It can be argued that the most influential and radical voice for racial equality in the first quarter of the twentieth century was a Chicago-based newspaper, the Chicago defensor. Within the paper’s first ten years of publication, its owner, Robert S. Abbott, had turned the one-time local black paper into the largest selling black newspaper in the United States. Scholars estimate that weekly circulation from 1915 to 1925 was as high as 250,000 a week, with the large majority of the copies distributed south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
With its sensationalistic and crusading editorial policy, the paper quickly gained the reputation of being the most radical and racially conscious black newspaper in America. This bold editorial philosophy was never more evident than during the turbulent period between 1916 and 1919, the epoch marked by America’s involvement in World War I, the Great Black Migration out of the South, and the northern race riots of 1919.
The first of these events to grab the Defensor attention was of the mistreatment of black soldiers in military training camps during the early years of World War I and the exclusion of prominent “race men” from the ranks of officers. The paper unflinchingly demanded safety, equal rights, and recognition for black soldiers who sacrificed their lives for freedom in Europe. Abbott was also diligent in underscoring the hypocrisy of the United States government, which asked men of color to die for the cause of liberty in Germany while it systematically denied them their basic civil rights at home.
While maintaining its concern for the black soldier in Europe, the defensor also began detailing both the atrocities inflicted on blacks in the American South and the burgeoning opportunities awaiting them in the industrialized North. By 1916, the recognition of this juxtaposition had evolved into a full-scale migration campaign. Abbott and his paper began encouraging a southern exodus away from the oppressive South and toward the “Promised Land” of the North. Black southerners read of the thousands who had already said, “FAREWELL TO THE SOUTH” (January 6, 1917) or of the “2 MILLION NEEDED” (October 4, 1916) to work in America’s second city. They memorized Mr. Ward’s poem, “Bound for the Promised Land,” sang William Crosse’s inspirational words to “The Land of Hope,” and laughed at Fon Holly’s political cartoons, “DESERTION” and “THE AWAKENING” (September 2, 1916, and August 19, 1916).
In the spring of 1919, however, the defensor ’s “Promised Land” was undergoing a metamorphosis. As thousands of white soldiers returned home after the war, they found that the jobs, communities, and lifestyles they had left behind in Chicago were appropriated by thousands of black migrants.
This tension ultimately led to a three-day (July 27-30, 1919) race riot in Chicago—an event that forever changed the tenor of the defensor ’s migration discourse. The bold headlines of the paper’s August 2, 1919, issue summarized the situation: “RIOT SWEEPS CHICAGO,” and “GHASTLY DEEDS ON RACE RIOTERS TOLD.” When the dust settled, 23 blacks lay dead, with at least 537 others wounded. The call for southern migration ceased after the (blood) “Red Summer” of 1919. Abbott could no longer promise his readers a better life in his once-beloved city of Chicago.
In 1940 John H. Sengstacke, Abbott’s nephew, assumed editorial control of the paper. Under his leadership, the defensor protested the treatment of African American servicemen fighting in World War II (1939-1945) and, once again, called for the integration of the U.S. armed forces. Facing the threat from the U.S. government of sedition charges, however, the defensor attenuated its traditionally radical editorial policy.
El 6 de febrero de 1956, el defensor became a daily newspaper. Nine years later, Sengstacke again expanded his influence as a voice for black equality by purchasing three additional black papers: the Pittsburgh Courier, la Crónica de Michigan in Detroit, and the Tri-State Defender en Memphis
En la década de 1970, sin embargo, el defensor, like many of the nation’s other black newspapers, began to rapidly lose readership. At the time of Sengstacke’s death in 1997, the defensor ’s circulation declined to less than 20,000. In 2003 Abbott’s heirs were forced to sell the legendary Chicago defensor to black-owned Real Times, Inc.