The Black Press and Racial Justice
Journalism History podcast focuses on the evolution of African American newspapers
As part of Black History Month, Fred Carroll, a history lecturer at Kennesaw State University and former reporter, hosts this episode of the Journalism History podcast focusing on Black journalists and their fight for racial justice. The podcast looks at Black print culture. For more work by Fred Carroll, check out his book, “Race News: Black Journalists and the Fight for Racial Justice in the Twentieth Century.” Nick Hirshon hosts.
Fred Carroll: What’s the whole purpose of the Black press in general? And I think that you could say that it has two primary purposes. One, it’s to present Black life as it’s lived, and then at the same time that it’s doing that it’s also protesting racial wrongs.
Nick Hirshon: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told.
Teri Finneman: I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports media.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Nick Hirshon: And together we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History. Transcripts of the show are available online at journalism-history.org/podcast.
We often categorize newspapers into two distinct types: commercial ones, like the New York Times and the Washington Post, which offer mainstream views on the stories of the day, and alternative ones, such as the Village Voice, that provide dissident opinions, stylized reporting, and investigations into edgier topics.
But that line between the two has been murky in the history of the Black press. Commercial and alternative newspapers for African American audiences started to cross over in the 1920s, and they shifted the political and economic motivations of their readers. Mainstream reporters began to incorporate coverage of what had once been considered the marginal politics of the alternative press: anti-colonialism, anti-capitalism, and Black separatism.
By the 1950s, an alternative press had reemerged as commercial publishers curbed progressive journalism in the face of Cold War repression. The politics of alternative writers then seeped into commercial newspapers through journalists who wrote for both.
On this episode of the Journalism History podcast, we examine the commercial and alternative Black press with Fred Carroll, a lecturer in the Department of History and Philosophy at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, and the author of the 2017 book Race News: Black Journalists and the Fight for Racial Justice in the Twentieth Century.
So, Fred, thank you for joining us. And as we start out here, I want to get into the concept of what it is to be a journalist. I know you were a journalist; I was. There’s a certain idea of a journalist being objective and fair, but you write in Race News that the boundaries of the commercial and alternative presses were never rigid and the definition of the journalist was broad. So before we get into some specific evolution of how journalists were viewed over the years, can you describe what you mean by this broad definition of journalists?
Fred Carroll: Well, thank you, Nick. I appreciate you having me on the podcast. When I say that there’s this broad definition of journalist, within the –
Black press what you see happening is because of the constraints of segregation, the constraints of racism, you are seeing a broad range of people who have had limited opportunities to write. And as they’re looking for places to write, one of the primary places that’s going to emerge are these, these very vibrant and cosmopolitan national weekly newspapers.
And so I think that you end up having a broader definition of what who a journalist is, is because you are asking literary authors, poets, street-level reporters, columnists, columnists who have national reputations as authors, but also just columnists that are straight on to newspapers that are all coming together.
And out of this sort of amalgamation of different peoples and different interests emerges, emerges what becomes –
what is the Black press. And I think that’s a pretty distinct difference from the white press, which tends to be – have more rigid lines of you’re a journalist, you’re a writer, you’re part of journalism, you’re, you’re – we cover you in journalism, you may write for us at times but you’re not a journalist.
And, and I think that to me that was a key distinction between the Black press and the white press.
Nick Hirshon: Sure. And your book goes into how people who we don’t normally view as journalists, like Langston Hughes, was reaching his largest readership not through his poetry sometimes, but through his weekly column in the Chicago Defender. And we go into other names of activists like W.E.B. Du Bois.
Now we view journalists – at least for me, traditionally being trained as a journalist – you’re not supposed to express your opinion. You’re supposed to just cover neutrally, fairly. But obviously these Black journalists, as we’re going to see, did express their opinion.
And in the first chapter of –
your book, you examine how the commercial publishers expanded their influence in the early 1900s as Black families left the poverty and violence of the South for the promise of better jobs and better lives in industrial cities in the North. And suddenly now the established Black weeklies that were in the North found themselves competing against new publishers for a share of the emerging market of consumers.
You cite two examples of this new journalism: the Chicago Defender, as I mentioned, and the Crisis, the journal on race relations published by the NAACP that was edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. So can you tell us a little bit about Du Bois’s editorship of the Crisis, and the Chicago Defender?
Fred Carroll: Okay. Well, and, and, and the Crisis is this, this unique publication, right, where it’s going to be largely financed by white philanthropists, but is going to be edited by W.E.B. Du Bois, so it has a very, a very distinctive African-American point of view, which makes it sort of unique.
