It can be argued that the most influential and radical voice for racial equality in the first quarter of the twentieth century was a Chicago-based newspaper, the Chicago Defender. Within the paper’s first ten years of publication, its owner, Robert S. Abbott, had turned the one-time local black paper into the largest selling black newspaper in the United States. Scholars estimate that weekly circulation from 1915 to 1925 was as high as 250,000 a week, with the large majority of the copies distributed south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
With its sensationalistic and crusading editorial policy, the paper quickly gained the reputation of being the most radical and racially conscious black newspaper in America. This bold editorial philosophy was never more evident than during the turbulent period between 1916 and 1919, the epoch marked by America’s involvement in World War I, the Great Black Migration out of the South, and the northern race riots of 1919.
The first of these events to grab the Defender’s attention was of the mistreatment of black soldiers in military training camps during the early years of World War I and the exclusion of prominent “race men” from the ranks of officers. The paper unflinchingly demanded safety, equal rights, and recognition for black soldiers who sacrificed their lives for freedom in Europe. Abbott was also diligent in underscoring the hypocrisy of the United States government, which asked men of color to die for the cause of liberty in Germany while it systematically denied them their basic civil rights at home.
While maintaining its concern for the black soldier in Europe, the Defender also began detailing both the atrocities inflicted on blacks in the American South and the burgeoning opportunities awaiting them in the industrialized North. By 1916, the recognition of this juxtaposition had evolved into a full-scale migration campaign. Abbott and his paper began encouraging a southern exodus away from the oppressive South and toward the “Promised Land” of the North. Black southerners read of the thousands who had already said, “FAREWELL TO THE SOUTH” (January 6, 1917) or of the “2 MILLION NEEDED” (October 4, 1916) to work in America’s second city. They memorized Mr. Ward’s poem, “Bound for the Promised Land,” sang William Crosse’s inspirational words to “The Land of Hope,” and laughed at Fon Holly’s political cartoons, “DESERTION” and “THE AWAKENING” (September 2, 1916, and August 19, 1916).
In the spring of 1919, however, the Defender ’s “Promised Land” was undergoing a metamorphosis. As thousands of white soldiers returned home after the war, they found that the jobs, communities, and lifestyles they had left behind in Chicago were appropriated by thousands of black migrants.
This tension ultimately led to a three-day (July 27-30, 1919) race riot in Chicago—an event that forever changed the tenor of the Defender ’s migration discourse. The bold headlines of the paper’s August 2, 1919, issue summarized the situation: “RIOT SWEEPS CHICAGO,” and “GHASTLY DEEDS ON RACE RIOTERS TOLD.” When the dust settled, 23 blacks lay dead, with at least 537 others wounded. The call for southern migration ceased after the (blood) “Red Summer” of 1919. Abbott could no longer promise his readers a better life in his once-beloved city of Chicago.
In 1940 John H. Sengstacke, Abbott’s nephew, assumed editorial control of the paper. Under his leadership, the Defender protested the treatment of African American servicemen fighting in World War II (1939-1945) and, once again, called for the integration of the U.S. armed forces. Facing the threat from the U.S. government of sedition charges, however, the Defender attenuated its traditionally radical editorial policy.
On February 6, 1956, the Defender became a daily newspaper. Nine years later, Sengstacke again expanded his influence as a voice for black equality by purchasing three additional black papers: the Pittsburgh Courier, the Michigan Chronicle in Detroit, and the Tri-State Defender in Memphis.
By the 1970s, however, the Defender, like many of the nation’s other black newspapers, began to rapidly lose readership. At the time of Sengstacke’s death in 1997, the Defender ’s circulation declined to less than 20,000. In 2003 Abbott’s heirs were forced to sell the legendary Chicago Defender to black-owned Real Times, Inc.
SEE ALSO Politics, Black
DeSantis, Alan D. 1997. A Forgotten Leader: Robert S. Abbott and the Chicago Defender from 1910-1920. Journalism History 23 (2): 63-71.
DeSantis, Alan D. 1998. Selling the American Dream Myth to Black Southerners: The Chicago Defender and the Great Migration of 1915-1919. Western Journal of Communication 62 (4): 474-511.
Ottley, Roi. 1955. The Lonely Warrior: The Life and Times of Robert S. Abbott. Chicago: H. Regnery.
