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Why ‘The Chicago Defender’ Still Matters

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Earlier this month, The Chicago Defender announced that it was publishing its final regular print issue. At first glance, it would appear to be the tragic end for another newspaper, another casualty of the decline of local print publications that a generation of journalists and citizens alike has had to endure. The owners of the Defender have argued that the best option for the paper to last for years to come is to go digital and join a growing number of former print newspapers in making the leap to online only. But the Chicago Defender’s unique place in American—and African American—history makes its loss particularly stinging. The Defender, in short, was one of the nation’s premier African American print publications. Its loss is a symbol of the decline of African American media and the potential loss of other points of view in local, regional, and national media.

The history of The Chicago Defender is a mirror of the larger history of the African American freedom struggle—the fight for civil, political, and human rights for African Americans in the United States. In the process, the Defender served as a venue for debates over how to achieve equality for African Americans. Publishing a dynamic array of prominent African Americans, from Langston Hughes to W.E.B. Du Bois, the Defender was often a champion of both desegregation and racial pride. Founded in 1905, the Defender was the brainchild of the lawyer and printer Robert S. Abbott. His newspaper became a critical organ of the city’s exploding African American population, promoting as it did more African Americans to move from the South to Northern cities during what would be called the Great Migration. The Defender’s role in this migration is incalculable; the newspaper was shipped partly through railroad porters who traveled across the country.

In addition, the long arc of African American history is difficult to think about without consulting the pages of The Chicago Defender, whose stories, read in retrospect, recount history from a distinctly African American point of view. Virtually all mainstream media in the United States at the turn of the 20th century viewed race relations strictly through the lens of the “Negro problem,” the phrase that many prominent Americans used to talk about the presence of African Americans in the country. As though the history of enslavement and the aborted process of Reconstruction were the fault of African Americans, media continued to view indications of “backwardness” from African Americans as proof of their racial inferiority. Newspapers, in fact, were important catalysts of anti-black race riots across the nation by spreading salacious and untrue stories about African American men sexually assaulting white women.

The Defender not only provided information to the African American community but also often provided more accurate accounts of these riots, confrontations with the police, and other stories that in mainstream newspapers were yet more examples of the “Negro problem.” When the Chicago Race Riots of 1919 engulfed the city’s largely African American South Side, Abbott used the Defender’s pages to urge African Americans to stay indoors. The newspaper, as a center of the community, was instrumental in ending the riots.

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