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In original explorations of homefront issues from Du Bois's call for 'Close Ranks' to anti-lynching protest, Jordan reveals blacks and whites' common but contested civic vocabulary as well as regional variations in black editorial strategy. (Raymond Gavins, Duke University)
This imaginative, rigorous book demonstrates how studying the African American media can illuminate American history in extraordinary ways. (Susan Herbst, Northwestern University)
Yes, this man was fighting, fighting with words. He was using words as a weapon, using them as one would use a club. Could words be weapons? Well, yes for here they were. Then, maybe, perhaps, I could use them as a weapon? -Richard Wright, Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth
Richard Wright's epiphany, after reading H. L. Mencken's Book of Prefaces in 1927, started him on an illustrious career in which he used words to attack American racism in novels, short stories, and essays. One hundred years earlier, in 1827, two other black men embarked on a similar quest when they established the first African American newspaper, Freedom's Journal. John B. Russwurm and Samuel E. Cornish said they planned to defend free blacks by refuting "the calumnies of our enemies ... by forceful arguments." Since that time, African American writers, editors, and publishers have used black newspapers to defend black people and attack racism.
To them, the black press has been a "defender of the race," ever ready to counter attacks on African Americans in the mainstream "white" press, to make the case for black equality and civil rights, or to point out the injustices inherent in America's race relations. As the Chicago Broad Ax put it, black newspapers have served African Americans by "constantly struggling as best they can to fight their battles for them." Even black readers have seen the black press in this light. A reader criticized the California Eagle at a public forum in Los Angeles in 1917 because that black weekly had failed to respond to a recent attack on African Americans in the Los Angeles Record, a local daily. "It was confidently expected that we should be on the job every minute and make this fight for the race," the Eagle noted. The Eagle's editorial writer agreed that "with such copperhead sheets as the Record, we should ever be in a position to hurl these attacks back into their teeth."
But the idea that the black press could fight for African Americans begs some fundamental questions. How and in what situations have African Americans used words in their newspapers as weapons of defense or offense? And how effective have these weapons been? This book seeks to answer these questions in the context of World War I and at the same time to develop insights into the black response to that war and the turmoil that followed it.
In the years from the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 to the height of the Red Scare in 1920, African Americans needed a great deal of defending. A majority could not vote and were relegated to segregated and inferior public accommodations, and dozens were lynched every year. When America went to war, black soldiers served in poorly trained, segregated units, usually labor battalions, and after the war, several black veterans died at the hands of lynching parties in the South. Meanwhile, the mainstream American media not only largely excluded black opinions but also reflected and reinforced widely held racist assumptions and stereotypes. Faced with such dire circumstances, black journalists waged battle on behalf of "the race" by printing indictments of America's racial injustices, monitoring and criticizing the white media and the statements of white leaders, praising messages complimentary to blacks, and condemning racist utterances. Sometimes they reprinted and rebutted articles, addressing white authors as "you." Most important, they chose their words and shaped their arguments not simply with black readers in mind but to awaken the consciences of white readers as well.
Like black editors and readers, historians of the black press have seen it as an arena of conflict between black and white and have sought to evaluate the strategies employed in that conflict and to understand its impact on the larger struggle between the races. Beginning with I. Garland Penn in 1891, nearly all historians of the black press have recognized its role as the "champion" of an "oppressed people" or as a "fighting press." According to Frederick G. Detweiler, Gunnar Myrdal, Vishnu V. Oak, and others, black newspapers have demanded democracy, protested injustice, challenged white statements on race, presented positive images of black people, and sought to perfect American democracy. A recent study by Charles A. Simmons examines the responses of editors of four black newspapers to financial, physical, and political pressures from whites to modify their editorial policies. Simmons shows how black editors resisted or succumbed to these pressures but does not explore how the black press might have affected white Americans.
The focus of most historical accounts turns quickly from the way black newspapers championed the cause of African American freedom to the role of the black press within the black community. Some examine the efforts of black newspapers to fight racism indirectly by creating solidarity within the black community, bolstering black self-esteem, promoting militant consciousness, or advocating protest. Others see a more conservative role, suggesting that the press served as a "safety valve," relieving black anger and discontent rather than directing it against oppressive systems. Myrdal defined the black press as an instrument of the "Negro upper classes" for spreading conservative values, establishing group control and identity, channeling black anger, and teaching readers how to think and feel. The black press, which Myrdal called "the greatest single power in the Negro race," taught American ideals to black readers while showing that white Americans rarely lived up to them. In this way, the press fostered discontent and militancy and encouraged blacks to demand full citizenship.
