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For 110 Years the Chicago Defender Has Made Its Mark on History

Ethan Michaeli, a former reporter for the legendary black paper and an author of a new history on it, talks about its role in the Great Migration, the election of John F. Kennedy, and the rise of Barack Obama.

Harry S. Truman, longtime publisher John Sengstacke, and Richard J. Daley ride in the 1956 Bud Biliken Parade, the brainchild of founder Robert Abbott and editor David Kellum.   Photo: Chicago Tribune

Last year the Chicago Defender celebrated its 110th anniversary. Its origins were modest: Its founder, Robert Abbott, was a printer with a law degree who had struggled against segregation to find employment in either field. Inspired by early encounters with Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells, he started the paper in his landlord’s kitchen in 1905. Three decades later, it would have hundreds of thousands of subscribers, distributed along the rail routes that guided the path of the Great Migration, which it famously encouraged and grew.

For its role in the Great Migration, it can stake a claim for having changed the history of the country. But it played a critical role at other junctures as well. Ethan Michaeli, an alumnus of the paper who started as a copy editor as a young University of Chicago grad and rose to the position of investigative reporter, follows those historical crossroads in his new book, The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America, which was just released to a glowing review in the New York Times.

I spoke with Michaeli about how its origins can be traced to the 1893 Columbian Exposition; why Abbott and the paper came to support blacks’ migration to the North; its critical role in John F. Kennedy’s victory in the 1960 election; and how it shaped the early, if bumpy, rise of America’s first black president.

One of the things I was most interested to learn is how the World’s Fair was a catalyst for it.

Here you have Robert Abbott. He’s born in the aftermath of the Civil War. He’s coming up in an era in which race relations are in flux. African-Americans have been granted their full rights of citizenship, and are enjoying those rights. Getting elected to office, demanding acceptance to every profession, trying to participate as decision makers and leaders in society, and they’re being held back at every available opportunity by a section of the white oligarchy of the South. This is the environment in which Robert Abbott is growing up.

Within the African-American community, he has advantages and disadvantages. The disadvantages being a very dark complexion, a rather short stature, and poverty. On the other hand, he has a stepfather [John Sengstacke] who is a remarkable figure: half-German, half-African, because his mother gave birth to him just as she arrived in the South from Africa, and then he’s whisked off to Germany as a baby. He comes to the United States and sees, in the wreckage of the post-Civil War South, opportunity. And where does he see it? With the African-American population. That’s what he identifies with, and loves.

Abbott is the recipient of that love, the beneficiary of that love. The Reverend Sengstacke took Abbott under his wing—a doctor, professor, teacher, all at once. Abbott’s got ambition. Today, what we’d call a globalized sense. He knows much more about the world, and believes that he’s a part of it much more than people in his milieu.

He comes to Hampton University and is soon discovered for having great talent as a singer. That puts him in the Hampton Quartet; that was a privileged place. They’re very popular; Abbott is seeing opportunities there. And then he gets to the World’s Fair. At the World’s Fair he meets Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass. She’s just a few years older than Douglass, and doing this investigative work, facts, figures, on the lynching system and how it helped the oligarchs of the South recapture complete control.

She used journalism as a way to fight back, and that made a strong impression on Abbott. And of course that was in line with Douglass, especially before the Civil War, with the newspapers he’d run.

And, of course, he sees Chicago, this city that is forming out of the swamp. He’s like, “This is it. I have to be a part of it.” The African-American community in Chicago is very much in this mold. It’s very much like the way Russian revolutionaries would gather in Paris. That’s what Chicago was for these African-American intellectuals, a place where they could safely think of ways to overturn the oppressive order back home.

The Defender is legendary for its role in the Great Migration. But you write that its role is more nuanced than we generally assume.

It was a process from 1915 to 1916. Abbott personally changed from a position of “don’t bother coming to Chicago, there are no jobs here, the unions discriminate against you, I know this first-hand, I tried myself,” to more neutral on the migration. He’s like, “It does seem like the unions are lowering their barriers, the whites aren’t coming from Europe anymore, there’s a need, it might be okay.”

Then he sees that it’s hurting the South. There’s an incident in Jacksonville where all the stevedores leave in one night, essentially. They’re recruited by the Port of New Jersey. Their wives are like, “They pay you twice as much, you don’t have to deal with the crap you deal with in the South, go!” The next day, Jacksonville’s left without anyone to work the docks. No one knows how to do this highly skilled labor. When Abbott reads this report, and other reports, now he’s convinced. The Great Migration is a good thing: it’s a tactic to hurt the South.

It’s significant because it correctly ascribes the agency to African-Americans to say that they knew exactly what they were doing in a political sense. They could have gone to Birmingham to get a job. Timuel Black [the famous Chicago historian], his parents, they had good jobs in Birmingham. They could have stayed. They chose to go north for the freedom. That was their personal choice. From Abbott’s point of view, encouraging the migration was multiplying that personal freedom to, you are hurting the white South. This is a tactic for our collective freedom.

It’s in keeping with that theme of what Chicago was as a revolutionary garrison. That’s the spirit here. You can feel it even decades later in the Harold Washington election and other moments.

