The Exemplary Legacy of the Chicago Defender
This week, the Chicago Defender, one of the most renowned black newspapers in America, will cease to produce a print edition. Though it will continue to publish online, the demise of the Defender as a physical object, a hundred and fourteen years after its founding, marks another sad milestone in the decline of print newspapers. The Defender’s reputation arose not only through the quality of its writing—Langston Hughes and Ida B. Wells were contributors—but also thanks to the political stances it took. The paper didn’t merely editorialize against segregation and for equal rights for black Americans; it also offered a vision of black life in Chicago that was said to have encouraged the Great Migration northward of many Southern blacks. (The paper’s founder, Robert S. Abbott, had himself relocated from Georgia.) It also campaigned for desegregation of the military and covered business and community relations in the city’s numerous black neighborhoods.
To talk about the paper’s history, I recently spoke by phone with Glenn Reedus, a former executive editor and managing editor at the Defender who has worked in local journalism for many years. (He told me that he was “an itinerant newspaper guy loving the journey from typewriters to terabytes.”) During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the paper’s iconic status in Chicago, its crucial role in the Great Migration, and the future of the black press.
First of all, it goes way beyond Chicago. You have heard of the Great Migration of African-Americans moving from the South to the North, particularly Chicago. And the way they got news about Chicago was that Mr. Abbott, who was the founder, had Pullman porters take the papers on their route to the South and drop them off down there. That is when people started reading about Chicago and opportunities for black people, and that’s when they started coming. And, once they were here, because they were familiar with the Defender, it was almost like the Bible. I still find it funny and somewhat incredible that Mr. Abbott wrote a regular column telling people who had just migrated how to behave in Chicago: no public drunkenness, keep a quiet demeanor, places that it wasn’t safe to go, that sort of stuff.
There was a conscious intent to get people to move to Chicago. And it made sense to use Pullman porters, because they had pretty much free access, although they had to hide the papers somewhere on the train after they picked them up in Chicago until they got to their destinations in Mississippi and along the way.
During this time, when [the Defender] was trying to consciously advertise Chicago, what was the vision of the city that was offered? Was it more rosy than reality?
A lot of generalities, like “if you come here, you can get a job.” Well, a lot of people came and had only farmed, so there weren’t a lot of jobs for them. And housing was very segregated—still is. And a lot of it was substandard housing, but better than what they left in the South.
In the first decades of the paper’s existence, what was its tone and style? What kind of things did it cover?
It was pro-black in a way that nobody else was. Mr. Abbott went so far as to make “Negro” uppercase and make “white” lowercase in news stories. And if you pick up most papers that are part of the National Newspaper Publishers Association—the black press—you will see that continues. “Black” is still uppercase.
Did the paper have a certain approach to culture or sports or—
It seems like the paper’s role during the Second World War was interesting, and that the issue of desegregating the military was important. Can you talk about that?
It was a huge issue, and Mr. Abbott was getting older, and his nephew John Sengstacke, who was, I guess you could say, more worldly, started running the paper, and he was able to reach out to writers around the country and get those kinds of stories.
I read that the government was upset with the paper because they thought the desegregation effort would interfere with recruiting.
That’s it. I don’t know if you read that Sengstacke met with Presidents to talk about this. For a black guy, that was very unusual for that early on. But Sengstacke was doing it in the late nineteen-forties, early nineteen-fifties.
Why did political leaders see it as so important to talk to who was publishing the paper?
They needed the black vote—or what little of it they could get. And I think some were genuinely interested in seeing equal rights, or some form of it.
[John F.] Kennedy’s win in Chicago, in 1960, is a disputed subject. What role did the paper play there?
It was instrumental in getting people to vote for Kennedy. Back then, you had Mayor Richard J. Daley, who was one of the most powerful Democrats in the country. Most Chicago residents were Democrats at the time, and he put the word out that people should vote for Kennedy.
What did people like about Kennedy?
No. 1, he wasn’t a Republican. No. 2, he spoke about all people. He was opposed to segregation and made that very clear during his campaigns, and Daley wanted him. Daley wanted a Democrat.
What was the paper’s relationship with the Daley family in the postwar era?
Generally, it was good. The mayor never came out against Mr. Abbott or Mr. Sengstacke or the paper. I think they were feeling their way with one another.
My understanding is that it is very contested how people look back on the family’s role in the city.
Daley opposed public housing. It was supposed to go throughout the city and he said no, and that’s when the city got its first high-rise projects, in the early nineteen-fifties. And that was Daley’s doing—to concentrate black people in one area. And, during the  riots here, he issued a shoot-to-kill of looters that really incensed people. [The shoot-to-kill order was officially for arsonists; Daley said that looters should merely be maimed.]