Of primary interest to many historians of the black press has been the way black newspapers have acted as both a "mirror" of black life in America and an institution that "defines the Negro group to the Negroes themselves." Some of the most provocative work on African American newspapers has focused almost exclusively on this reflective quality. E. Franklin Frazier argued that the major function of the black press was to provide psychological compensation for the black bourgeoisie's inferiority complex by printing white praise of blacks and exaggerated accounts of black achievement. Albert Lee Kreiling offered the more affirmative interpretation that black newspapers created mythical symbols for mostly urban blacks in a secularizing society. The strident protests against racial injustice were less important for the way they attacked racism than for the psychological and cultural service they performed for the blacks who wrote and read them, Kreiling argued. After all, northern black newspapers spent more time denouncing racial injustice in the distant South than in their own cities, where they could have had greater impact. The posture of outrage against southern lynchings, according to Kreiling, was part of a collective ritual that replaced traditional religious rituals, provided meaning and identity, and asserted the independence and manhood of the African Americans who participated. During World War I, the black press continued to perform such ritual functions for African Americans while also offering guidance on how to respond to the government's call to arms.
Thus, to a large extent, the black press has occupied a "parallel public sphere," not fully part of the mainstream of public opinion and debate that links society and state but a separate arena where African Americans have worked out among themselves alternatives to the dominant culture's views of their identities and interests. But no impermeable barrier separated black discourse from the rest of the public sphere. Although blacks had a diminished voice, their arguments frequently seeped into the main currents of public discussion. Black editors knew this to be true because of the letters white people wrote them, the attacks of white mobs on southern black newspapers in response to militant editorials, the patronage some black newspapers received from white-dominated political parties, and occasional critiques of black newspapers in white publications or by white politicians. During and shortly after America's involvement in World War I, black editors knew white people were reading their newspapers even more closely because of comments on the black press issued by federal investigatory agencies, the U.S. Congress, southern officeholders, the state legislature of New York, and white individuals.
Although small in number compared to black readers, white readers influenced the character of the black press in important ways. Because black editors were more concerned with exercising as much power as possible than with simply expressing ideas or laying out a consistent ideology, they took care to frame their arguments in ways that would be convincing to white Americans-especially powerful ones. Such efforts could succeed only in an environment in which power was not monopolized by central authorities through the use of physical force. Although the federal government did mobilize coercive forces against dissenting citizens during World War I, individuals had room to criticize the government-and even the war effort-within limits. But even within those limits, black editors knew they did not speak in a vacuum in which they could define the terms of debate as they wished. Instead, they shrewdly borrowed terms and ideas from others involved in the current political discourse and bent them to serve their own ends. In an arena in which deviant political views were marginalized or ignored, they sought to present their ideas as akin to mainstream political views. This strategy sometimes served their ends well. Some of the most widely used political phrases of the war years proved to be easily adaptable to the cause of racial justice. Black editors could easily turn a war to "make the world safe for democracy" into a war to make the "south safe for the Negroes" or transform southern lynchings into "atrocities" akin to the enemy's misdeeds. But some of the words black journalists used served the interests of the federal government better than the interests of African Americans. Phrases like "loyalty," "patriotism," and "100 percent Americanism" could be used to bolster black claims to citizenship. Yet the self-sacrificing loyalty demanded by the national government during the war suggested that blacks should not insist on racial justice as a condition of their participation in the country's defense. The use of such words created difficult dilemmas for black writers.
Although calculated efforts to adapt popular political dogma to serve black interests may have determined much of the content of black newspapers during the war, other factors also came into play. Most important, the threat of physical coercion by white individuals and institutions regulated the content of the black press, as it always had. During the nineteenth century, white mobs had attacked black editors from time to time in response to certain kinds of editorials. Such attacks served as warnings to all black journalists in the region. In the North, coercive pressures were not as naked or as common before World War I, but they nevertheless played a role in shaping the discourse of black newspapers there. White advertisers and political parties, for example, could withhold crucial funds. The advent of a world war dramatically increased the attention of white Americans to the black press. Southern leaders read black newspapers and tried to suppress them at the same time that the Espionage and Sedition Acts gave the federal government the power to monitor and intimidate black editors throughout the country. During those years of widespread prowar frenzy, it must have seemed possible that even in the North black newspapers might be the victims of vigilante violence if they opposed the war.
