott’s fiery editorials that encouraged blacks to leave the south in the 1920’s.

The black press was an advocacy press that was also an immediate response press. For example, some mainstream papers used to write the word black in parenthesis, next to the name of anyone black, mentioned in there pages. Abbott’s Defender and other black papers responded to this, by putting the word white in parenthesis, next to the name of anyone white, who was mentioned in his paper.

The black press had an admitted and deliberate slant, but it stood up for the race, and it gave blacks a worldly view of themselves that mainstream papers ignored, or flat out refused to cover. But in the 1960’s things changed as the black press began the push for equality through integration, and the black press became a victim of there own success.

It was kind of like the Negro Leagues, said Nelson. The black players wanted to get into the big leagues and they did and this ultimately affected and eliminated the Negro leagues. The same thing happened with reporters in the black press.

As a result of the riots in the late 1960’s many of the big mainstream papers saw they needed black reporters to report on issues within urban areas. Mainstream papers raided the black community for reporters and editors and this lead to a brain drain in the black press. But even with the advent of blacks in major mainstream papers, issues of concerns to blacks in all areas of life are still overlooked. This is why the black press is still relevant, and a major factor to black people in today’s times. Nationally, the black press has a readership between 14-18 million and these figures are growing. But as these figures grow, the black press is at an historical impasse.

The black press was able to survive segregation and the vicious attacks by mobs of angry racists who vented at the truths being told in the black press about American society. They were able to survive J. Edgar Hoover, who during World War II tried to shut down several black papers, who he viewed as being seditious, because they challenged the idea of America fighting freedom abroad, when freedom couldn’t be realized at home. They were able to survive the wave of integration in the late 1960’s that depleted the ranks of black papers.

But now, black papers have to fight a greater threat. Capitalism. As many of the mainstream papers realize the enormous potential and financial spending power of the black community, which hovers at close to $500 billion in 1998, many of these mainstream papers are beginning to look at buying black papers, to tap into the huge advertising market.

Early last year, successful black papers like the Chicago Defender and the New York Amsterdam News were rumored to be close to being sold, and the companies interested in buying these papers were the Chicago Tribune and the New York Daily News. The Tribune and the Daily News backed out of buying these black owned papers, this trend will be the wave of the future in the 21st century, and this will raise many intriguing questions.

Can a mainstream, paper cover the black community like a community based black paper? How will it cover the black community? How will people in the black community view this trend? While these questions will be debated, I just hope that white, black, Asian and Hispanic people, can view Soldiers without Swords and come away with an appreciation for a black institution that has fought the good fight in the 172 years since the words we wish to plead our own cause were uttered.