PUTTING ITSELF OUT OF BUSINESS

"Hell was breaking loose down south. This young man, this young preacher in Montgomery, was beginning to appear in the papers, and I wanted to get down there. So they sent me down south. I'm in one of those sad little hotels in Montgomery, when I heard a bomb. So I dashed over to Dr. King's house and sure enough the front of the house was demolished. You have no idea of the impact of standing and watching this young man plead with these hundreds of people who were standing in front of his house with Coke bottles and pipes, getting ready to go into town and beat up somebody, to watch him tell them to be calm, be calm, that was not the way."

Evelyn Cunningham, journalist

The postwar era brought enormous changes to the black press. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, black newspapers helped lay the groundwork for the Civil Rights movement. Ironically, the black press's greatest achievements in this era -- uncompromising political activism, increasing visibility, and recognition of its journalistic excellence -- were also the sources of its setbacks. Black newspapers muted their militancy to fend off accusations of Communism, and to appease big advertisers who had finally become interested in attracting black consumers. At the same time, the mainstream press began to integrate its staffs, and hired some of the best African American reporters away from black newspapers. By the 1960s, the circulation and the political power of the black press was waning.

 

Government persecution of the black press did not end with World War II. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, under J. Edgar Hoover, continued to target black newspapers. Meanwhile, the House Unamerican Activities Committee, under Senator Joe McCarthy, was charged with rooting out the threat of Communism on American soil. From 1945 to 1957, HUAC falsely accused thousands of Americans in all walks of life of disloyalty, destroying their personal and professional lives.

Members of the black press were targeted by these efforts. Charlotta Bass, editor and publisher of the California Eagle and a committed community activist, was suspected of being a member of the Communist Party. The FBI's investigation of Bass brought negative attention to the Eagle. To many Americans, black and white, the specter of a Communist threat to national security seemed real. To others, fear of guilt by association prompted them to turn away from the California Eagle. Readers flocked to the less militant Los Angeles Sentinel. Bass sold the failing Eagle in 1951 and launched her political career. At age 71, she was the first woman to run for national office, as the Progressive Party's candidate for vice-president in 1952. When new management shut down its presses in 1964, the California Eagle had been in print for 86 years, and was the longest continuously published black newspaper.

Anti-communism was not the only force dulling the sharp critical edge of the black press. More visible than ever, with readership in the millions, large corporations began placing ads in black newspapers. However, the papers found that they would lose lucrative ads for department stores and automobiles if their editorial policies were too radical. Some papers adopted a more moderate tone in order to achieve financial security.

As the Civil Rights movement developed, the black press covered breaking events across the country. Black newspapers sent reporters into whites-only lunch counters, to write about their experiences of being harassed and refused service. They covered demonstrations, riots, and speeches by leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But for the first time, the black press was not alone in covering these events of vital importance to African Americans. The Civil Rights movement was a national news story, and white-owned newspapers could not ignore it. After decades of invisibility and degradation, news of the struggles of black men and women appeared in the pages of the mainstream press.

Further, the mainstream press of the late 1950s and early 1960s did not depend solely on its white reporters to cover the civil rights movement. Offering higher salaries and greater exposure, white-owned newspapers, along with the news divisions of television and radio networks, lured black journalists away from their jobs on black newspapers. Integration of the mainstream press made these outlets more appealing to African American readers, which cut even further into the black press's readership.

These factors -- the suppression of radical thought in the midst of the 'red scare of the 1940s and 1950s, pressure from conservative advertisers, the 'brain drain' on black newspapers, and the integration of the mainstream press -- contributed to the black press's declining circulation and diminishing political power. Black newspapers remain a vital part of many African American communities today, but some people feel that the black press no longer plays the leadership role that it embraced in the past. These critics call for the revitalization of the black press as a forum in which African Americans can exchange ideas, debate social and political issues, and develop and choose their own leaders. In the tradition of the advocacy press, the black press of the twenty-first century might bring together African American communities in collective struggle. It might serve as a weapon in ongoing movements against racial injustice.

Witnesses

Frank Bolden, journalist

Evelyn Cunningham, journalist

Phyl Garland, historian

Vera Jackson, photographer

Edna Chappell McKenzie journalist/historian

Jane Rhodes, historian

Edward 'Abie' Robinson, journalist

 

Discussion Questions

What was the role of the black press in the civil rights movement?

How did gains resulting from the civil rights movement have a deleterious effect on the black press?

Despite the declining visibility of the black press, many vital African American newspapers continue publishing today. What has been the role of the black press in the post-civil rights movement era?

Do African American communities need an independent advocacy press today? Why or why not?