Thus, during World War I, the black press served as a frontier between black and white in which the terms of racial coexistence were negotiated and renegotiated through written and verbal exchanges that were conditioned by the ever-present threat of force. This thesis sheds light on African American militancy, the role of black newspapers in black protest and American life, and, most directly, the African American response to World War I.
Historians have been deeply divided over how to characterize the black response to this war. Some argue that militancy was negligible during World War I, that African Americans generally followed the advice of W. E. B. Du Bois in 1918 to "forget our special grievances and close our ranks"-supporting the war and soft-pedaling protest out of a combination of "deeply-felt patriotism," hope that the war would accelerate racial progress, and fear that failure to comply would lead to brutal persecution. Other historians have been more inclined to emphasize the militancy of African Americans, whether in opposing the war or in using it as an excuse to intensify demands for racial equality. Both sides have recognized the diversity of opinion among blacks, depicting one group as dominant and the other as the exception that proved the rule. But it has been too easy to see the black reaction to the war as simply dividing along the lines of the old Booker T. Washington/W. E. B. Du Bois, accommodation/protest dichotomy, with Du Bois on the other side this time. Such categories mask the profound ambivalence displayed by the black press as a whole, as well as individual writers, leaders, and newspapers, and they gloss over the indeterminacies characteristic of any text.
To arrive at a fuller understanding of black protest ideology, one must move beyond the overt meanings of the relevant texts and consider what their authors wanted to accomplish by writing them-how they hoped to affect their audiences, both black and white. Black ambivalence toward the war was not simply a product of indecision or imprecise thinking. Rather it flowed from writers' efforts to use language to motivate powerful white readers to attempt to improve race relations in America. The success or failure of black thinkers must therefore be judged by the impact of their words rather than by the logical consistency of their arguments. The editorial policies of the black press during World War I must be evaluated as a response to a national emergency in which the threat of force was always present. By that measure, most of the black newspapers examined in this book must be viewed as having succeeded in bringing black concerns to the public attention while not inviting repressive measures against either the black press or African Americans as a group.
The chapters in this book have been arranged chronologically; since each chapter deals with a different theme, however, there is considerable overlap. Chapter 1 provides a history of the black press from its beginnings in 1827 to the early twentieth century, focusing on blacks' use of the press as a weapon and whites' counterattacks against it. It also introduces the publications used in this study.
Chapters 2 and 3 examine the strategies black newspapers used to promote black advancement in the context of World War I. Chapter 2 shows that shortly after the outbreak of war in August 1914, writers began to draw parallels between what was going on in Europe and the condition of blacks at home. They exposed the hypocrisy of American outrage at alleged atrocities in the war zones and indifference to the lynchings of blacks in the South. Chapter 3 reveals that after America's entry into a war that Woodrow Wilson said would make the world safe for democracy, black writers were able to draw even stronger parallels. Democracy would have to be assured at home before the United States could bring it to Europe. But in pointing out the inconsistencies between Americans' actions and Wilson's democratic ideals, black writers did not reject these ideals or refuse to participate in the war until democracy had been extended to all African Americans. To varying degrees, black newspapers supported U.S. participation in the war or at least advocated black cooperation in the war effort while prodding the government to live up to its own ideals.
Chapter 4 examines the response of white America, especially the federal government, to the black press's wartime strategies. Although white readers usually rejected black arguments for equality, their clear preference for censoring black newspapers generally went unrealized. In fact, by the summer of 1918, it seemed that black newspapers had struck an effective balance between making demands and pledging loyalty. Although the government had instituted some repressive measures and some publications had softened their demands for racial justice, high-level federal officials had begun to act on the "Bill of Particulars," a list of fourteen demands made by black editors. A few white southerners had begun to form antilynching organizations. Most important, President Wilson, who three years earlier had implicitly endorsed the racist film, Birth of a Nation, condemned lynching in a speech and praised the democratic spirit of the black press.
Excerpted from Black Newspapers and America's War for Democracy, 1914-1920 by William G. Jordan Copyright © 2001 by University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Notes Select Bibliography Index