And some would –
quibble with me as far as, “Well, is this really part of the Black press?” Because when you think of the Black press, you’re thinking of, of news that is, you know, reported by African Americans for African Americans, whereas the Crisis sort of has this broader intention. But it’s the perspective of Du Bois that I think makes this fall into the realm of being a Black publication.
And Du Bois, part of – well, let me talk a little bit I guess broader, right? So what’s the whole purpose of the Black press in general? And I think that you could say that it has two primary purposes. One, it’s to present Black life as it’s lived, to provide sort of the idea of, of its news and its achievements, but then also sort of the other part, the underbelly, the murder and the scandal.
And then at the same time that it’s doing that, it’s also protesting racial wrongs, it’s protesting discrimination.
And as it’s doing this, so, it’s removing – it’s challenging stereotypes, it’s denouncing racism. And as it’s doing this, it then is establishing the parameters of political discourse within Black America.
And then I think that that’s a strong point of where Du Bois then fits in because Du Bois is very conscious of the fact that he has to refute stereotypes. And so he goes out of his way, for example, to not – to publish very few pictures of Black sharecroppers, to get away from this idea that all African Americans live in poverty.
And he will devote entire issues to the talented tenth, to the celebration of Black business, to the celebration of Black professionalism, and as he’s doing this – well, on one hand as he’s sort of celebrating the achievements of African Americans, he’s also coming out very directly in denouncing racism and white supremacy in a way that you’re not going to see in a white press, which is what makes the Crisis sort of distinctive.
Now, at about the same time that the Crisis is rising in popularity, and we’re, you know, we’re here right around the World War I years and a little bit after, the Chicago Defender, under the editorship of Robert Abbott, is also emerging and turning into the most popular Black newspaper in the nation.
And what he has done is he’s, again, he’s got this similar idea of – and, and I’m going to present Black life in full, and I’m going to challenge discrimination. But while the Crisis is really aimed at a more Black, middle-class readership, and is also trying to get as many white readers to read it as possible, Abbott is focused on how can I grow this newspaper so that it becomes something that ordinary Black men and women and their families are going to read on a weekly basis?
And so what we see with him then is he starts to –
he’s one of the first to really sort of shift from this 19th century editorializing sort of newspaper that has defined Black journalism up to this point and turn it into, you know, like a racialized consumer product, which is he’s expanding sections, he’s writing news in a way where, whereas Du Bois, for example, will only want to highlight the positives of what’s going on in Black America.
Abbott’s willing to say, “Well, you know, let’s…” I mean, you know, he’s not afraid, he’s not going to shy away from sensational stories, right? Because he knows that that appeals to his readers. And so he’ll have advice columns, for example, that are telling people, “Hey, you’re new to Chicago. Ah, here’s how you – here’s how you acclimate yourself to living here.
He’ll have a column for a while that — only a few issues, I believe — where he’ll say to working-class people, janitors, right, like, “Hey, this is news –
for you.” Um, so he’s really trying to broaden the base of who is a reader in Black America.
And he can do that because this great migration that’s occurring between 1910 and World War II, we’re going to see 1.5 million African Americans leave the rural South and its poverty and its more violent racism for better jobs, better schooling, better opportunities, first in Southern cities but then in Northern industrial cities and also out West.
And as they’re doing that, right, everybody’s got a few more coins in their pockets, which means that they’ve got – they can stop by a newsstand and pick up a newspaper, and Abbott’s trying to figure out how can I reach as many of these people with these few extra coins as possible?
Nick Hirshon: And then as we move further into the century, in the 1920s and ’30s, radical editors are now using the alternative Black press to promote progressive options to racism –
and spreading their ideas into commercial Black press as well. And then this led into a leftward turn that you say reshaped Black activism nationwide during the Great Depression, and this is the time that the Black press reached the peak of its popularity.
So what can you tell us about the Black press now moving past World War I and going into the Great Depression?
Fred Carroll: Okay. Um, well it’s a – so I think that even the very first Black newspaper, right, published in 1827, is called Freedom’s Journal. It’s rejecting stereotypes. It’s encouraging people to vote. It’s promoting this Pan-African – the sense of people of the African diaspora of being linked by culture and oppression, but they always – but papers in the 19th century really had to be careful because most of Black people, 90 percent of the population, lived in the South.
