As part of our Fall 2017 season, Illinois is publishing three groundbreaking books that interrogate the influence of the black press and the barons, editors, and journalists behind it. These individuals became active participants in the fight against white supremacy domestically and colonialism abroad. In the process, they not only changed journalism, they played a defining role in the development of American race relations in the twentieth century.
In The Rise and Fall of the Associated Negro Press: Claude Barnett’s Pan-African News and the Jim Crow Paradox, Gerald Horne tells the story of the Associated Negro Press (ANP) and its founder, Claude Barnett. Horne captures Barnett’s global engagement with the Pan-African movement and his work to dismantle colonialism and segregation, but he argues that the success of the ANP in battering the walls of Jim Crow came with a price: the mainstream press’s effort to hire black journalists undermined the very viability of the news service Barnett created. Barnett was also a businessman; as such, his sympathies with black aspirations often clashed with his ethics and a powerful desire to join the moneyed and political elite. In Race News: Black Journalists and the Fight for Racial Justice in the Twentieth Century, Fred Carroll captures these contradictions as Barnett shifted from telling his editor they were interested in “news about Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, Capitalists, Communists so long as . . . it had a news relation to Negroes” to abandoning this outlook by early 1947, as mounting animosity toward the Soviet Union threatened his financial interests.
Carroll’s book gives us a bottom-up look at black journalists and the role they played in the fight for racial justice, but the black press was not monolithic. Through a thorough examination of the working relationship between the alternative black press and commercial black press, he shows the impact of the Cold War on black journalism. The United States’ shifting toleration of progressive politics affected how black journalists covered the news—with commercial presses absorbing the political perspective and journalists of the alternative press in the 1930s and 1940s until they effectively ceased to exist. However, the alternative press reemerged in the 1950s and 1960s with the purging of newsrooms during the Red Scare. Like Horne, Carroll traces the precipitous decline of the black press to newsroom integration as daily newspapers hired away the most talented black journalists.
What of the relationship between the mainstream press and the black press at the local level during this dynamic period? Sid Bedingfield takes up the South Carolina story and its stakes in fantastic detail in Newspaper Wars: Civil Rights and White Resistance in South Carolina, 1935-1965. Here we are introduced to John Henry McCray and his radical newspaper, Lighthouse and Informer. McCray and his allies used his paper, established in the hostile terrain of Jim Crow South Carolina, to challenge segregated and unequal schooling, often cooperating with the NAACP. Their relative success in South Carolina, coupled with federal threats to the racial order, spawned a white backlash, with white newspaper editors and state politicians collaborating to fight segregation before Brown v. Board of Education. After the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, these same journalists worked with local white citizen councils and William Buckley’s burgeoning conservative movement to develop a color-blind rhetoric that linked race to law and order and economic decline in a successful effort to get white voters to abandon the biracial Democratic Party for the conservative GOP.
Taken collectively, these books challenge the notion that an objective press developed in the twentieth century. Activists in the black press were behind an assault on white supremacy while black papers exhibited diverse political persuasions with their coverage of calls for equality during World War II and tragedies like the death of Malcolm X. However, Bedingfield’s work goes on to show that “mainstream” outlets like the Charleston News and Courier were equally partisan, using notions of objectivity and journalistic norms as a tool of control to maintain the racial order. As the black press declined in the latter half of the twentieth century, something was lost. Carroll captures the long-term implications when he notes that the failure of daily newspapers to decisively integrate news-gathering practices led to a racial bias that cloaked white privilege and distorted our understanding of racial issues in ways that continue to haunt us today.