What the Mainstream News Media Can Learn from the History of the Black Press in the Age of a Pandemic

As mainstream news organizations cover the final days of the first term of Donald J. Trump’s presidency, they continue to struggle to report on an Administration defined by an unprecedented overreach of power and documented dishonesty. Nonetheless, some journalists recognized early on that reporting on Trump required a new and “oppositional” approach that was “uncharted territory for every mainstream, nonopinion journalist.” However, almost four years after the 2016 election, the Whitehouse daily press briefings on the coronavirus pandemic are described as more “ego-stoking and sparring with reporters than it is about conveying useful information to Americans.”

Yet, in all of the hand wringing and consternation over the Executive Branch’s relationship to the news media, very few people have considered the significance of African American journalism and how it might offer reporters a model for how to report on governments that are dishonest and unjust. In this sense, reporters need not create new approaches to journalism but turn to a media outlet they have generally underestimated and often ignored: The Black Press.

The Black Press was founded in response to the distortions and ugly untruths that white newspapers often published about African Americans. Black journalists have been described as “Soldiers Without Swords.” For nearly two centuries, they have fought for the rights of not only Black Americans but for people of African descent throughout the world, ultimately showing how Black print news media are advocates for justice.

When Samuel Cornish and John B. Russwurm launched the first Black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal in 1827, they made clear their mission: “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the public been deceived by misrepresentation, in things which concern us dearly.”

Cornish and Russwurm understood that the only way to respond to the power of the early nineteenth-century white press and its regular false and negative depictions of African Americans was to develop Black news outlets that would counteract and offer an alternative to these images.

As journalistic norms evolved from an embrace of partisanship in the nineteenth century to a celebration of objectivity in the twentieth century, the role of the Black Press remained the same. Black Press editors and journalists never pretended to maintain news balance nor did they believe that it was a necessary element of good journalism. Neutral coverage could unwittingly reinforce white supremacy, so Black journalists eschewed objectivity and focused on portraying the truth of racial injustice.

Objectivity emerged in the early twentieth century as a method, a scientific one that led to factual reporting, which departed from the partisan press of the 18th and 19th centuries. Prominent figures like famed journalist, Walter Lippmann and former New York Times, editor Charles Merz worried that reporters’ worldviews and personal perspectives influenced news coverage. Writing in 1920 about the New York Times coverage of the Russian Revolution in “A Test of the News,” Lippmann and Merz wrote, “In the large, the news about Russia is a case of seeing not what was, but what men wished to see.” Objectivity as a method, according to Lippmann, would tamp down biased news reporting methods.

However, the pursuit of objectivity reinforced dominant power structures and cultural attitudes, all of which contributed to the racial oppression of African Americans. Fred Carroll, the author of Race News, writes, “The white press’s commitment to a narrow definition of objectivity blinded its journalists and readers to the full extent that racism configured American society.” For example, mainstream newspapers sometimes featured “neutral” coverage of “race riots” in the North during World War I that enflamed anti-black racism and violence against Black Americans.

The Black Press countered this coverage by exposing truths that “objective” reporting overlooked. It prided itself on its ability to thread the needle between objectivity as a form of covering news and shedding light on fundamental challenges to American democracy, especially when they originated from racism.

The danger of blindly relying on objectivity and the reticence to call out dishonesty has inured the mainstream media to the deadly effect of a presidential administration that traffics in lies. Peter Kafka writes, “The Trump administration has conditioned Americans to a reality where the president routinely announces something in the morningbacktracks it shortly afterward, and later pretends he never said it.”

As the American public continues to bear witness to, as Former President Barack Obama put it, the “chaotic disaster” in the Whitehouse, more mainstream news outlets should look to the “Credo For The Negro Press (1944) as an example of how to cover the federal government’s response to the pandemic, the 2020 presidential election and beyond.

The Credo stated:

“I SHALL CRUSADE for all things that are right and just and I will, with equal fervor, expose and condemn all that are unjust. I shall be a CRUSADER but I will not permit my fervor nor the rightness of my cause to provoke abandonment of the cardinals of journalism, accuracy, fairness, and objectivity.”

Objectivity, balance, and neutrality on their own do not work in challenging a political establishment that runs on dishonesty and corruption. The history of the Black Press reveals that speaking truth to power requires a more complex approach that depends on a commitment to not only routing out lies but also combatting injustice.

Drawing on the history of the Black Press will mean that today’s mainstream news media will run the risk of drawing the ire of the Oval office even more than it currently does. To be certain, the Black Press of the early twentieth century did not have to contend with the executive branch’s weaponization of social media in labeling the Press “The Enemy of the People.” Black newspapers, however, also experienced their own antagonistic relationship with the Federal Government. Black Press editors ran afoul of the FDR administration which threatened them with being labeled as traitors for criticizing segregation in the armed forces during World War II. Despite these threats, the Black Press maintained its tradition of not just speaking truth to power but denouncing racism and dishonesty.

