This chronicle of the influential black Chicago newspaper simultaneously tracks the important issues pertaining to African-American history from the turn of the 19th century.
A copy editor and investigative reporter at the Defender from 1991 to 1996, journalist Michaeli tackles an enormous swath of American history in his thorough, painstaking account of the newspaper’s rise to prominence. The story begins with the Georgia-born Robert Abbott, who had been so impressed by the accomplishments of the black professionals he met while visiting Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 with his singing group, the Hampton Quartet, that he stayed in the city to attend law school. He was resolved that the city needed an African-American newspaper that would “ ‘wake them up,’ expose the atrocities of the southern system, and make demands for justice.” With scant resources, depending on subscriptions from the South Side black community, and using his landlady’s dining room as a newsroom, Abbott launched his first issue of the “defender of his race” in May 1905, with a print run of 300. Subsequently, Abbott led the newspaper to prominence over four decades, becoming the mouthpiece for the seminal race issues of the day: exposing the spate of lynchings in the South; advocating for the integration of sports teams; covering race riots; agitating for the huge migration of blacks to find industrial jobs in the North, known as the Great Northern Drive; and supporting the troops in a “Jim Crow army” while carefully avoiding undermining the war effort. As the Defender’s mantle of leadership was assumed by Abbott’s nephew John Sengstacke in 1940, the paper took on the role of galvanizing the black electorate, which would become key in the presidential elections of Harry Truman (1948) and John F. Kennedy (1960), the Chicago mayoral upset by Harold Washington in 1983, and Barack Obama’s astonishing homegrown surge in 2003. Michaeli has obviously put a considerable amount of care into the research and crafting of this important history.
A pertinent, well-fashioned American success saga.