The first newspaper that I wrote for was The Black Panther, the official weekly publication of Huey Newton’s Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland.
My first full-time reporting job was at Muhammad Speaks (now the Final Call) in Chicago, once the largest-circulated black-owned weekly and official publication of the Nation of Islam. The paper had news bureaus in Africa, a United Nations correspondent, and in the early 1970s used computer typesetting and a Goss offset four-color press in production that was state-of-the-art.
And when I finally broke into daily journalism, it was at the Chicago Defender, which in the 1950s became America’s first black-owned daily newspaper and had once published novelist Richard Wright and Pulitzer Prize winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks.
Black-owned newspapers – about 200 are now represented in the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) – don’t command much industry respect these days and have difficulty attracting career-minded journalists, large circulations and major advertisers.
But back in the 1940s, considered the golden era of what was then called the Negro Press, papers such as the Pittsburgh Courier, Baltimore Afro-American, Michigan Chronicle and Los Angeles Sentinel had six-figure circulations. Only in the 1950s did the civil rights movement force white newspapers to cover black social issues; major dailies didn’t start hiring African-American journalists until the 1970s, and attention to newsroom diversity is very recent.
During the darkest days of segregation, before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. became a drum major for justice, it was the Negro press that first enunciated the civil rights goals of equal job opportunity, integrated public schools, open housing and voting rights.
One of the proudest moments in this fascinating saga is the crusading campaign for equality during World War II, called “Double V” – victory abroad over the axis powers and victory at home over racial discrimination. Very controversial as a wartime initiative, the campaign nearly doubled black newspaper circulation, boiled into a classic First Amendment battle with the federal government, and ultimately helped persuade President Truman to desegregate U.S. military.
I have retold this captivating episode of American journalism history in my play, “Double V”, a docudrama of the Negro press and World War II. Though “Double V” is a work of literature written for the stage, the story is true and based on the life of Frank L. Stanley Sr., wartime publisher of the Louisville (Ky.) Defender and a president of the National Newspaper Publishers Association.
I first learned of Frank Stanley’s reputation while working for the Chicago Defender. Years after his death, I profiled him for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal, where I work now as a features writer. That compelled deeper research into his background and evolved into the play.
Set in the newsroom of the 1940s-era weekly, the play explores the trials and tribulations an embattled publisher must overcome to achieve his consuming mission.
During World War II, newspapers grappled with newsprint shortages. Government rationing wasn’t always fair in Jim Crow America, and Negro publishers sometimes lost advertisers over their demand for racial equality. But their fearlessness in exploring sensitive issues in a time of national crisis – and putting out damn good newspapers when economic times were tight – may hold lessons for media today.
Early black journalists defended freedom of the press and helped define the role of the wartime journalist. (In one “Double V” scene, Stanley asks a pushy FBI agent, “Where do we draw the line? What’s the government policy on criticizing the government during wartime? I thought this country was supposed to be free.”)
The Negro press also became a model of courageous journalism, righting social wrongs and overcoming worries about the bottom line. Their circulations soared, advertising dollars flowed and their war coverage had a historic effect on national policy. When people see Colin Powell, an African-American, directing world affairs, it’s partly because an integrated military was an early and hard-won goal of black publishers who helped launch the civil rights movement.
John H.H. Sengstacke, founder of the NNPA and publisher of the Chicago Defender, once joked that by pioneering a successful rights revolution, the advocacy black press was working itself out of a job.
But African-American papers are still here, adjusting – sometimes slowly – to new market realities. And they aren’t forgotten.
Larry Muhammad is a former president and board member of SPJ’s Metro Louisville chapter and two-term director of Region 5. To buy a copy of “Double V,” visit www.hawleycooke.com, or contact the author at email@example.com for information about producing the play.