The Black Press’s legacy offers mainstream news media a path forward in covering Trump and future presidential administrations. It presents them with opportunities to be unapologetic advocates for democracy and truth… things the United States needs most at this moment.

Best of the Decade: Top Black Press Scholarship of the 2010s

December 30, 2019

Over the past month or so, there have been a spate of top ten rankings for the past decade. While rankings can be a bit reductive, they can be an incredibly useful device for highlighting important work in a field. Below are a list of 10 books (in no particular order) that offer transformative understandings of the role of the Black Press in the United States.

The Rise & Fall of of the Associated Negro Press (University of Illinois, 2017) By Gerald Horne.

Horne’s book is one of two scholarly book-length examinations of Claude Barnett and the Associated Negro Press (ANP). Focusing on Barnett’s Pan-Africanist work, Horne highlights the ANP’s role in fighting Jim Crow segregation and how this fight ultimately led to the demise of the ANP, one of Black America’s most important sources of news.

Black Radical (Liveright, 2019) By Kerri K. Greenidge

A top New York Timesbook pick, Black Radical chronicles the life of William Monroe Trotter and his paper the Guardian. Greenidge’s pioneering study calls well-needed attention to the ways that Trotter and his paper made Boston a site of black radical politics. In a skillfully written history, Greenidge expands our understanding of the early twentieth-century Black Press.

Eye on the Struggle (Amistad, 2015) By James McGrath Morris

Morris documents the life of journalist and civil rights activist, Ethel Payne. As the first African American woman to be included in the White House Press corps, Payne tireless wrote for the Chicago Defender and covered events such as the Korean War, Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. Morris weaves a comprehensive narrative of Payne’s life that offers deeper insight into African Americans’ struggle for social justice.

The Black Newspaper and the Chosen Nation (University of Georgia, 2016) By Benjamin Fagan

The Black Newspaper and the Chosen Nation is a groundbreaking study of the ways that the early Black Press cultivated the idea that African Americans were “chosen people” and that they played a vital role in black liberation and freedom throughout the world. Fagan explores this discourse in a variety of black newspapers, showing how it was central to the integration of faith into strategies for liberty.

Jam on the Vine (Grove Press, 2016) By LaShonda Katrice Barnett

Barnett’s historical fictional narrative of an African American woman journalist brings more attention to the under-examined contributions that Black women have made to the twentieth-century Black Press. Jam on the Vine is a beautifully written depiction of one black woman’s love for her people and the ways she uses black journalism to call attention to the injustice African Americans faced in the United States.

The Defender (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016) By Ethan Michaeli

Despite the well-known importance of the Chicago Defender, Michaeli’s book stands as the sole comprehensive examination of the paper. The Defender recounts the history of the paper and how it transformed African Americans’ lives and changed the course of American history. Recognized by the New York Times for his work, Michaeli sheds greater insight into what made the Chicago Defender, “The World’s Greatest Weekly.”

Black Print Unbound (Oxford, 2015) By Eric Gardner

Much of the scholarship on the Black Press concentrates on secular newspapers. Black Print Unbound is a powerful exception. Gardner explores the development of the Christian Recorder, the official African Methodist Episcopal Church Newspaper during and immediately after the American Civil War. Recovering unknown texts in the paper, Gardner shows how the Recorder and other black papers played an integral role in the creation of African American literary culture.

Let Us Make Men (University of North Carolina) By D’Weston Haywood

Haywood’s book, Let Us Make Men provides a showcase for the ways the Black Press cultivated and shaped black men’s leadership in the twentieth century. Arguing that the struggle for black manhood was synonymous with the fight for racial justice, Haywood deepens our understanding of what was at stake for black newspaper publishers during some of the most crucial times in African American history.

Alone atop the Hill (University of Georgia, 2015). By Carole McCabe Booker and Simeon Booker

While this book is a condensed version of the 1974 self-published autobiography of Alice Dunnigan, the first African American female correspondent to receive White House press credentials, it includes scholarly annotations that provide a deeper historical contextualization of Dunnigan’s life as a journalist. Carole McCabe Booker skillfully edits the memoir to highlight the ways Dunnigan’s work as the chief of the Washington Bureau at the Associated Negro Press provided critical political coverage on a national scale for the Black Press.

The Grapevine of the Black South (University of Georgia, 2018) By Thomas Aiello

Although the vast majority of black newspapers were founded in the South in late 19th century, many Black Press outlets had difficulty surviving in the face of the Jim Crow system. Aiello recovers a little known history of the Atlanta World and the Scott Newspaper Syndicate and demonstrates how it contributed to the development of the modern Civil Rights movement. Arguing that the Atlanta World helped black southerners build a collective identity, Aiello shows how the paper and its founders imagined developing a network of readers outside the South through the Scott Newspaper Syndicate.