[His son Richard M. Daley] was a lot smoother than his dad, and he would engage black people in some key areas, whereas his father wouldn’t, which mitigated the problems with the community: [by his last election, in 2007,] he won every black ward, and there are fifty wards. The strange thing is that, between elections, you found black people with absolutely nothing good to say about him. But then, come election time, they would vote for him.
How do you understand that?
Well, you have heard of the machine. The machine went to work and made promises to people, and it wasn’t important whether promises were kept or not. Voters have short memories. They weren’t really thinking about what they were promised and they will go again.
What year were you born?
Tell me about the paper in the postwar era, and when you started reading it, and the effect it may have had on you.
I started reading it as a kid because it was in everybody’s house and I could go to an uncle’s or an aunt’s. It was at our house. Back then, it was a five-day-a-week paper. The Friday [edition] was the weekend paper. It was much larger than the other four days, but that was the paper that had the comics and a little bit of national sports. There was a black wire service, and that is where they got their national sports from. They weren’t covering local sports. It was just entertaining. My parents made me read it. It was at the barbershop. It was just everyplace. It was almost like a joke: if you went into the barbershop and someone said something happened, the discussion would turn to “Well, it didn’t happen because it wasn’t in the Defender.”
Did the paper generally try to hire people from Chicago?
Oh, yeah, definitely. One of the things that you have to keep in mind is that even today the black press has never been able to afford the same quality of writers. I wouldn’t say quality, but the white press is paid more than the black press. It was true then and true today. People back then wrote for the black press out of love. It wasn’t about the money.
So you had locals who cared a lot about the paper and its history?
Have there been any big moments for the paper that stick out?
No, because the focus is really the community, and even today government gets short shrift in terms of coverage. It is more the everyday things that are going on.
What would be an example?
Businesses in the community. There is a cemetery here, where primarily black people are buried, and it was discovered that cemetery workers were burying people on top of people just to make money. That was just about five years ago. You also had reporters who might be turning out eight stories a week, nine stories a week, and so it is tough to do in-depth reporting when you are that busy and you are chasing all over town.
One of the things that stands out about the Defender postwar, up until just a few years ago, is it covered the entire—well, black residents live primarily on the West Side or the South Side. And traditionally black newspapers covered one or the other, but the Defender covered both. That was part of its appeal.
In terms of your experience there in the previous decade, what was it like? What was the office like?
It was a bit of a shock because I had always worked at daily newspapers. I came there and there were a lot of things from my daily-newspaper perspective that were missing. Deadlines were too flexible. We had a very small staff. I think we had four reporters and one photographer, and one of those reporters was a full-time sports reporter. We were in a downtown office building, which never made sense to me, because that meant we were away from the community. And, if people wanted to come downtown, they had to pay to park. It didn’t make sense, because it had always been in the community, and to do what I wanted to do was very difficult with that small staff. But I can say that the people who were there were extremely dedicated. And, of course, everybody grumbles about the job. We might grumble, but we get it done. And there was a lot of quality journalism.
You were there in 2008. What was the response to [Barack] Obama’s campaign and election? How much was he covered?
That’s when we switched to a weekly, so he was covered just about every week. I can remember talking with his communications director several times per week. There was a lot of excitement. I don’t recall anyone saying, “This guy will never make it.” I don’t think we violated any journalistic tenets in supporting him, but we covered him to all get-out.
Did he read the paper?
I’m sure he read it because he was a black politician in Chicago. They all read it. There is something called a Bud Billiken Parade. He’s a mythical character started by Mr. Abbott in getting kids interested in going back to school. The parade is a week before school starts and is the largest or second-largest parade in the country. Obama would participate before and after he was elected state senator.
What is your biggest fear or overwhelming emotion about seeing the paper go online-only?
It’s like giving a eulogy and your friend is just on life support. Nobody is making money digitally, and I don’t think the Defender will be able to do it.
When I was a senior in high school, I wrote my very first news story, and it was published in the Defender. There is that really deep emotional tie. When I started there, the chairman of the board said he was giving me his office, his huge corner office. And my desk was the one Mr. Sengstacke had used. And it was a replica of J.F.K.’s desk in the White House. There was an office next to mine, and it had Mr. Abbott’s desk. Mr. Abbott’s desk has suffered some water damage, but they wanted to keep it. Now Mr. Sengstacke’s desk, the desk I worked at, is in the Smithsonian. So I have been very emotional. The black press is going to survive, and the black press will be O.K. even if we don’t have the Defender. It’s like losing your favorite uncle or something. The family goes on, but you always think about Uncle Whomever.
What was the story you wrote in high school?
There was a very small community organization that was charged with making sure that the residents in the projects got the city services that they had been promised. So I wrote about that organization and some of the people in the projects. The executive director of the organization told me that the Defender contacted him and said they didn’t have a reporter to assign to the story, and he told me to do it. I did it. I was pretty pissed off when I saw how much I had been edited, but I didn’t know anything about journalism then.