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Chapter 6 Black Power Assaults the Black Newspaper A 23-­year-­old Black Power activist known for exclaiming, “Burn, baby, burn,” H. Rap Brown fed a relentless media frenzy in the summer of 1967 by provocatively welcoming the riots that scorched black neighborhoods in Detroit, Milwaukee , Newark, and elsewhere. Brown was virtually unknown when he was electedinMaytoleadaradicalizedStudentNonviolentCoordinatingCommittee (SNCC).Justthreemonthslater,hisname,words,andphotographappeared innewspapersandontelevisionsetsnationwide.Bythen,Brownawaitedtrial on charges of arson and inciting a riot in a troubled city on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.Riotershadtorchednearlytwentybuildings,shotandwoundedapolice officer, and struck Brown in the head with a shotgun pellet after he told about fourhundredpeopleto“burnthistowndownifthistowndon’tturnaround.”As white commentators and columnists attempted to comprehend the country’s escalating racial turmoil, they depicted Brown as a publicity-­ hungry hothead whoserecklessnesssymbolizedthenewdirectionofblackprotest.Brownboth beckonedandbelittledthisnewscoverage.JournaliststransformedBrown—to the dismay of established civil rights leaders—into a national spokesman for Black America. And yet, Brown distrusted the white reporters and broadcasters who stoked his celebrity. “I’m a crazy, dangerous nigger, who hates white folks,accordingtothemedia,”hewroteinhisautobiography.“Thenewsmedia is one of the greatest enemies to Black people. It is controlled by the ruling classes and is used to articulate their point of view.” Other militants agreed Black Power Assaults the Black Newspaper • 153 with Brown’s accusations. They often regarded the commercial black press with similar suspicion.1 Amid August’s upheaval, Brown accused commercial black publishers of abandoning their industry’s long tradition of strident racial protest. Too often, he claimed, black journalists replicated “the same distortions and falsehoods” traded in the white media. He wondered why editors refused to condemn America’s imperialistic involvement in the Vietnam War as their nineteenth-­ centurypredecessorshaddenouncedtheinvasionofCubaandthePhilippines during the Spanish-­ American War. “Indeed,” Brown wrote, “the earlier black press often fitted a proper description of what an informed, militant, struggling medium should be: it ferreted out wrong, exposed corruption, pressed for reform and revolution, and was quick to point out traitors amid the race.” Echoing sociologist E. Franklin Frazier’s decade-­old criticisms, Brown argued that commercial newspapers were too concerned with bolstering advertising revenueandappeasingamiddleclassthathopedtoassimilateintowhitesociety by celebrating wealth and applying skin whiteners and hair straighteners. He grouped modern commercial black publishers with moderate abolitionist editorswhohopedtoendslaverythroughmoralpersuasion.Helinkedalternative black editors—at publications such as SNCC’s newsletter and the Nation of Islam’s Muhammad Speaks—to those abolitionists who contended that only force could compel emancipation.2 Brownwasjustoneofthemanyimpatientstudentprotesters,PopularFront progressives, community organizers, and armed activists who revitalized the alternative black press in the 1960s to steer racial protest toward an unprecedented militancy. These alternative writers and editors produced idiosyncraticpublicationsthatincludedcollegenewspapers ,mimeographednewsletters , leftist political journals, and organizational papers for Black Nationalist groups. They founded their own publications to ensure the unfettered expression of viewpoints they believed commercial black publishers and white journalists ignored, marginalized, and demonized. While radical writers’ political agendas often clashed, their overall editorial outlook recalled the urgent immediacy and global perspective of the New Negro Movement after World War I. Frustrated by white southerners’ violent obstructionism to the Civil Rights Movement, they questioned the value of integration, endorsed armed self-­defense, stoked a singular appreciation of black culture, and embraced a Marxist critique of American capitalism and empire. Their language and tone wasbrazenandoutrageous,calibratedtoengageblackyouthsandenragewhite authorities. In doing so, they aimed to define the meaning of Black Power. As the Civil Rights Movement expanded northward and urban uprisings raged 154 • Chapter 6 in the nation’s largest cities, newly minted militants revamped the editorial mission of existing publications and launched scores of new newspapers in Americaninnercities.TheFBIcloselymonitoredthesejournalists,particularly those writing for the Black Panther Party. Law enforcement operatives even sabotagedtheprintinganddistributionofnewspapers.Andyet,themilitancy of the alternative press’s writers percolated throughout Black America by the late1960s,withtwopublications,MuhammadSpeaksandtheBlackPanther,rivaling and exceeding the readership of the nation’s leading commercial black newspapers.3 Commercialblackpublishersstillboastedthelargestconcentrationofblack readers in the nation, but they alienated many young African Americans by attemptingtomoderateracialmilitancyanddenouncingtheBlackPowerMovement . Leading publishers had morphed into establishmentarian dissidents in the1950safterpurgingtheirnewspapersofprogressivejournalists.Government authorities regarded them as legitimate political actors entitled—within proscribedlimits —tovoicecontraryopinionsonpublicaffairs.Publishersachieved this qualified insider status by accepting the Cold War’s binary framework and seekingtoreformAmericansocietythroughnonviolentpoliticalcompromise. In the early 1960s, publishers attempted to guide young protesters, describing thehundredsofsit-­insacrosstheSouthasajustified,ifpotentiallydangerous, politicization of nonviolence. They later wavered between validating and disavowingblackanger .Publisherschallengedwhitejournalists’characterizations ofurbanriotsbyacknowledgingthelegitimacyofAfricanAmericanfrustrations and blaming police brutality for sparking violence. But they also attempted to strip the “Black Power” slogan of its provocative overtones of suspended violence by assigning it a narrow political meaning. By the late 1960s, leading publishersopenlycondemnedBlackPowermilitants.TheyfearedtheprovocativenessofBlackPowerrhetoricwoulddestroyhard -­wongainsinvotingrights, politicalrepresentation,andlegalprotection.AneditorwiththeBaltimoreAfro-­ AmericandefendedthenewspaperagainstBrown’scriticismsbydrawing“avery cleardistinctionbetweenconstructivemilitancyanddestructivestupidity...


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