And so –
you had newspapers that were located in the South, and if they lived there, they were more – they’re more likely to succumb to racial violence, and oftentimes these newspapers are very short lived, a couple of years at most, before they go under for lack of funding or because they’ve been – their newspapers have been destroyed or their editors have been killed.
After World War I, as Black families move out of the South for the North and the West, newspapers have a growing base where racism is still present, but the violence of racism is less likely, and so they be – can become more forthright in their criticism of white supremacy.
In particular, during the World War I years, you’re going to see with the emergence of the new Negro movement, people become more aggressive in denouncing racism. And so you’re going to have, and they’re going to take – not only that they’re denouncing racism, but they’re also beginning to denounce – they’re denouncing –
capitalism. They’re denouncing a two-party political system that provides them with no legitimate means of achieving their ends, which is civil rights, which is equality.
And so they’re turning to socialists, communists, Black nationalists, anti-imperialists, and they’re looking for ways to – how, where can I find a place, what’s my political future? Who’s somebody that’s going to help me out?
With the — as the Black press is growing in strength in the ’20s and ’30s, even during the Great Depression, the national papers, they begin to pick off some of these ideas that are coming out of this alternative Black press. Papers in – perhaps most famous in Marcus Garvey’s Negro World, right? They’re picking up on these ideas and they’re including it in their reporting.
And so what I think that you start to see in the 1930s, then, in your commercial newspapers, and particularly at the national level, so –
these would be the Pittsburgh Courier, the Chicago Defender, the Baltimore Afro American, the New York Amsterdam and – Amsterdam News, and the Norfolk Journal and Guide. What you start to see is that they start to create a new template for reportage, and they’re combining it. So, one, they’re going to have objective reporting.
And, and they’re defining objectivity differently than the way white reporters are doing it. They are – they say, “We’re trying to get to the facts of these racial wrongs that have occurred, but we’re doing it in the sense of we have a moral cause at issue here. And we are going to focus on the morality of this rather than this side said that and that the other side said this.”
They’re going to combine it with the sense of realism. They’re going to – the newspapers are going to start moving away from this idea that Du Bois embraces in the 1920s of, of art should be produced for propaganda purposes. Newspapers are very much, ah – of trying to shift away from any –
sort of propaganda in that sort of sense to depict this is what life is like, this is what life is like amongst the top achievers, but here’s what it’s also like amongst our lowest class, right?
And they’re combining that with this, this sensationalism, right? Because they’re only printing weekly, they’ve got to attract as many eyeballs as they possibly can for news that may be a bit stale if you’ve been following along in the daily press. And so they’re writing stories that humanize racism, that personalize it so that what could be seen as just an unlimited parade of racial wrong becomes a story that says, “Here’s a person’s life that was impacted, and this is what happened, and this is how their people are responding.”
And if you pull – go ahead, I’m sorry.
Nick Hirshon: No, I was just going to say we’re now seeing in – then in the Great Depression period, you’re saying, the Black press is starting to attack racism, but then the outbreak of World War II –
occurs and Black journalists have to, as you put it, recalibrate because there are familiar charges that come up in this period of disloyalty and sedition lobbed by the military, the government, white columnists. “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” That sort of a mindset.
So how did publishers and journalists, then, respond in the Black press during World War II?
Fred Carroll: So the way that they responded, and really they have to distance themselves in particular from some of the Communist sympathies that had been expressed here in the 1930s when the popular front is sort of at its peak popularity amongst African Americans.
And what they begin to do is they sort of pursue this in a twofold manner, on one hand to protect themselves from Federal Bureau of Investigation, from military investigators, is they are upfront and vocal about their support for the war effort. “We support our fight against fascism.”
And they start to diminish – because there’s quite a bit of evidence of this, right? – diminish consciences objectors, to diminish people that are opposed to the war effort. So they’re playing up their advocacy, their support for the war while diminishing – well, here’s what some African Americans are doing that are opposed to this.
At the same time that they’re sort of building that up, they’re also trying – they have to maintain credibility with their readers, which means you can’t do what Du Bois did in 1918 with his “closed ranks” editorial which he asked African Americans to forget their special grievances during the war and come back and fight segregation later. They realized if we do that, that could derail – our newspaper people won’t buy it.
So they begin to – they continue their attack and say, “We’ll continue our attack on segregation,” and they’re also continuing that attack in a different way by saying, “And here’s what’s going on elsewhere in the world.” As their war correspondents are traveling to Africa, to Asia, to Europe –
they are explaining, “Here’s what the racial picture looks like in this country.”