Alan D. DeSantis
The Chicago Defender was founded in 1905 by Robert Sengstacke Abbott, a journalist and lawyer from Georgia. He started the newspaper with almost no capital and worked out of the dining room of his landlady, who supported him during the first years of operation. The paper was initially a four-page weekly that Abbott peddled from door to door on the South Side of Chicago. Through his work with the Defender, Abbott began a new phase in black journalism. He did not appeal primarily to educated African Americans, as earlier black newspapers had, but sought to make the paper accessible to the majority of blacks. Although the Defender adopted a policy of muckraking and sensationalism, covering topics such as crime and scandal as well as prostitution in the black community, Abbott used the paper primarily as a vehicle for achieving racial justice. He refused to use the word Negro because of what he believed were its derogatory connotations, preferring the word race. The paper also took a militant stand against segregation and discrimination and encouraged blacks to protest. In 1907 it "pledge[d] itself to fight against [segregation, discrimination, and disfranchisement] until they have been removed." It believed in the importance of political participation and stated that blacks should use their vote as leverage to win concessions from both the Republican and Democratic parties.
The Chicago Defender gained national prominence during the Great Migration during World War I, when large numbers of African Americans left the South to move North. The paper covered brutal incidents of racism in the South and encouraged African Americans to leave the rigid segregation, poor pay, and violence of the South. In 1915, in response to the rising incidence of lynching, the Defender advised, "If you must die, take at least one with you." It promised better-paying jobs and more freedom in northern cities. Although Abbott decried World War I as "bloody, tragic, and deplorable," he believed there were some benefits from it for African Americans, noting that "Factories, mills, and workshops that have been closed to us through necessity are being opened to us. We are to be given a chance."
Many black southerners wrote to the Defender asking for job-placement help. The Defender also tried to address the problems of migrants by helping form clubs that arranged reduced rates on the railroad. It counseled newly arrived African Americans, helped them find jobs, and sent them to the appropriate relief and aid agencies. To alleviate the acute housing shortage, the Defender supported the construction of housing for African Americans and opposed restrictive covenants. The paper was repeatedly attacked by white southerners, who attempted to control its distribution by preventing its sale in many southern towns, harassing and intimidating anyone who possessed a copy. Despite this, copies of the paper were distributed by railroad porters and shipped to more than 1,500 southern towns and cities. The circulation of the Defender increased dramatically during World War I, climbing from 33,000 in 1916 to 125,000 in 1918. Branch offices were opened across the country and around the world.
Like most newspapers, the Defender was hurt by the Great Depression. By 1935 circulation had dropped to 73,000. It continued to cover black civil rights issues, but also included cartoons, personals, and social, cultural, and fashion articles. In 1939, the year before he died, Abbott passed control of the paper to his nephew John Sengstacke. Under Sengstacke's leadership, the Defender continued to be an advocate for social and economic justice. During World War II, its editors wrote, "In pledging our allegiance to the flag and what it symbolizes we are not unmindful of the broken promises of the past. We ask that America give the Negro citizen the full measure of the democracy he is called upon to defend." The paper covered the racial violence and riots during the war but made a special effort to see that its coverage was not provocative. Editors refused, for example, to publish photographs of the 1943 Harlem Riot. In 1945 its total Chicago and national circulation was 160,000. In 1956 the paper became a tabloid issued four times a week with a national weekend edition.
During the civil rights movement, the Defender took a strong stand in favor of racial equality. It criticized the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because it did "nothing" for the North. The paper advocated open housing and argued that "the nation must sooner or later come to the grim realization that residential segregation is the root cause of the racial unrest." In addition, the Defender supported nonviolent direct-action demonstrations and protests as a method of change. Of Chicago protests, the editors wrote, "The demonstrations, so loudly denounced by City Hall and most of the press, have proved their justification beyond the shadow of a doubt…. It was the demonstrations and the inflexible determination of Negro leadership as spearheaded by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that caused the city of Chicago to acknowledge its mistakes and agree to rectify them." Although the Defender 's political tone had become more moderate by the early 1990s, it continued to cover both national and local news and speak out against what it considered unfair housing, employment, and educational policies.
"Robert S. Abbott." Contemporary Black Biography. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 2001.
Wolseley, Ronald. The Black Press, U.S.A. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1971.
joshua botkin (1996)