restricted access Introduction: Political Pressures and Black Newswriting

From: Race News

University of Illinois Press colophon
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Introduction Political Pressures and Black Newswriting Marvel Cooke, a newspaper editor whose friends included leading civil rights activists and Harlem Renaissance writers, protested in the streets and in print during the Great Depression for better pay and employment conditions for herself and other black workers. Locked out of the New York Amsterdam News in October 1935 for attempting to unionize the newsroom, Cooke and other journalists picketed eleven weeks for better pay and better hours. As Cooke marched, an article she cowrote with activist Ella Baker appeared in the Crisis, the influential journal on race relations published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The writers accused well-­ to-­ do white women in New York of underpaying and cheating day-­laboring black domestics who were “pressed to the wall by poverty, starvation and discrimination .”Theycharacterizedthismodern-­daylaborarrangementasareturn of the antebellum slave market. As Cooke marched, a lifetime of progressive influences—a father who voted for a socialist presidential candidate; a mother who hosed down cranky segregationists; a past supervisor, W. E. B. Du Bois, whoelaborateduponhispoliticalconvictionsinprivateconversations;andher own union activism—culminated in the central political decision of her life: Cooke joined the Communist Party at age 32.1 Although Cooke avoided propagandizing in her journalism, her politics informedhernewswriting.“ThereasonIwaspossiblysuccessful,”sherecalled decadeslater,“isbecausetheysaidIwrotewell,youknow,andyoushouldnever 2  •  Introduction project your opinions in a news story, and I never did that. But I might have emphasizedsomepartofastorythatsomebodyelsemightnothaveemphasized, the work conditions or something like that.” Cooke’s politics shaped her career ambitions. She eventually left the AmsterdamNews to work for “social-­minded” leftist newspapers, including the People’s Voice, a Harlem-­ based weekly that filled key positions with Communist Party supporters, and the Daily Compass, awhite-­ownednewspaperthatalsoemployedI.F.Stone,aprominentcriticof the Cold War. Both papers folded as hostilities with the Soviet Union escalated andarisinganticommunismmovementreshapedAmericanpolitics.Cookewas called to testify in 1953 before a Senate committee about her political beliefs. She invoked her constitutional right against self-­incrimination and refused to answer questions. She never worked in journalism again. Cooke’s newswriting defined the reportage of a generation of black journalists that came of age in the 1920s and 1930s as Black America relocated to northern industrial cities , modernist sensibilities reordered racial protest, and economic destitution inspired a fervent search for alternatives to American capitalism and racism. This type of newswriting coincided with the modernization of black journalism as an industry and helped transform the commercial black press into one of the integral black-­led institutions agitating for racial justice.2 AsCookeexitedthenewspaperbusiness,EthelPaynecoveredtheemerging CivilRightsMovementastheWashingtonbureauchieffortheChicagoDefender. Progressive influences had also shaped Payne’s newswriting. She protested discriminationintheearly1940sbysupportingA.PhilipRandolph’sMarchon Washington Movement, and, while writing for the Defender, she worked for the Democratic National Committee and a political education committee for the AmericanFederationofLaborandCongressofIndustrialOrganizations(AFL-­ CIO).“MaybeI’mwrong,”sherecalled,“butIjustbelievethatBlackjournalists havearesponsibilitytobeadvocates.Becausewe’reBlackfirstofallbeforewe’re journalists, and there’s so much out there that isn’t reported adequately, or so muchthatisdistorted.”UnlikeCooke,though,Paynebeganherreportingcareer after World War II—after black activists had gained acceptance for continued racial protest by supporting the war effort and characterizing their demands as patriotic. The repressive nature of the Cold War discouraged journalists like Payne—regardless of race—from expressing support for communism.3 Although sharply skeptical and frequently disappointed, Payne believed America’sgoverninginstitutionscouldsurmountthenation’sracistpast.Pacing the corridors of the U.S. Capitol and attending press briefings at the White House, she scrutinized national leaders’ commitment to integration and civil rights.SheirkedPresidentDwightD.EisenhowerinJuly1954byaskingwhether Political Pressures and Black Newswriting  • 3 his administration would support a ban on segregation in interstate travel. Eisenhower seldom called on her again. Payne’s reporting took her across the nation and abroad, from Chicago to Birmingham, from Bandung, Indonesia, to Saigon, South Vietnam. She witnessed the signing of milestone civil rights legislation and helped integrate broadcast journalism when CBS hired her as a radio and television commentator. Her commitment to political reform compelled her to criticize Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael in 1972 after he urged Howard University students to not vote in the upcoming presidential election.Paynecalledsuchadvice“shopworn”and“suicidal.”“Youallrun—don’t walk—tothenearestpollingplace,”shetoldherlisteners.Payne’snewswriting stylerepresentedthesensibilitiesofblackjournalistswhoreachedadulthoodin the 1940s and 1950s. These journalists avoided Marxist-­style politics to better demandfullinclusionwithinAmericansociety.Theywongrudgingrecognition from the federal government and eventually opened new employment opportunities in segregated white newsrooms but disappointed black radicals who doubted integration would lead to equality.4 RaceNews:BlackJournalistsandtheFightforRacialJusticeintheTwentiethCentury analyzes the commercial black press’s problematic working relationship with the alternative black press and its thorny interactions with a repressive federal government and hostile white media to explain...


pdf