The Defender: How Chicago's Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America - Ethan Michaeli

The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America

by Ethan Michaeli


I have to admit that before reading this book, I don't remember ever really hearing about the Chicago Defender, and yet throughout the last century, The Defender has acted as more than simply a voice for a marginalized group. Robert Abbott created the newspaper with a mission in mind: particularly after the Atlanta riots of 1906, he saw that a new voice was needed to act as "Defender of his race,". For over a century, The Defender has been a staunch combatant against racism and promoter of integration.


The book opens with Frederick Douglass's visit to the World Fair in 1893. Although the Civil War was over, prejudice, racism, and inequality was just moving into high gear. As he put it:

"There is no negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have honesty enough, loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough to live up to their own constitution."

Inspired by Douglass, Abbott set out to create a newspaper that could continue to advocate such honesty. It was a rocky beginning: Abbott started by running the newspaper out of his boardinghouse, subsisting off limited community support rather than advertising, and even being forced to rely on money from Teenan Jones, an infamous gangster. Despite its message of racial pride, it routinely carried advertising for skin lighteners and hair straighteners. Without full-time journalists on the payroll, Abbott and his crew started by pulling stories out of other papers and rewriting them for their audience. The Defender also faced an impressive level of hostility: Southern "gentry" and law enforcement ridiculed the paper and sent taunting telegrams suggesting Defenders come and report on lynchings that had yet to happen. Abbott was repeatedly investigated by the FBI and related organizations, and various Southern states even made attempts to extradite him for libel charges.


In the early twentieth century, Chicago was a comparative bastion of liberty and freedom: while lynchings and attacks certainly happened, police usually attempted to stop them instead of joining in, and although Chicago's race riot of 1919 was one of the bloodiest seen, it still indicated that Blacks in Chicago could fight back. The Defender sought keep a spotlight on racist violence, reporting continuously and vividly on lynchings and other atrocities of Jim Crow. Although a firm supporter of integration, the Defender wasn't always conciliatory. Often fiercely emotional and moralistic, it occasionally stooped to publishing clearly apocryphal stories or using aggressive rhetoric, such as the time it insisted that anyone who failed to vote against Hanrahan was "a traitor to the black cause". But perhaps a strident voice is necessary to actuate social change. As a Defender editorial put it:

"We are a watchdog and to many bigots in Chicago, an irritation, a Socratic gadfly, a pain in the neck or even a 'black hysterical voice,' but we proudly accept this role at this critical juncture in American history and will jealously cling to it until we can become 'just another daily newspaper.'"


The Defender and its editors played significant roles in actually influencing and guiding public policy. The newspaper was a critical catalyst for the Great Migration. It lobbied tirelessly--and eventually successfully--for an integrated military. It was a Defender reporter who was beaten during the Little Rock Nine's entrance into the school. As the paper gained greater influence, Abbott and Sengstacke directly interacted with more and more powerful political figures, including many presidents-- even if most refused to be photographed with a black man. A true believer in unity, the Defender was internally integrated, hiring white reporters throughout its history.


The story of the Defender is fascinating, and Michaeli's writing style is vivid and moving. My biggest complaint is a certain lack of scholarly disinterest, which makes sense, given that Michaeli worked at the Defender and met many of the people whose lives he documents. Throughout, Michaeli's protagonists are described ias "brilliant,""charismatic," etc, often without supporting evidence, and he tends to ignore flaws intrinsic to rounded portraits. For example, he simplifies the complex relationship between King and Jesse Jackson, lauding Jackson as King's successor and later portraying him as an august "elder statesman".He is also uniformly negative towards enemies of the Defender such as Marcus Garvey. Throughout, figures such as Abbott and Sengstacke are treated almost hagiographically. For example, when Sengestacke fires every reporter on the paper who won't tow his pro-Truman line, Michaeli phrases it as a dismissal of those who crossed "Sengstacke's red line of explicit political work." I found it an amusing description, given that under Sengstacke's direction, the Defender vigorously endorsed Truman, spearheaded a huge fundraising effort for him, and actually characterized the election as "A crusade, not a political campaign." Michaeli is also clearly a fan of Obama and describes even his questionable actions in glowing terms. For example, when describing how Obama snakes the nomination out from under Palmer by challenging Palmer's petition to get proof that each signer had the right to vote, Michaeli characterizes him--unironically-- as being "gracious in victory."


There is so much to this book that I can't even begin to describe it all. The book provides a vivid, visceral history of the last century, It's the minutiae that highlights the insidiousness of racism and the courage of those who fought it; Jack Johnson's world championship, the century-old conflict over segregated real estate, Brown versus the Board of Education, the Freedom Riders, King's efforts in Chicago and his slow fade during the rise of Black Power, Clinton's reaction to Dantrell Davis... the Defender reported it all. More than that: it was instrumental in all of it. As one reporter said of Robert Abbott:

"When he sought to raise the black man to the level of the white man, he was branded a radical. The radical of today is the conservative of tomorrow and other martyrs take up the work through other nights."

And there is plenty of work left to be done. If you're interested in learning more about Chicago, or reading twentieth century history through a distinctive lens, The Defender is absolutely worth a read.


~~I received an advanced reader copy of this book through Netgalley from the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes are taken from an advanced reader copy; typos are all mine.~~