Veteran reporter Ethan Michaeli tells the story of Chicago’s iconic black newspaper, the family and the journalists who made it great, and the hidden history of black America in the twentieth century.
“An extraordinary history…Deeply researched, elegantly written…a towering achievement that will not be soon forgotten.” —Brent Staples, New York Times Book Review
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Giving voice to the voiceless, the Chicago Defender condemned Jim Crow, catalyzed the Great Migration, and focused the electoral power of black America. Robert S. Abbott founded The Defender in 1905, smuggled hundreds of thousands of copies into the most isolated communities in the segregated South, and was dubbed a "Modern Moses," becoming one of the first black millionaires in the process. His successor wielded the newspaper’s clout to elect mayors and presidents, including Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy, who would have lost in 1960 if not for TheDefender’s support. Along the way, its pages were filled with columns by legends like Ida B. Wells, Langston Hughes, and Martin Luther King.
Drawing on dozens of interviews and extensive archival research, Ethan Michaeli constructs a revelatory narrative of race in America and brings to life the reporters who braved lynch mobs and policemen’s clubs to do their jobs, from the age of Teddy Roosevelt to the age of Barack Obama.
A Defender of His Race
On August 25, 1893, Frederick Douglass spoke to a crowd gathered for Colored American Day at the World’s Columbian Exposition. At 3:00 p.m., the twenty-five hundred people filling Festival Hall—two-thirds black and one-third white, in the estimation of the Chicago Tribune—greeted Douglass with applause as he stepped onto the stage. In the three decades since the end of the Civil War, this escaped slave and former leader of the abolitionist movement had become a diplomat and elder statesman, the principal spokesperson for his people. Seventy-five years old, his long hair and beard now white, his six-foot frame lean and erect, the Sage of Anacostia smiled and waved to the crowd.
In the years immediately following the Civil War, the ex-slaves of the South were making rapid progress economically as well as politically, exercising their newly won right to vote and electing their own to local and state governments as well as the U.S. Congress. But even before federal troops withdrew from the old Confederacy in 1877, southern whites used extreme violence to block African Americans from the ballot box and otherwise restore the antebellum racial hierarchy. More than one hundred black men had been murdered by white mobs across the South in the first six months of 1893 alone; three were burned alive. At the same time, millions of black men and women found themselves in conditions no better than slavery, as sharecroppers or as convict laborers under a system known as peonage, whereby they were charged with petty crimes and sentenced to long terms working on farms or in mines or factories—without pay, of course.
The national government, in response to these troubling developments, did little more than shrug its shoulders. Both the executive and legislative branches of the federal government were dominated at this time by the Republicans, yet the party of Abraham Lincoln was backing away from its commitment to African Americans, lest it alienate southern white voters and their representatives in Congress. Such acquiescence to white supremacists extended to the U.S. Supreme Court itself, which increasingly applied the protections of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to corporations, rather than African Americans, ultimately leading to the justices’ shameful sanction of legal segregation in the South and beyond under the “separate but equal” doctrine enshrined in Plessy v. Ferguson.
So on that hot August day in 1893, Frederick Douglass did his best to stem the tide, striding onto the stage with an individual who represented the best of the nation’s past, Isabella Beecher Hooker, sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose Uncle Tom’s Cabin had been a fulcrum of the abolitionist movement. The program itself, meanwhile, showcased the talents of a new, freeborn generation of African Americans that included Paul Laurence Dunbar, a tall, cerebral twenty-one-year-old who would come to be seen as black America’s first nationally known poet, as well as Will Marion Cook, an up-and-coming black composer who was then studying under the great Bohemian Antonin Dvorák. Cook had arranged the event’s program of classical pieces, which featured a number of beautifully sung arias as well as a violin performance by Joseph Douglass, grandson of the Sage.
Following all of these heartening appearances, the room was filled with anticipation as Douglass stepped back up to the podium to deliver the closing speech. But as he began to read from his papers, the great man’s voice failed him, either because of the heat or exhaustion, and a group of white men in the gallery began to shout slurs and insults.
Unable to make himself heard, Douglass paused, then slammed his printed speech onto the podium. He yanked the glasses from his temples and began speaking extemporaneously, his voice steadily rising in volume and depth until it succeeded in drowning out his hecklers.
We hear nowadays of a frightful problem called a Negro problem. What is this problem? As usual, the North is humbugged. The Negro problem is a Southern device to mislead and deceive. There is, in fact, no such problem. The real problem has been given a false name. It is called Negro for a purpose. It has substituted Negro for Nation, because the one is hated and despised, and the other is loved and honored. The true problem is a national problem.
There is no Negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have honesty enough, loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough to live up to their own Constitution.
The applause shook the building at the end of Douglass’s speech, ringing out into the White City and over the blue waters of Lake Michigan beyond. Douglass’s decision to speak at this event had been controversial among many African American activists, who feared that a Colored American Day would simply be used to perpetuate the worst sorts of stereotypes and ridicule, if not provide a tacit recognition, even acceptance, of segregation. But Douglass felt that the fair was a singular opportunity to focus the world’s attention, if only for one moment, on black achievement, and he succeeded, as the Chicago Tribune indicated in its coverage of the event.
“There was classical music rendered by black men in a way that would grace the grand opera stage,” the Tribune reported, “and there was an oration, which, with its vivid eloquence, burned itself into the memory of those who listened.”
Among those listening was the future founder of TheChicago Defender, who would remember every word. Then in his early twenties and a student at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, Robert Abbott had come to the World’s Fair to sing tenor with the Hampton Quartet. Already absorbed by “the plight of my people,” he was both radicalized and urbanized by his experience. What he saw in Chicago that summer convinced him that this city was the perfect place to realize his dreams.
