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Four Ways the Chicago Defender Changed America

Publisher John Sengstacke meeting with JFK in 1962   Photo: (JFK) Courtesy of the Chicago Defender Charities

In his new book, The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America, Ethan Michaeli explores the legacy of the influential black newspaper. Here are four of its major accomplishments.

1. It pushed the Great Migration as a way to punish the South.

At first, the paper discouraged blacks from going north because of the racism its founder, Robert Abbott, faced in Chicago. But as the Great Migration began, Abbott noticed it was damaging the South’s economy by removing its labor base. This convinced Abbott, Michaeli writes, that it was “an effective tactic for hurting the white South.” The paper started encouraging the exodus.

The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,  $32)

2. It helped swing the presidential election to John F. Kennedy.

The Defender was initially critical of Kennedy because of his inconsistent civil rights record. But a campaign adviser—and Defender columnist—convinced him that he could win the black vote if he courted it the way his opponent, Richard Nixon, did. By making overtures such as calling Coretta Scott King while Martin Luther King Jr. was in jail, Kennedy got the Defender’s endorsement and, with it, about 190,000 more votes than Nixon in Chicago’s majority-black wards. It was a crucial difference: Kennedy won the state, and its critical 27 electoral votes, by a margin of 8,858.

3. It was the first publication to cover Michael Jackson.

Fine arts editor Earl Calloway discovered the Jackson 5 in 1968 while they were still on the “chitlin’ circuit”—venues that catered to black performers—just before their first big show at the Capitol Theatre as a major-label act. “Calloway tracked the Jackson 5 as they wrote and rehearsed new songs and performed at other venues,” writes Michaeli. This helped them build an early following 19 months before their first hit, “I Want You Back,” topped the Billboard Hot 100.

4. It gave Barack Obama credibility.

The young state senator came to the Defender for its endorsement in his 2000 race for the U.S. House against incumbent Bobby Rush. He didn’t get it, and Rush trounced him. But the paper praised the outmatched candidate, boosting his credibility, and raised his profile by closely covering his subsequent rise. “The most important thing the Defender did for my candidacy was to report on the work that I was doing down in Springfield in ways that a lot of the mainstream newspapers were not reporting on,” Obama told PBS in 2005.

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