Monthly Archives: June 2014

The Radical Black Press: A Forgotten Legacy of Malcolm X by Khuram Hussain

A few weeks ago the world celebrated the 89th birthday of Malcolm X. He was publically memorialized by civil rights legends like Harry Belefonte, who praised his visionary leadership. Those of my generation reflected on how Malcolm X’s autobiography, and Spike Lee’s movie “Malcolm X,” rocked our collective imagination. Yet one of Malcolm X’s greatest social justice projects still seems to pass, year after year, without mention – he helped found one of the most widely circulated and substantial black newspapers in history.

Throughout his adult life, Malcolm X asserted that the Black press was the only outlet for people of color “to voice our true plight.” As chief minister of the Nation of Islam (NOI) he envisioned a protest-oriented paper that used stirring language to stage news stories within a narrative of racial justice. In 1960 he launched Mr. Muhammad Speaks (later named Muhammad Speaks); a tabloid sized paper that included the speeches of Nation of Islam leadership and news coverage on Black communities. By Malcolm X’s design, the staff was largely composed of progressive, professional Black journalists who were attracted to the level of journalistic freedom they had to cover stories without the hindrance of corporate sponsorship.

By 1961, the paper was so popular that it became a national press, and by the mid 1960s it had a weekly circulation in the 100,000s. Yet despite its size the paper maintained an aggressive commitment to community-based investigative journalism, making it a popular source of information in urban centers throughout the nation. The paper was so successful that sales revenue financed production as well as a cadre of investigative journalists, editors, and bureau chiefs nationwide and internationally.

The paper built its reputation in Black communities by covering Black perspectives that mainstream press either ignored or underrepresented. Whether doing a story about school desegregation, urban renewal, law enforcement or U.S. foreign policy, the paper gave voice to Blacks who experienced public policy at the ground level. For example, a story of excessive police force against a Black Los Angeles teenager, that went unreported in the L.A. Times, received full coverage in Muhammad Speaks. In North Carolina, Muhammad Speaks extensively covered the groundswell of Black community protest in 1968, against unequal desegregation despite the issue being ignored by local and national media. Throughout its lifespan from 1961 – 1975, the papers’ investigative journalists broke stories about medical abuse, published exclusives with political prisoners and sent journalists to cover international liberation struggles in Africa, Asia, and Central America.

Ironically, Malcolm had no direct contact with the paper he created after 1961 and was rarely mentioned in its pages. Yet, ultimately, the press’ message shared the spirit of what Malcolm X exclaimed in his public speeches: a telling of the Black liberation struggle from the point of view of millions of silenced, urban Blacks. Long after Malcolm X’s passing in 1965, the impact of his journalistic vision ripples through social justice movements. Later radical media, such as the Black Panthers’ Black Panther Intercommunal News borrowed much of the tone and community orientation of Muhammad Speaks and deployed news stories to protest unequal and unrepresentative public policies. In turn, white leftist media incorporated some of the Black Panther’s practices and style.

Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of Malcolm X’s passing. I hope 2015’s remembrance will include conversations about his contribution to the Black press and the lessons they offer us now. Just as Malcolm X’s organizing skills have inspired generations of activists, teachers and scholars, Muhammad Speaks’ approach to media production remains inspiring. The paper provides enduring lessons on the importance of seeking underrepresented modes of analysis. Both Malcolm X and Muhammad Speaks nurtured counter narratives that were intellectually honest and psychologically satisfying. With rhetorical force, pushed up from the grassroots, they delivered information that was both entertaining and important. They both worked from and for communities. This was central to their logic and their sense of hope.

Ultimately Malcolm X understood that undemocratically controlled, highly centralized media needed to be directly challenged. He, and the paper he started, sustained a relentless pursuit of dominant media narratives, identifying its collusions with state and corporate power and shedding light on the silenced aspirations of millions. In turn, this aspect of Malcolm’s legacy, may hold important insight for those who seek to speak the truth of the powerless, to the powerful.



The Black Press Introduced the World to Maya Angelou

MayaAngelouarticleThe recent passing of Maya Angelou has offered many people the opportunity to reflect on her accomplished life. However, Angelou’s life also reminds us of the central role that the Black Press has played in recognizing the significance of African American artists and writers well before they are on the radar of many white publications.   Black newspapers’ earliest coverage of Angelou featured advertisements and announcements of her vocal performances and singing group, the Angelou trio in papers like the Chicago Defender. In 1969, the New York Amsterdam News featured a brief article describing Angelou’s accomplishments and announced her famous book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  According to the article, Angelou was  “black, intelligent and proud” and an advocate of African Americans recognizing their Africana heritage.  Soon after the publication of the Amsterdam News article Angelou would be featured in other papers, including white ones, as her literary and film work received critical acclaim.  By the time Angelou read her famous poem, “On the Pulse of Morning” at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993, the American public (indeed the world) had no doubt that Angelou was a gifted artist. Nonetheless, the Black Press informed us that Angelou was always, first and foremost, a daughter of Africa and the African disapora before she became the people’s poet.

Finding William Worthy in the Archives

The recent passing of African-American journalist and activist William Worthy brought renewed attention to an understudied figure in Black Press history.

Several years ago, William Worthy’s papers were acquired by the Special Collections and Archives at the Sheridan Libraries of Johns Hopkins University.  They now reside less than a mile from the Archives of the Afro Newspaper, where Worthy was first employed as a journalist.  The Worthy Papers (circa 1940-2007) comprise 112 linear feet and include some amazing documents including letters, notes, and rare pamphlets.

Materials from Worthy’s first two decades in journalism include drafts and notes on his reporting for the Afro.  Potentially these materials allow scholars to understand what was edited, removed, or added during the process of creating a published newspaper article.  Most historians of 20th century African American history rely on the Black Press as a key source to establish how ideas were discussed and circulated within black communities.  More difficult for scholars has been the behind-the-scenes creation of the writings published in the Black Press. The Worthy Papers have the potential to reveal something of this process of creation.  

Did a committed leftist like Worthy face any pressure to tone down his writings or were they acceptable within the Afro’s editorial standards at the time?  Worthy’s notes and correspondence may answer this question and many others.

Worthy is certainly a person who deserves more scholarly attention.  As an activist and international figure, he was on the ground for so many important events in the second half of the 20th century despite the efforts of the US government to limit his travel. As a journalist, Worthy was also part of the first generation of black journalists who found work as journalists in white-owned media outlets.  Each of these periods of Worthy’s life is richly documented in his papers.  For scholars interested in these issues, a trip to Special Collection at Johns Hopkins is in order.

A finding aid for the William Worthy Papers can be found here.  Note: some parts of the collection may be closed for further processing, so call before you visit.