“Tell father if he will back me,” he wrote to his family enthusiastically, “I will stay out here in the West and try and make a fortune. Let me know his intentions before I begin to make up my mind as to what steps to take.”
Robert Abbott was born in November 1869 in a cabin on St. Simons Island, just off Georgia’s Atlantic coast. More than in most places, St. Simons’s black inhabitants maintained a strong connection to the African continent by speaking Gullah, a language incorporating vocabulary and grammar from several West African languages as well as English. His parents’ home was near Ibo Landing, a place that figures in a legend about a shipload of new slaves who jumped into the water wearing their chains, drowning themselves to escape further abuse onshore. Today their ghosts are said to be visible in the ocean’s turbulent waves, their songs heard in the breeze blowing through the trees.
Robert’s biological father, Thomas, born around 1847, was a native of the island and lived most of his life as a house slave to one Captain Charles Stevens, who held a plantation there. After the Civil War, each member of the Abbott clan was awarded a plot of land on the island, but Thomas sought out instead the excitement and opportunity of nearby Savannah. There he met Robert’s mother, Flora Butler, an intelligent, determined woman with a defiant streak, whose parents were slaves brought as teenagers from the Portuguese-held territories in West...
“An extraordinary history…Deeply researched, elegantly written…a towering achievement that will not be soon forgotten.”
—Brent Staples, New York Times Book Review
"Conscientiously researched and fluent, The Defender is essentially a record of the African-American struggle in our times.” –Wall Street Journal
"Ethan Michaeli’s epic, meticulously detailed account not only reminds its readers that newspapers matter, but so do black lives, past and present." –USA Today
“This prodigiously researched work is a testament to the courage of Defender writers through the century, a chronicle of the influence of an important institution -- and a sweeping history of black America.” –National Book Review
“A fascinating account of the legendary black newspaper that spoke truth to power, fought for equality and made history.” –Minneapolis Star Tribune
"A captivating read." –Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"A sprawling, well-researched panoramic with surprisingly fluid prose." –In These Times
“This is history at its best -- engagingly written, meticulously researched, and infused with fascinating characters and vivid scenes. Ethan Michaeli tells an important American story, and tells it with style and remarkable attention to detail.”–Dean Jobb, author of Empire of Deception, writing for the judges of the Chicago Writers Association, from whom The Defender received the 2016 Award for Non-Fiction (Traditionally Published)
“Ethan Michaeli's The Defender is a rich, majestic, sweeping history, both of a newspaper and of a people. In these pages, Michaeli captures the degradation and exhilaration of black America in the twentieth century, and driving this story are a handful of men and women infused with incredible courage and a deep faith in journalism's power to seek justice.”
—Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here.
“In the spring of 1905 Robert Abbott sat at a card table squeezed into a corner of a realtor’s office on Chicago’s South Side to put together the first issue of a newspaper he called The Defender. In the 110 years since it has more than lived up to its name, its pages filled with searing reports of racial injustice and fierce editorials in support of its readers’ rights. Now Ethan Michaeli has recreated The Defender’s remarkable history—and reminded us of the power of the press at its courageous best.”
—Kevin Boyle, author of the National Book Award-winning Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age
“This is a major work of American history—the compelling and richly-researched story of the legendary newspaper and the astonishing collection of history-makers whose lives are forever intertwined.”
—Jonathan Alter, author of The Center Holds: Obama and his Enemies
“Here, at long last, is the story that needed to be told. In The Defender, Ethan Michaeli has laid out the power and importance of a fearless newspaper in the struggle for black equality. Meticulously researched, engagingly written, Michaeli's landmark history of this storied institution, which has served at key moments as lens, interpreter, catalyst or voice for blacks’ full citizenship rights, will become an essential resource in African American cultural and political studies.”
—Carol Anderson, Professor of African American Studies at Emory University, author of White Rage
“The story of the Chicago Defender is one of the great untold stories of black America − if not the great story. At every crucial juncture, from the northern migration, to Pullman strikes to civil rights right up to Barack Obama, the Defender was there chronicling, advocating and building an entire civic, political and intellectual universe. It is remarkable to me that this book wasn’t written until now and an absolute god-send that Ethan Michaeli has stepped in to fill the void.”
—Chris Hayes, author of Twilight of the Elites, host of MSNBC’s “All In with Chris Hayes.”
“Ethan Michaeli’s compelling book represents social history at its finest. The Defender explores America’s long struggle with race through the unique lens of an essential and underappreciated Chicago newspaper at the center of it all.”
—David Maraniss, author of Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story
“For more than a century, the South Side of Chicago has been a hub of African-American history, and throughout the years, that saga has been told through the pages of the Chicago Defender newspaper. In this compelling book, Ethan Michaeli shares the story of the Defender and the essential role it has played in Chicago's black community and beyond.”—David Axelrod, author of Believer: My Forty Years in Politics
"With meticulous attention to detail and in immensely readable prose, Ethan Michaeli, who once worked for the paper, tells The Chicago Defender's story and, through it, that of African Americans in the twentieth century. It is a masterful work that goes a long way toward explaining why we are where we are now."
—Jessica B.Harris, Professor of English, Queens College/ CUNY and author of High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey From Africa to America
“Just as the Defender has broken important journalistic ground time and again in its' storied history, author Ethan Michaeli is an original and intrepid force in Chicago media, having devoted his life to elevating and celebrating the silenced voices of Chicago's public housing projects. Michaeli on the Defender is an unbeatable combination.”
—Dave Isay, founder of StoryCorps, author of Listening is an Act of Love
“The Defender is the kind of superb nonfiction you don’t see much anymore—a big, fluidly written, marvelously researched story about fascinating people who shaped American culture. Ethan Michaeli has written a book that is as important as it is compulsively readable.”
—Jonathan Eig, author of The Birth of the Pill
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