restricted access 1. “Negro Subversion”: Solidifying a Militant Press

From: Race News

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Chapter 1 “Negro Subversion” Solidifying a Militant Press Week after week, postal censors and military intelligence officers read black newspapersfromaroundtheUnitedStates,rifflingthroughpagesforseditious statements as American soldiers fought and bled and died in boggy European trenches. They believed the editors and reporters who criticized the nation’s practices of racial oppression during World War I threatened to undermine the morale of African Americans called to support the war effort despite racism ’s injustices. In private meetings and personal letters, censors attempted to intimidate editors, warning them of the fines and jail sentences they faced if theireditorialsandarticlesweredeemedsufficientlyunpatriotic.ASanAntonio editorwasconvictedforattemptingtocausemutinyamongmilitaryforcesafter publishingacolumnthatencouragedblacksoldierstoretaliateagainstcivilian harassers. The military’s concerns mounted as the war continued.1 National officials called about thirty editors to Washington, D.C., in June 1918,hopingtoimprovewhattheycharacterizedas“thebittertoneofthecolored press.”DeadlyraceriotshadalreadyeruptedinEastSt.Louisandelsewhere.A military court had already hanged black soldiers accused of murdering police officersduringtheso-­called“Houstonmutiny,”whichhaderuptedamidextensive racial harassment and allegations of police brutality. Wherever African Americans organized for workers’ rights and adequate housing, their efforts werecheckedbyindifferenceorviolence.Militaryofficersroutinelymistreated andabusedblackenlistees.Regardless,federalofficials—includingSecretaryof “Negro Subversion”  • 15 WarNewtonBaker,CommitteeonPublicInformationChairmanGeorgeCreel, and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt—appealed to the publishers’ sense of loyalty and duty. They encouraged the editors to use their publications—the Chicago Defender, Crisis, New York Age, Pittsburgh Courier, Baltimore Afro-­American, Richmond Planet, Washington Bee, and St. Louis Argus, among others—to fully mobilize black resources and increase America’s odds of winning the Great War. The publishers defended themselves and their race. They explained how lynching, segregation, and discrimination dampened enthusiasm for the war among their readers.2 While“heatedargumentwasnotinfrequent,”bothsidesconsideredtheconferenceasuccessandafterwardfranklyacknowledgedtheirsharedinterestsand unresolveddifferences.Col.MarlboroughChurchill,theheadofmilitaryintelligence , told the Army’s chief of staff that “the leaders of the race are intensely loyal, but feel keenly their inability to carry the great mass of their race with them in active support of the war unless certain grievances receive immediate attention.” The editors reaffirmed their loyalty and promised to aid the war effort.Carefullynotingthattheircombinedweeklycirculationstoppedonemillion copies, they aimed to preempt their critics but also reassure their readers. “German propaganda among us is powerless,” their joint statement read, “but the apparent indifference of our own Government may be dangerous.”3 Thenation-­state’sintensewartimescrutinyofblackpublishersrevealedthe remarkabletransformationthathadoccurredwithinblackjournalismsincethe beginning of the twentieth century. A skeletal national communications networkofnewsby ,about,andforAfricanAmericanssolidifiedintheearly1900s asblackmenandwomenleftsharecroppers’shacksforindustrialjobsinsouthernandthennortherncities .AsAfricanAmericans’journeysacquaintedthem withmodernurbanlivingandgreaterdailyfreedoms,illiteracyplummetedand amassconsumermarketplaceemergedforracenews.Upstarteditorscompeted for readers’ pennies and nickels by adopting modern journalism practices and emboldeningtheirdemandsforracialjustice.Theseeditorscondemnedlynching ,denouncedsegregation,anddefendedcitizenshiprightswithanaudacious militancy.Theydemandedintegration,assertedAfricanAmericans’humanity, and safeguarded an expansive conception of freedom claimed since Reconstruction . Circulations surged as new competitors intensified the pursuit for news. During World War I, military investigators and federal censors fixated upon the sensational headlines, critical editorials, and soaring popularity of a robust dissident press. The nation-­state’s agents attempted to quiet editors by drawingconnectionsbetweencriticismsofAmericanracismandpotentialacts of sedition, perhaps even treason. While editors often moderated their news 16  •  Chapter 1 coverage when confronted by state authorities, they refused to abandon their mission of protest. Abject editorial capitulation guaranteed bankruptcy. Crusading Journalism in the Late Nineteenth Century Aspiring editor-­proprietors struggled to establish black journalism as a viable community institution between the Civil War’s smoldering aftermath and the dispiriting collapse of Reconstruction. Emancipation fulfilled abolitionists’ aims and eliminated most white financial support for publications devoted to African Americans’ concerns. Antislavery editors silenced their presses or joined other reform causes. Freedmen and women valued the written word after being forbidden by owners from learning to read and write. They viewed literacy as a means to personal empowerment. But illiteracy and poverty preventedthemfromsubscribingtolocalblacknewspapers ,whichtypicallyfolded withintwoyearsofpublishingtheirfirstissue.Ratifiedin1868,theFourteenth Amendment enabled black men to vote and inadvertently expanded African Americans’ access to the First Amendment’s freedom of the press. Partisan black newspapers often appeared several months before elections to tout the particularpoliticianthatbankrolledthem.Suchpapers,though,typicallyceased publishing soon after Election Day. Although the number of black newspapers nearly quadrupled in the 1870s, none published before 1880 existed three decades later.4 White supremacists intensified efforts to strip black men and women of theircircumscribedpoliticalandeconomicindependenceafterReconstruction endedandfederaltroopsdecampedfromtheSouth.UnrepentantConfederates movedtoconsolidatetheircontroloversouthernsocietythroughviolence,social ostracism, and denial of civic rights. Vigilantes lynched thousands of African Americans.Stateprisonsoverflowedwithblackmenconvictedofpettyproperty crimes.TheU.S.SupremeCourtupheldlawsthatmandatedracialsegregation in public places under the pretense that equal facilities would be provided for both races. State legislators drafted new constitutions across the South and disenfranchised most African Americans by tying voting rights to property and literacy requirements. White voters then swiftly replaced officeholders endorsed by black editors.5 White editors nationwide reinforced the South’s racial agenda by distorting , demeaning, and ignoring African Americans. They depicted black men and women in the abusive...


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