Dreamybee's Reviews > The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America

The Defender by Ethan Michaeli
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really liked it
bookshelves: non-fiction

I didn’t intend for the reading of this book to coincide with Black History Month, but it ended up being an entirely timely read, in more ways than one. This was a good, if extremely broad, history of the struggle for equal rights as seen through the political orchestrations as well as the personal stories from 1905 to the modern day. One of the reasons I picked this up was because I was curious about what role The Defender had played in Obama’s election—the front flap says that the author “constructs a revelatory narrative of race in America and brings to life the reporters who braved lynch mobs and policemen’s clubs to do their jobs, from the age of Teddy Roosevelt to the age of Barack Obama.” That is…technically true, but by 2008, the paper had kind of fizzled out. There is brief mention of Obama appearing on the scene as an up-and-coming community leader, but that’s about it. So, if you slog through 500+ pages waiting for that, you might be disappointed. It’s certainly still worth reading; I’m just saying, adjust your expectations accordingly; don’t let the front flap fool you. Given that Kennedy only won by about 112,000 votes, (which he almost certainly would not have gotten if it hadn’t been for The Defender) and given our most recent election, a book delving into the power of the press to elicit change sounded interesting.

The Defender, a Chicago newspaper started in 1905 by Robert Abbott, played a big part in shaping much of Chicago’s and America’s political history. Being in Chicago allowed the paper to take advantage of the rail line that ran all the way to the South, where Pullman Company porters would deliver the paper to readers in the South. Southern blacks were able to read stories about black people, written by black people, in a paper owned and operated by a black man, stories that highlighted the opportunities available in the north to people who were largely free of the terrors regularly visited on blacks in the South. The paper was instrumental in The Great Migration, which saw millions of people from the South move north, seeking a better life. Many settled in Chicago, and as the black population there grew, the city had to contend with issues of education, housing, and employment, often in the face of discrimination; although attitudes in the north were better, at the end of the day, there were still plenty of whites who resented all the blacks moving into "their" territory. Meanwhile, lynchings in the South were being largely ignored by the broader public, and The Defender began running articles about these atrocities. Not only did it bring to light what was happening in the South, but it highlighted to Southerners that this was not a commonly accepted practice everywhere, that better opportunities existed elsewhere. While lynchings did take place in nearly every state, the South certainly had the worst record. One of the stories that stood out to me was about a black man in Arkansas who had been tied to the railroad tracks by a group of drunk white men as the mail train approached. He was decapitated, and, as could be expected, The Defender called this out as an atrocity under the headline, “Southern Stunts Surpass Huns”. This was 1918, and certain officials found this article tantamount to treason because it might make black people feel that they were being treated as badly by white Americans as they would be by white Germans, a sentiment that was considered unpatriotic. The Defender was also criticized because it didn’t always say what the victims had done to provoke their attackers. Because, you know, the lynchings might have been justified, and this obviously biased reporting made it sound like they weren’t (90). Part of the reason this stayed with me is because it sounds so much like the victim blaming that often goes on today…Well, what was she wearing? What did she say to make him so angry? If they don’t want to be harassed, they shouldn’t wear those things in public…etc.

The other thing that stood out to me was the common narrative of just how pissed off white people got when they were threatened with the idea of having to treat black people equally. In 1954, when Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling came back saying “separate but equal” laws were not constitutional, S. Carolina’s governor threatened to eliminate the public school system all together rather than integrate (312). Because better that your entire state remains uneducated than having to educate black kids and white kids together, am I right? In 1957 when the Little Rock Nine were famously escorted to the all-white Central High School, where the law said they had a right to be, the result was 800 angry white people at the school and white supremacists with dynamite, knives, clubs, and bottles heading toward the home of a local woman who was housing one of the students (348-349). All because their precious white children were being subjected to black children. Alex Wilson, a Defender reporter, died three years later while undergoing treatment for the neurological condition brought on by the beating he received while covering the story (362). In 1961, a bus full of freedom riders, both black and white, was “surrounded by a hundred drunken, gun-toting white men” in Alabama. The driver tried to proceed, but “the mob slashed the tires, and those in automobiles ran the bus off the road” where they “picked up rocks and began shattering the windows, finally tossing a firebomb inside.” (368-9). Because there were black people sitting in the front of the bus. In 1962, the Supreme Court ordered the University of Mississippi to admit James Meredith, a black man. Marshals had to be sent in and were met with sniper fire, Molotov cocktails, rocks, and bottles (375-6). Because that’s a prestigious white school. Only classy people, like the ones in this here mob, are allowed.

This was a timely read, given the current administration’s attitude toward the press as “the opposition party.” It really highlighted how effective a free press can be on public opinion and, thus, policy and how people will try to shut it down when they don't like it. It also highlighted the vigilance required to continue shining a light on what is really happening and to keep pressure on public officials when they fail to live up to their promises. I would recommend this, but if reading the whole thing seems daunting (all the local political machinations can get a little dry and started to run together a bit in my mind as I read this book over the course of about three months), I think you could dip into it if there is a particular timeline you are interested in reading about to see what the coverage of the day was like.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
January 26, 2017 – Finished Reading
January 27, 2017 – Shelved
April 28, 2019 – Shelved as: non-fiction

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