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The Black Press’ Influence on Civil Rights

In October 1942, two 14-year-old African Americans—Charles Lang and Ernest Green—were taken from their jail cells in Mississippi and quietly lynched. As their bodies dangled over the Chickasawhay River, they became two of the more than 3,000 African Americans who were lynched in the U.S. between 1882 and 1951. Their tragedy might have shocked the nation—if the nation had been informed of it. But these grotesque murders, like so many before them, caused no ripple in the mainstream press. African Americans were only mainstream news when they committed a crime. But in the Black Press, lynchings were front-page material.

Despite the inception of Negro papers in the Northeast, most were published in the South, often on the presses of African-American churches. After the Civil War, the Black Press became integral in the unification and stabilization of southern African-American communities. When Reconstruction ended in 1876, however, these publications had to be wary of the harsh atmosphere of Jim Crow South. The truth was often censored using violent means. In 1892, for example, Ida B. Wells denounced the lynching of three friends in her paper, The Memphis Free Speech. In reaction, a lynch mob destroyed her offices and would have killed her, had she not been in New York at the time.

In 1905, however, a Chicago printer named Robert Abbott founded the Chicago Defender, which would not be silenced in the South or anywhere. Abbott produced the first issue of the Defender on his landlady’s dining room table and circulated a modest 300 copies of this edition. But with its tradition of sensationalism, sarcastic wit and biting rhetoric, the self-proclaimed “World’s Greatest Weekly” quickly blossomed in Chicago. Reporters became heroes of the black community. Through their writings, they established a separate world that liberated African Americans from mainstream depictions of their inferiority.

Having found success in the Midwest, Abbott did the unthinkable: He sent the Defender into the segregated South. From the safety of Chicago, Abbott could make the bold protests that Southern writers could not voice without fear of retribution. By the 1920s, the Defender had a circulation of more than 150,000, and even this number, though impressive, is misleading. Each copy passed through the hands of at least five readers. Every crime against African Americans was publicized in bold black ink on the front page of this now national publication.

But even as the Chicago Defender and other Negro newspapers such as The Pittsburgh Courier and the New York Amsterdam News became a fundamental cornerstone of the African-American community, the mainstream press refused to take the Black Press seriously. The plight of Black America remained shamefully invisible to most of the white population, until the death of Emmett Till. The first news story about the abduction and lynching of a 14-year-old from Chicago, who was in Mississippi visiting his mother’s hometown, broke on Aug. 29, 1955. This pithy piece said little other than that Emmett was missing. But as the heinous facts of the case unfolded, Emmett became the beaten and bruised face of Jim Crow South not only nationally, but internationally as well. He became famous, and the racism of the South, infamous.

The world would learn that two white men had dragged Emmett from his uncle’s home. They beat him, shot him and dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River with a metal fan wrapped around his neck with barbed wire. Despite authorities’ hasty attempt to bury the body in Mississippi, Emmett’s disfigured corpse was returned to Chicago on the condition that his casket would remain closed. But Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till, wanted to see her son. And once she had seen him, she wanted the world to see what had been done: “Let the people see what they did to my boy.” An open-casket funeral service was held for Emmett, and for three days thousands flocked to Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ to witness the wrath of Jim Crow.

Weeks later, Jet magazine published photographs of Emmett’s corpse to “let the world experience man’s inhumanity to man,” and the Chicago Defender circulated the same images. America was traumatized. The world was aghast. Horrified editorials came out of Germany, France and Belgium. From Italy, William Faulkner—Mississippi’s most famous son—issued a statement:

If we in America have reached that point in our desperate culture when we must murder children, no matter for what reason or what color, we don’t deserve to survive, and probably won’t.

For the first time, American mainstream media took interest in the murder of an African American in the South. At least 50 reporters and photographers filled the small courthouse for the first day of the trial. Life, Look, The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and The Detroit News were represented, among others. The events surrounding Emmett’s murder were also among the first of the civil rights movement to be covered by the emerging medium of television. The nation and the world attentively followed the proceedings; everyone knew when Emmett’s murderers were set free by an all-white, all-male jury after four days of testimony and only an hour and five minutes of deliberation.

Although Emmett’s murderers were never punished, their trial established that the African-American condition deserved and required mainstream attention. Because of Emmett Till, America would be prepared for the events that would erupt later that year in Montgomery, Ala. Mainstream publications would cover the bus boycott of Rosa Parks and the emergence of the civil rights movement’s new young leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. The Black Press would be there as well, but as the African-American narrative became our country’s narrative, the Black Press began losing its monopoly over African-American stories, journalists and readership. The Black Press publications helped desegregate America, and to a certain extent, their purpose became ironically anachronistic in the healthier world they created. Whereas such powerhouses as the Chicago Defender and Jet were able to adapt, most of the smaller publications sheathed their swords and faded out of circulation. But they, like Emmett, will never fade from history.

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Measure for Measure

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