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Chapter 3 Popular Fronts and Modern Presses Throughoutthespringandsummerof1935,Italy’sfascistdictatorBenitoMussolini amassed an army on Ethiopia’s borders in anticipation of invading one of the last independent nations on the African continent and forging a runt-­ sized Roman Empire. A hemisphere away, up-­and-­coming heavyweight boxer Joe Louis, an Alabama sharecropper’s son who grew up in blue-­collar Detroit, polishedhisundefeatedrecordandmaneuveredforatitleshot.Weekafterweek, stories about Ethiopia’s plight and Louis’s fight dominated the front pages of black newspapers across the United States. On the night of June 25, before a recordcrowdforanontitlefightatYankeeStadiuminNewYork,thetwostories collided as the soon-­ to-­ be champion pounded the proxy for the never-­ to-­ be Caesar. Louis defeated the hulking Italian Primo Carnera, a former titleholder andonetimecarnivalattraction,inthesixthroundofafighthecontrolledfrom the opening bell. Black America celebrated. Its journalists worked.1 The nation’s two largest black weeklies rushed special editions into print, braggingasmuchonthemselvesasonLouis.Acrowdoftenthousandstopped trafficoutsidetheofficesoftheChicagoDefenderasablow-­by-­blowdescription of the fight, wired direct from ringside, was read over a loudspeaker. Office workers then telephoned the account to crowds gathered at a Bronzeville theater and a hall in suburban Evanston. A special, eight-­ page extra edition hit the streets twenty minutes after the fight ended, supposedly beating the city’s daily newspapers by ten to fifteen minutes. None of the employees working in 64 • Chapter 3 Chicagowaspaidthatnight.Allvolunteered.“ItwasamightytriumphforRace journalism,” the Defender crowed on its front page. The first copy was rushed to publisher Robert Abbott, who was home sick. A specially installed wire let himtrackfromhisbedsidewhathappenedattheoffice.“IknewJoewouldwin,” Abbott said. “Ethiopia is truly stretching forth her arms.”2 Meanwhile, somewhere 10,000 feet over Pennsylvania, William G. “Bill” Nunn,cityeditorofthePittsburghCourier,typedhisstorytothedroneofachartered plane’s engines, winging back to Pittsburgh with what was billed as the “first” pictures of the fight. The Courier’s presses started rolling one hour after Nunnlanded.Sixhoursafterthefight,newsboyshawkedaspecialeditionwith threepagesoffightphotosandstoriesbysevencorrespondentsreportingfrom NewYork.ThewordsNunnwroteforthefightalsoresonatedforhisprofession: “Tonight, I am proud that I’m a Negro.”3 Byyear’send,theCourierhadmorethandoubleditscirculationandsurpassed the Defenderas the largest black newspaper in the nation. It printed more than 150,000copieseachweekandputoutsevenzonededitions.Aone-­weeksnapshot of sales showed that just slightly more than twelve thousand copies were sold in Pennsylvania, with the rest distributed in every state except Idaho and North Dakota. The Courier was truly a national newspaper. Percival L. Prattis, theambitiousnewcityeditor,ponderedthereasonsforthenewspaper’sgrowth, seekingtosortthesizzlefromwhathesawasself-­satisfaction.Prattisbelieved overnight success was decades in the making. Publisher Robert Vann and his staffhadbuiltgoodwillamongsubscribersovermanyyears.Moreimmediately, though,Prattisattributedcirculationgainstoqualitycontent.TheCourierlocked upexclusiveswithLouis’scampafternimble-­fingeredsportscolumnistChesterWashington ,whoexcelledatshorthand,beganworkingasLouis’ssecretary while churning out a weekly series recounting the boxer’s life story. And since no other black newspaper (and only a few dailies) had sent its own reporter to Ethiopia,theCourierpromotedJ.A.Rogers’scoveragebytoutingtheauthenticity of firsthand experience that establishes a war correspondent’s credibility. At the end of Prattis’s first year with the Courier, the newspaper paid shareholders their first common stock dividend since 1929. Prattis’s friend and former boss, ClaudeBarnett,whorantheAssociatedNegroPress(ANP),themainnational news service for black newspapers, was impressed. “Whew but the Courier is jumping.” It was just the beginning.4 ExcludedfromU.S.citizenryandstaggeredbyglobaldepression,blackactivists in the 1930s fortified the institutions and communication networks that unitedanewlynationalminoritypopulation—justassevereeconomicdeprivationinspiredintellectuals ,laborleaders,andjournaliststoembracethetactics Popular Fronts and Modern Presses • 65 of leftist political organizing. By 1940, more than two million African Americans had quit the rural South since the early twentieth century, mostly moving northward and concentrating in the nation’s largest industrial cities. This dramatic demographic shift promoted the expansion of newspapers, colleges, unions, civil rights organizations, and other venues for racial protest. When confrontedbyeconomiccrisis,theseinstitutionsparticipatedinwhathistorian NikhalPalSinghcalls“asharpleftwardturn”tomoreeffectivelycommunicate and coordinate reform efforts with working-­ class men and women. Journalists ,inessence,yokedthesensibilitiesofMarxistracialpoliticstothebusiness orientation of the commercial newspaper, an incongruous and tempestuous pairingofradicalismandcapitalismthatoccurredbecausenewspapersoperated autonomously of white oversight. The nation’s most read papers increasingly framed world affairs as a contest pitting the forces of white supremacy and classexploitationagainsttheunitedresistanceofpeopleofcolor.Journalistsat leadingnewspaperssoeffectivelyincorporatedradicals’debatesandcriticisms concerning Western capitalism, imperialism, and racial exploitation into their regular news coverage that the alternative black press essentially folded into the commercial black press.5 Progressive news coverage helped double and possibly triple total circulationwithinfifteenyears ,transformingleadingblacknewspapersintopublications of regional, national, and transnational significance by the outbreak of WorldWarII.Tocapitalizeonthisstunninggrowth,majorpublishersmodernizedtheirprintinganddistributioncapabilitiesandexpandedtheiradvertising and administrative operations. In turn, editors and reporters assumed greater control of newsroom responsibilities. Journalists’ newfound workplace independence inspired escalating demands for recognition of their professional status—and reinforced their commitment to politics that advocated for black liberation and workers’ rights within and beyond America’s borders. “The Only Party Going Our Way” Black Newspapers and Communism Racism exacerbated the hardships of the Great Depression for African Americansandreorderedtheirpoliticalalliances .Blackshadearnedandaccumulated significantly less than whites in...


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