Journalist Ethan Michaeli had a pressing question when he interviewed for a job with the celebrated black newspaper the Chicago Defender in 1991. “Do white people work here?” he asked.
City editor Alberta Leak laughed and assured him that they did—and always had. Michaeli landed the job, embarking on a journalism career and a yearslong education in the history of white and black America. Now Michaeli is sharing what he learned in his new book, The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America.
It turns out that Michaeli’s interview query illuminated an important aspect of the Defender’s vision and impact. He was far from the first white employee. “I wasn’t even the101st, not even probably the 1,001st,” he says. “I realized that just as Frederick Douglass’ vision of America was an integrated vision, one that respected everybody for their own background and perspectives, that’s what the Defender always was. It’s an African-American–owned newspaper that works for an integrated country.”
Michaeli’s book recounts this quest for justice through the writings and perspectives of historical figures with Defender links. The glimpses of a century’s worth of reporters and columnists at work illuminate how and why news media advanced American civil rights. Moreover, they offer inspiring examples of individuals who fought against lynching, segregation, and degradation without violence, rancor, or self-pity. “They found ways to be joyful warriors and to live their lives along the way,” Michaeli says.
Michaeli’s Defender history starts with Frederick Douglass even though the revered abolitionist died years before the paper was founded in 1905. Founder Robert Abbott had heard Douglass speak out for full citizenship rights for African-Americans. “There is no Negro problem,” the 75-year-old Douglass had declared. “The problem is whether the American people have honesty enough, loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough to live up to their own Constitution.”
Point taken. Michaeli vividly describes the ways Abbott and his cohorts answered Douglass’ call to action, holding America accountable to its stated (if seldom-lived) values—and winning significant results. Scholar after scholar has paid homage to the Defender as a catalyst for the Great Migration and a linchpin of black electoral power at crucial historical junctures. It’s been a documented kingmaker or spoiler in numerous mayoral, gubernatorial, Senate, and even presidential races.
Michaeli’s account makes a unique contribution to Defender literature by focusing on the journalists who wrote (often at great personal risk) the stories and editorials that transformed the nation—their quirks, views, and debates. It reveals the thinking and controversies behind the paper’s stances. In short, he adds newsroom intrigue and individual pluck to the charts of circulation, migration, and voting patterns that illustrate the scholarly accounts.
Michaeli hopes the book’s more than centurylong scope will deepen readers’ understanding of racism in American history. “I can't say I came away from the book with a triumphant sense of our progress as a country,” he says. “That said, I think that individuals certainly can benefit from understanding what the history of the country truly is and understanding what people did to fight back against a concept that is really pernicious and is just, at its core, a lie.”
The work to dismantle the concept of race and the racism it inspires continues—for us all. “If we work really, really hard, it can disappear,” Michaeli says. “I guess I do still believe that. I do hope that people want to make that happen. I hope that the book helps them move in that direction.”
Maya Payne Smart writes book reviews and musings.