Books

Book Review

A newspaper story that’s a great read

Founded in 1905 by Robert Abbott, the son of former slaves, the Chicago Defender was from the beginning a militant voice in the struggle for African-American civil rights that consumed the United States across the 20th century. The newspaper’s unflinching reports on horrific lynchings and everyday oppression in the Jim Crow South, coupled with its rosy portrait of the economic opportunities awaiting black workers in the industrial North, played an instrumental role in the Great Migration that altered the demographics of both regions. Abbott was called “the Moses of Black America,” and his nephew John Sengstacke, who assumed control of the Defender following his death in 1940, maintained the paper’s pre-eminence for African-American readers throughout the heyday of the civil rights movement.

Ethan Michaeli, a white University of Chicago graduate who worked at the paper from 1991 to 1996, traces with intelligence and empathy the Defender’s rise from shoestring origins as a four-page weekly produced in the dining room of Abbott’s landlady. Himself a penniless migrant from the Deep South, Abbott depended on the African-American community for financial and logistical support, going door-to-door to solicit subscriptions. Distinctively African-American in content and attitude, the Defender was also a populist tabloid in the tradition pioneered by Joseph Pulitzer: “[B]ig headline — short story” was Abbott’s motto. The paper combined trenchant coverage of political news, emphasizing black empowerment, with reports on local church groups, fraternal organizations, and businesses that might be persuaded to advertise.

Determined to reach the vast majority of blacks still living in the rural South, the Defender relied on railroad porters for the Chicago-based Pullman Co. to get the paper past white officials and into the hands of African-American readers, who wrote to thank him for printing the news segregationist authorities tried to suppress. As they responded to what they read by moving North in the hundreds of thousands, the Great Migration fueled the Defender’s growth; weekly circulation hit 283,571 copies in 1921, the year Abbott moved the offices into a newly renovated building complete with its own printing press.

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The ’20s and ’30s were rocky years for the Defender, as Abbott’s health declined (he was diagnosed with Bright’s disease in 1924), and the Depression brought particular economic hardship to African-Americans. Nonetheless, Michaeli shows, it was a magnet for young black journalists from around the country, and the newsroom they built brought the Defender roaring back into prominence with the postwar civil rights movement. Thrust into a leadership role when he was only 21, Sengstacke forged solid organizational support for the editorial mission Abbott had proclaimed in 1905: to “wake [African-Americans] up’’ and “make demands for justice.”

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Ethel Payne (herself the subject of a fine 2015 biography, “Eye on the Struggle”), was only the most famous of a band of revered reporters who covered the turbulent dismantling of segregation in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. “Payne regularly delivered exclusive interviews and nuanced perspectives unavailable in the white press,” Michaeli writes.

In the 1970s, the situation grew more complicated as de facto segregation in the North proved even more difficult to combat than Jim Crow laws. The Defender turned its attention to becoming a player in Chicago politics. The paper decried police brutality, called repeatedly for the resignation of the superintendent who refused to integrate Chicago’s public schools, and vigorously supported Harold Washington, who became Chicago’s first black mayor in 1983.

Like many other African-American institutions, the Defender suffered from the social changes it had fought for, losing staff and readership to white publications that paid better and now paid attention to issues of concern to a community they had formerly ignored. Yet Michaeli’s account of his years there shows the Defender still in the thick of black life and politics in Chicago, if no longer the national force it once was. His personal reminiscences in the closing chapters, including lively sketches of his colleagues, are in many ways the book’s most vivid.

Following the paper into the 21st century, when it was sold and radically downsized, Michaeli concludes, “The Defender had returned nearly to its point of origin as the first among many small African American community newspapers.” It’s a sad conclusion, but Michaeli’s sensitive, respectful assessment of the mighty history that precedes it reminds us just how far African-Americans have come since 1905, and how steadfast a companion and cheerleader the Defender has been in their still-incomplete progress toward full equality in fact as well as law.

THE DEFENDER: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America

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By Ethan Michaeli

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,

656 pp., $32

Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar and Publishers Weekly, reviews books for the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and The Daily Beast.