Defender by ashrafp


									The Chicago Defender
(766 words/250 assigned)
January 20, 1997

Robert Sengstacke Abbott produced the first issue of the Chicago Defender on May 5, 1905.

What began as a four-page handbill soon became the most important black metropolitan

newspaper in America, and a triumph in black business. By the 1920s the Defender, operating

from its own plant, boasted a readership estimated at 600,000, and Abbott as one of Chicago's

first black millionaires. The Defender revolutionized black journalism. Flaming headlines and

indignant editorials chronicled the plight of black Americans in sensational detail. Becoming

what Langston Hughes called the "journalistic voice of a largely voiceless people," the Defender

provided a forum for black Americans to speak out against injustice. Its relentless and

uncompromising stand to safeguard the civil liberties of black people opened up a new space for

blacks to air their views and to voice their discontent. The Defender's political sensitivity,

cultural astuteness, and ardent race consciousness has maintained its legacy as the mouthpiece of

the black masses and "America's Greatest Weekly."

       The Defender reflected the personal philosophy of Robert Abbott. A native of Savannah

Georgia, Abbott came to Chicago in 1899 to practice law upon completion of his degree from

Kent College of Law (now Chicago Kent). When told he was "too dark to make any impression

upon the courts of Chicago," Abbott turned to printing, the profession of his step-father, from

whom he had learned that "a good newspaper is one of the strongest weapons ever to be used in

defense of a race." Detesting racial prejudice in any form, Abbott purposed that the Defender

would be an instrument of information, group control, and protest. The newspaper's motto

mirrored his conviction that "American Race Prejudice must be destroyed."
       The Defender went uncompromised in the fight against racial, economic, and social

discrimination, baldly reporting on lynching, rape, mob violence and black disfranchisement.

Under Abbott's editorial leadership the Defender championed the cause of fair housing and equal

employment for blacks, and was a chief proponent of the "spend your money where you can

work" campaign. Fired by the discrimination practiced in some of Franklin Roosevelt's relief

initiatives, Abbott staged an anti-New Deal protest in the pages of the Defender that lasted

throughout the 1930s. While other Chicago black newspapers began to fail under pressure from

a broadening array of formal and informal information networks during the early decades of the

twentieth century, the Defender's circulation and readership soared.

       The Defender remains most significant for the active part it played in the Great

Migration. Most southern migrants who trekked northward got their first glimpse of life in

Chicago through the pages of the Defender. Frequent depictions of city life made Chicago a

striking symbol of the migration even for those moving on to other cities. The Defender,

however, did not precipitate the Great Migration, rather it agitated processes already in motion.

Abbott, dubbed the "Black Joshua," considered the exodus of southern blacks a push for black

self realization, and used the Defender to give it shape and direction. Setting departure dates,

showing pictures of the best schools, parks, and houses in Chicago next to pictures of the worst

conditions in the South, the Defender stirred the migration to a pitch of mass fervor. So far

reaching was the Defender's influence that many cities in the South banned the newspaper, and

exacted serious penalties on anyone found distributing or reading it. As the herald of glad tidings

during the greatest mass movement in American history, the Defender helped change the history

of black people in America.

       The Chicago Defender also changed the character of the black press. "America's Greatest
Weekly" constituted a revolutionary departure from the black newspapers of the time, and set

new standards for African-American journalism. Prior to the Defender, the black press served an

important yet limited function, either reflecting the interests of free Northern blacks, the plight of

Southern slaves, or merely demonstrating the intellectual capacities of an educated few. The

Defender shifted reader appeal from a special class of blacks to the black masses. It also

represented a shift from the religious and philosophically infused editorials of the 19th century to

current news happenings. Adopting the sensational methods of white newspapers, the Defender

devoted columns to editorials, society news, culture and local politics, often printing what many

blacks were afraid to whisper among themselves. For its part in giving shape to the Great

Migration, giving voice to discontent blacks, and revolutionizing black journalism, the Defender

stands as one of the most unique and powerful organs of social action in America, and midwife

to an important American revolution.

Wallace Best, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL. 60208-2220

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