And with Kennedy. How does the Defender get John F. Kennedy elected?

By 1960, Louis Martin is the best African-American political operative in the United States. [Martin was a reporter for the Defender before being assigned to start up and run its sister paper, the Michigan Chronicle.] Maybe the best political operative, period. The—it has to be said—diffident Kennedy [campaign team] decides that they have to do something about the African-American vote. Rather than go through the various bosses, they call on Louis Martin. He proves to be a perfect choice, because he can go to Bobby Kennedy, who’s running the campaign, and he can say: "You’re about to lose. And you’re going to lose because you’re not trying to get the black vote. I can get it for you, but you’ve got to wake up.” I think he said it in harsher terms.

He’s able to show Bobby Kennedy how to do it, and organize the whole effort. He’s able to move nimbly, and with knowledge on enough issues, so that like, with the call to Coretta Scott King, he’s able to get it out into the black press, but have it be virtually ignored by the white press. [When Martin Luther King was arrested during the 1960 campaign, he convinced the campaign to get Kennedy to call her in support.] Which is a perfect scenario in terms of what he was trying to do in terms of generating the African-American vote. The Defender, as a new daily at this time, is basically the only news source that he wants this story to come out in.

He accomplishes this, and the numbers, I think, bear out what the Defender’s role was. The African-American vote came out. And you can demonstrate this with the numbers in Chicago, where you see both turnout and votes for Kennedy higher than Stevenson four years earlier.

Did Harold Washington get the same help from the Defender?

Not in the same way as Kennedy. Harold didn’t need turnout in that way. The Defender played an important role in providing clarity to the whole situation. You have an election that was deeply confused by propaganda. The other papers really couldn’t be relied on; there was a certain kind of hysteria in the Trib and the Sun-Times. I wouldn’t put myself up as an expert on those papers at the time, but what I read was, “you can’t possibly be considering Harold Washington.” So we’re either going to ignore it, or write about it as if it couldn’t possibly be an outcome.

With the sole exception of David Axelrod. Who was the only one in either paper, that I could find, that understood what was going on.

The Defender reporters, I would say, are caught up in the excitement along with everyone else, but they’re there with Harold in a way that other reporters couldn’t be. They’re there in the community, reporting on the building enthusiasm that the Tribune couldn’t get. And they’re there to hold Harold accountable. They know Harold. They believe in him for that reason.

For that reason, they totally laugh off the charges of his criminal activity, which was the most machine-contrived thing I’ve ever seen. [Washington pleaded no contest to tax evasion in 1971, owing $508 dollars after not filing returns for four years.] That’s important, because that koshers Harold Washington for the African-American community. If they’d said that he has a criminal history, things would have gone very differently. A percentage would have been bothered by that. That’s important.

And they played a role in Barack Obama’s rise, but again, it’s very different. He really learned from the paper.

Chinta Strausberg, the city hall reporter, was covering Barack at a frantic pace from the very beginning, along with everything else that was going on in the community. Putting him in that context was a crucial test of legitimacy. If he was going to fit in with the cosmology of African-American political figures, it was going to be really obvious. You can see it happening in the paper, going on in real time.

Barack had to make some tough decisions. That whole effort about how he supplanted Alice Palmer. [Obama bumped the South Side political veteran off the ballot by challenging her petitions in his first election.] The Defender, Chinta in particular, gave him a chance. They could have said, you’re done, you replaced a beloved figure in the community, you’re a tool of the University of Chicago, that’s it. But they gave him a chance. They saw something real and authentic, and talented. They weren’t the only ones, but a very significant voice.

One of the other ones that kind of koshered Barack for the community was Beverly Scott, who later became a columnist for the Defender. She was an organizer and activist who’d been involved in Cabrini-Green for many years. She had worked with Barack, had been part of a class of Barack’s at the Lugenia Burns Hope Center. She was the one going to a lot of the other activists and saying this guy’s okay, when they were saying he’s not one of us.

When Beverly got to the Defender, her columns were aimed that way too. They found a sympathetic reception with the readers, but they also resonated with other things being said within the newspaper—the editorial page and Chinta’s columns. All of that combined became a legitimizing thing for Barack. And if you go by what he said, when he was interviewed for a history of the paper, the Defender gave him the course correction he needed when he was a state legislator. I think he’s talking in particular about the time after he ran against Bobby Rush. They didn’t side with him. But they were kind in their editorial, where they encouraged him to do something in the future. He needed exactly that kind of advice.

A lot of things could have happened to dissuade this guy. He could have decided, well, I’m done with politics, I’m going to make a million dollars as an important attorney. The Defender is there at exactly those moments to say, stay in politics, you’ve got a future here. You’re part of the community here. You deserve that respect.

The president says it was the Defender that gave him that crucial recognition when he was a state legislator. That crucial stamp of legitimacy, I think is really what he needed.

While slowing him down a bit.

That’s the part he didn’t talk about in the interview. But I think it’s pretty clear that, one way or another, Barack decided to stay in politics, and pursue an ambitious course in politics. If his hometown newspaper hadn’t gotten behind him in this process, I don’t think he would have done it. Or it would have taken a lot longer. He might have been president at 70, instead of 46.


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