And each time they do that, what they’re saying is, “Everything you’ve been told about this being the natural order in the United States is not true because it’s not this way in North Africa. It’s not this way in Burma. It’s not this way in Australia.” And, and, and so you have a sort of a direct attack – “segregation is wrong” – but you also have this indirect attack. “White supremacy is constructed. White supremacy is built. Therefore, you can also unbuild it. You can tear it down.”
Nick Hirshon: And then during the Cold War, in the late 1940s and the early 1950s, the politics unravel the template of the progressive Black newswriting. As you described in the book, publishers rid their newsrooms of left-winging journalists, and they suppressed coverage of radical political perspectives.
And then publications emerged those such as the Black Panther Party’s Black Panther and the Nation of Islam’s Muhammad Speaks, and they –
claimed sales that rival the circulations of the largest commercial newspapers. So how did these journals like the Black Panther, Muhammad Speaks recast the alternative Black press?
Fred Carroll: Well, and to me this is – this is sort of the most fascinating dynamic that I found in doing my research, right? And so – we have these alternative Black press newspapers of the World War I period, Marcus Garvey Negro World, A. Philip Randolph and the Messenger, Hubert Harrison and the Voice. And those newspapers gradually disappeared.
Of course, alternative newspapers are always sort of fragile in how long they exist, but an alternative press disappears as these progressive elements are pulled into the commercial press. And all of that’s fine in the 1930s and even into World War II. But once the United States and the Soviet Union are no longer allies and the anti-Communism movement takes off, suddenly these –
publishers who now have sophisticated, profitable businesses to protect, have to figure out, What do I do in this new political atmosphere?
And the easiest decision for them to make is – because publishers are capitalists, they were uncomfortable with their — these other radical aspects that were included in their news coverage — is we have to get rid of these progressive influences in our news pages.
As they do that, it’s not like the people that have these ideas, or like they just go away. No, they’re marginalized, their views are suppressed, but they’re still there. And so you see a resurgent Black alternative press emerge. It’s kept alive in the 1950s, barely, primarily by Paul Robeson’s Freedom newspaper, but they – is rebirthed in the 1960s as a younger generation has come of age since 1954 in the Brown versus –
Board of Education decision, look around and they say, “People have been fighting for a decade for integration, fighting for a decade for voting rights, and here we are we’re still fighting it later. It doesn’t seem like this, this established way is working. What’s the alternative to that?”
And the Black Panther party is offering an alternative. The Nation of Islam is offering an alternative. Young, young writers on college campuses, at HBCUs, but also on, in places like the University of North Carolina are offering alternative examples of what about can we go back to this idea of Marxist politics? What about this idea of armed self-defense? Is it as bad as the mainstream publishers are trying to tell us it is, right? Why is, why aren’t young, young Black activists receiving more support from their communities?
Nick Hirshon: And then as we get into the early 1970s, I guess one of –
the costs of being so successful having the Black press saying we have not been heard, we deserve a voice, is that the commercial Black press actually loses its monopoly over the labor of Black journalists. A lot of white-owned publications, television stations, radio stations agree with Black journalists and say, “Yeah, we need to hire you. Ah, we need to bring you and integrate our newsrooms and repair our flawed coverage of racial matters.” Ah, but that is maybe a death knell for some Black newspapers because now their best writers are, are gone.
So how do Black journalists fight for fair coverage and equal employment at these white newspapers, radio, TV stations? How does this effect the Black press? It kind of reminds me in the sense of the death, as a baseball fan, the death of the Negro Leagues when Jackie Robinson and others start integrating Major League Baseball.
Fred Carroll: Yeah, yeah. And I think that’s a – I think that’s an apt comparison, but only to an extent. Because,
you know, publishers are always thinking about their profits. And so when they’re, they’re always, you know, as the circulation is falling because their monopoly over race news has been broken, their profitability is falling with their circulation, and yet most of these papers continue to persist today, right? Or did here until the early, late, mid-2000s, right?
Um, so, their influence is diminished and yet they’re still providing this perspective that isn’t available even – it isn’t available in the white press even as the white press begins to hire Black journalists. And that’s not because of – that’s not because – that’s not the fault of the Black journalists that are hired by the white press.
It’s because the Kerner Commission, which is advocating — that says, “Hey, there’s been this — that media has done a horrible job of covering racial matters in the United States and really needs to –
reform itself.” And it called for a very substantive reform of how daily newspapers present news concerning African Americans. But most white editors at daily newspapers at this time are — they’re going to take the easy way out on this. They’re going to hire a Black reporter or two or three. They’re going to assign them to cover Black communities.
