The Defender: When newspapers could shake the world.

The Defender (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) by Ethan Michaeli tells the heroic role dead tree newspapers used to play in America.


Founded in 1905, The Defender started as a weekly edited on a kitchen table. It grew into one of the nation's biggest and most politically influential Black newspapers. Though focused on Chicago, The Defender developed a national readership. Pullman sleeping car porters smuggled The Defender into the segregated South. Volunteer correspondents all over the nation sent stories to be published in The Defender.

Even in the days of segregation, the publisher of the Defender could command audiences with the President of the United States.

This book is especially helpful in understanding Black politics and Black protest movements. I doubt that most of the white public is aware of the brutality of segregation—the lynchings and riots down South and the violence when Blacks moved into white neighborhoods up North. Michaeli describes discrimination in housing, jobs and the military.

The book reveals the radicalism of Martin Luther King when he campaigned in Chicago in 1966 for economic and social restructuring. No longer presenting the moral arguments he advanced during earlier the demonstrations in the South, King pressed for power within the highest levels of Chicago government. He led the drive for integration of white working class neighborhoods.

Author-Photo-Ethan-Michaeli-credit-Jason-Reblando-e1451866597450-1013x1024Ethan Michaeli

Michaeli, who is white, worked for The Defender in the 1990's. The staff was always integrated, employing white reporters, editors and printers, to the displeasure of some elements in the Black community. Even at the height of the Black power movement, The Defender stood firm for integration.

In its glory days, The Defender was a daily. With the coming of integration, its leading journalists migrated to the mainstream media. As with other dead tree newspapers, competition from the electronic media and changes in lifestyles caused the once mighty Defender to decline. Today it is published weekly.

I doubt any website, blog or Twitter feed could hearten, unify and mobilize a national constituency as The Defender did in the last century.