Why We Should Remember William Monroe Trotter By Keisha N. Blain

Why We Should Remember William Monroe Trotter

Review of Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter , by Kerri K. Greenidge (Liveright, 2019). On April 7, 1934, William Monroe Trotter, editor of the Guardian newspaper, jumped to his death from the third-story window of his apartment in Roxbury, Boston.

The Legacy of a Radical Black Newspaperman William Monroe Trotter rejected the view that racial equality could come in stages. By: Casey Cep

The Legacy of a Radical Black Newspaperman

The mustache had to go. A classic nineteenth-century handlebar, it was far too recognizable, so William Monroe Trotter shaved it off. In addition to the disguise, he arranged to take a cooking class in his boarding house, evincing a sudden interest that would have surprised his wife, mother, and two sisters.

The Heroines of America’s Black Press by Maya Millett

The Heroines of America’s Black Press

The African-American press of the nineteenth century was a lively, dynamic, insistently visible force for change. Crucial to many of these publications was the exceptional work of black women. These journalists were of the black elite and the working class, the free-born and the formerly enslaved.

The Michigan Chronicle: “The Black Press Is More Important Than Ever”

Black Press | American Black Journal

Stephen talks to Cathy Nedd. Roadshow Jan 2018/Seg 2

Michigan Chronicle publisher, Cathy Nedd continues the long tradition of making sure black newspapers are one of the major voices of the African American community. She and other Black Press publishers are invested in telling the stories that white, mainstream media habitually ignores.

Honoring Birmingham World Publisher and Civil Rights Activist, Joe Dickson

As the founder and director of the Black Press Research Collective (BPRC), I regularly get emails from people across the United States requesting assistance with accessing Black newspaper archives.  Therefore, when I checked my email recently and observed a message that came through the BPRC site, I expected the standard request for help.  However, I was surprised to receive a message from Jonathan Dickson informing me that his father, the former owner and publisher of the Birmingham World had recently passed away.  It was a brief message, but, nonetheless, incredibly powerful.  With the simple statement, “Just wanted to inform you that the link to the Birmingham World is not valid and that my father Joe Dickson the Owner and Publisher has passed away,”  Mr. Dickson reminded me why I started the Black Press Research Collective five years ago.  My goal was two-fold:  First, I wanted to make sure that significance of the history of the Black Press was not lost to new generations of students and scholars.  Second, I believed that developing a portal for historical and contemporary Black newspapers would help people easily identify and access them.  Over the past two years, my initial goals have fallen by the wayside.  Teaching obligations and requirements for tenure took me away from the BPRC.   However, Mr. Dickson’s message and his desire to make sure his father’s important work and legacy is widely shared inspired me to return to the BPRC with my initial passion and commitment to recovering the history of the Black Press and the many individuals who dedicated their lives to maintaining the tradition of Black journalism.  In so doing, I am honored to  share the life and work of Joe Dickson.

Joe Dickson, Birmingham World publisher and civil rights activist, dies at age 85

Former owner and publisher of the Birmingham World newspaper, Joe Dickson, who demonstrated with civil rights heroes Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement before going on to become a part of former Gov. Guy Hunt’s administration and the chair of the Alabama Personnel Board, has died at age 85.


Civil rights activist, Republican businessman kept historic black newspaper going

As a black child in Birmingham in the 1940s, Joe Dickson was arrested by white police officers while playing with a toy gun. He was 10. It was part of a pattern he saw all around him of black people being treated unfairly by white authorities who enforced strict segregation laws and customs in Alabama.









The New Journal and Guide: Virginia’s Oldest Black Weekly

The New Journal and Guide: Virginia’s Oldest Black Weekly

The New Journal and Guide was formed in 1900. By World War II, it was the largest black employer in the South. 118 years after its founding, it follows the same mission of informing and empowering the African-American community, while tackling the challenges of the new media age. Produced/directed/shot by Daja E.

Trump Avoids the Black Press

Trump’s Avoidance of Black Press Reveals Tense Relations – Center for American Progress

Posted on Paul Delaney, a veteran print journalist, spent 23 years with The New York Times as an editor, reporter, and foreign correspondent. He began his career at two black-owned newspapers, the Baltimore Afro-American and the Atlanta Daily World, before moving on to a succession of other newspapers, including the Dayton Daily News in Ohio and the now-closed Washington Star.


Respect the Principles of Black Press

Respect The Principles of Black Press

It was interesting to hear Actress Meryl Streeps make comments at the Golden Globe Award defending the press. After talking and making remarks about the situation that occurred between then Presidential candidate Donald Trump and a reporter, Streep said. “Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence,” she continued.