But then when those reporters bring back news that challenges their preconceptions, that challenges the perspective of the institutional authorities that the newspaper relies upon to sort of verify the credibility of what the reporting, the city hall, courts, the police. You know, if these reporters come back with the news that challenge that, they’re going to dismiss them, right? They’re going to question their credibility. They’re going to ask them, “Well, where is this coming from?”
And so you see, what happens in this, this integration period then is we,
we see sort of the diminishment of the Black press without significant gains, especially early on within the white press because Black reporters aren’t really – they’re not really being allowed to do their job in the most effective manner possible.
Nick Hirshon: So you’ve given us such a good sense of the Black press over the course of the 20th century. Now that we’re in the 21st century, what do you think about the Black press today? Are there things that you saw in your research that are still playing out in how the Black press operates? Is it stronger or weaker, or what are your just reflections on the Black press that we see today?
Fred Carroll: Yeah, I think that’s, that’s a good question because I – on one hand, if you just look at traditional newspapers, you have to say that it’s, it’s weaker. Because major publications have disappeared or so downsized that they’re just not what they were
[0:26:00] even in the 1970s and maybe even into the 1980s, right? And yet at the same time with digital media, and with newspapers now having a voice, or, or a platform on the internet, and with Twitter and with academic writers writing blogs and, you know, in a sense you may not be able to – you can’t go to the Chicago Defender anymore and say, “Here, I’m going to read about what concerns African Americans.” But you can get online and you can pull up any sort of, any range of options that provide you a vast array of, of Black political thought that is out there and available.
What is more limited or undermined now is sort of the sense of here’s where I can go to get that. It’s out there and it’s more widely available because all you’ve got to do is click on your computer, but you’ve got to kind of know where to look a little bit, and you’ve got to
[0:27:00] invest in that effort and that time to, to do that. Which in a sense is, is sort of different from what the Black press was during its peak years of the 1940s into the early 1950s when it’s at its – when its national newspapers enjoyed their most influence, but is really sort of, sort of symbolic of the way it had, or the way it had always been, right? Was that these perspectives are there, but sometimes they can be harder to reach. You’ve got to know what you’re looking for, and you’ve got to want to go get it.
Nick Hirshon: Certainly. I should just add quickly my own personal experience. I was growing up in New York City in the 21st century and actually the first major newspaper that I published in was the New York Amsterdam News. I had a freelance piece in there in 2004. I wrote for them in 2005 as an intern.
I’m not African American. I’m white, but I did that internship at
[0:28:00] one of the nation’s oldest large newspapers and it was a great experience. And I know the Amsterdam News still in New York today carries a lot of weight.
As we wrap up today’s episode then, Fred, and thank you for your time today, we’d like to pose to you a question that we ask all of our guests on the podcast. You can go in any direction you like. Why does journalism history matter?
Fred Carroll: You know, that’s, Nick, I’ve asked myself that a lot particularly as, you know, I’m writing this book at a time when newspapers as an influence in our society have really diminished, right? And, and, and I think that journalism history matters because journalism becomes the place where we hash out what it means to be in America, what it means to be in America in this moment, what it means to be America or American going forward.
Um, and if, you know,
[0:29:00] if you don’t have that, that meeting ground where these ideas can be debated, they become – historically they’re important because they give you a sense of, “Okay, here’s the – here’s what’s going on. Here’s the parameters of the debate.”
And I think it’s the diminishment of newspapers today that can contribute, I believe, to the polarization of America because each side now is able to go into their own corners and stay there, as opposed to having this general arena where everybody’s ideas get thrown into the air and argued about. And I think there’s great value in studying the history of that.
Because I think it informs – through journalism you can study the vast range of American history just by studying its journalism.
Nick Hirshon: Well put. Well, again, the book is Race News: Black Journalists and the Fight for Racial Justice in the Twentieth Century. The author is Fred Carroll. Thank you very much, Fred, for
[0:30:00] joining us on the Journalism History podcast.
Fred Carroll: Thank you. I appreciate it.
Nick Hirshon: Thanks for tuning in, and additional thanks to our sponsor, Taylor & Francis. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter at @JHistoryJournal. Until next time, I’m your host Nick Hirshon, signing off with the words of Edward R. Morrow, “Good night, and good luck.”