By Bill Celis, University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
Mattie Smith Colin was a seasoned reporter for the Chicago Defender when the newspaper sent her to cover the return of Emmett Till’s body. The 14-year-old Chicago native, who was visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta, had been brutally beaten and shot for allegedly whistling at a white woman. An open casket funeral – insisted upon by Till’s mother – followed.
Chicagoans, and much of the rest of the country, recoiled. The ensuing coverage by the Defender and others helped spur the U.S. civil rights movement.
Colin died in December at the age of 98, but her work at the Defender, alongside the efforts of other black reporters, editors and photographers, embodied the activist, community-first bent of the African-American press. Dailies and weeklies like the Defender, the St. Louis American and the Los Angeles Sentinel portrayed African-American life in its fullness – civic events, celebrations, religious life, marriages, births and deaths – and they countered the stereotypical ways mainstream media covered blacks (if they were covered at all).
Then – and now – they’ve been a critical voice in reporting the lives of black America.
“At a time when the credibility of media is under attack, it is important to note that for people of color, the mainstream media has always lacked credibility,” said Martin Reynolds, a journalist and codirector of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, a nonprofit that promotes diversity in the newsroom. “The black press and the ethnic press as a whole have consistently maintained far more credibility in their communities than their mainstream counterparts.”
Is the time right for a new wave of black media activism? And can the black press retain its effectiveness in a new media landscape?
A force for social change
In the 20th century, the black press played a critical role in the civil rights movement.
During World War II, for example, the Pittsburgh Courier launched its “Double V” campaign, which signaled the newspaper’s support for victory abroad over the Axis powers and victory at home for black soldiers and their families. The weekly – at its height one of the most influential of the country’s African-American newspapers – argued that if black men were dying for their country, then the returning servicemen and their families had earned and deserved equal rights at home.
The Courier’s campaign met resistance. Some commanding officers overseas banned the paper from military base libraries, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover petitioned the U.S. attorney general to charge black newspapers with sedition. No charges were filed by the government, but the black press’ campaign, while softened, continued unabated and helped lay the groundwork for the civil rights movement to which Mattie Smith Colin of the Defender had a front row seat.
In September 1955, the Defender sent Colin to cover the arrival of Till’s bloated corpse, capturing the reaction of his mother.
“‘Oh, God, oh God, my only boy,’ Mamie Bradley wailed as five men lifted a soiled paper wrapped bundle from a huge brown wooden mid-Victorian box at the Illinois Central Station Friday in Chicago and put it in a waiting hearse,” Colin reported. “The bundle was the bruised and bullet-ridden body of little 14-year-old Emmett Louis Till of Chicago, who was lynched down in Money, Miss.”
“Could it be possible,” she continued, “that one of the poorest economic states of in the Union, who should thank Negroes for their agricultural contribution for the meager wealth that it has, is still fighting the civil war?”
The 14-paragraph story, half of which was a series of questions aimed at broader social justice and economic issues in the South, ended with a final question for readers:
“Or is it as Mrs. Bradley hysterically shouted, about the untimely death of little Emmett, ‘Darling you have not died in vain; your life has been sacrificed for something.’”
A photograph of the teenage boy’s disfigured face accompanied news stories in newspapers across the country. First published in Jet magazine, the image served as a rallying cry for the civil rights movement.
Same problems, different landscape
Today, many of the issues facing the black community would sound familiar to veterans of the civil rights movement: police shootings of unarmed black men; disproportional incarceration rates; discriminatory sentencing; voter suppression; and rising rates of violence against minorities.
Some observers say this has created an environment ripe for black media.
“The black press should use this opportunity more than ever to enforce integrity and consistency in telling the truth about community and federal polices,” said Amen Oyiboke, a freelance journalist in Los Angeles and a former reporter for the Los Angeles Sentinel. “The black press has to realize, if it doesn’t already, that this is the time to be the backbone that it has always been.”
There are challenges. Readership of black newspapers has fallen every year since 2009, according to the Pew Research Center. By comparison, web traffic has grown for digital news sites and magazines serving African-American readers.
While mainstream news outlets have improved their coverage of African-Americans and other communities of color, some observers say they missed openings – and continue to miss chances – to attract broader readership. Coverage remains uneven, while hiring of blacks and other minorities in newsrooms continues to lag.
“In a way, some of the legacy media missed some of the opportunities by not incorporating different voices when they could have,” said Mary C. Curtis, a columnist at Roll Call and a former editor for The New York Times. “You would see much more diversity in coverage than you see now, and I think the lack of it does hurt the bottom line.”
New voices in a new space
While bottom lines have been damaged by the continuing transition to digital from print, the digital space offers the platform for a renewed push by black media to continue its pointed, voice-driven journalism.
New voices like the Black Lives Matter movement and Blogging While Brown – a group of African-Americans from all walks of life – have made significant inroads into Twitter and Facebook. News sites like The Root, Grio.com and other digital publications and social media communities have maintained the point-of-view style of journalism and coverage of the African-American community that black newspapers like The Defender have historically embraced.
But even older publications like the New York Amsterdam News, an African-American newspaper based in Harlem and one of the first to cover Malcolm X, have adopted new digital platforms whose voices mirror the point of view reporting of their print versions. The paper’s homepage recently touted an editorial decrying Trump, offered a story about the financial health of historically black colleges and universities and reported on Louis Farrakhan’s February address to the Nation of Islam Convention, during which he said, “America will never be great again.”
If the platform is different, the messages are the same – and they are coming from increasingly younger African-Americans. Earlier this month, children’s publishing company Scholastic announced plans to publish a book for children and teens about activism. The author is a 12-year-old activist named Marley Dias who inspired #1000BlackGirlsBooks, an international social media campaign designed to collect titles featuring black girls who are the lead characters.
The book, scheduled to be published in spring 2018, will cover social justice, equity, inclusion and volunteerism.
It sounds like a title of which The Defender’s Mattie Colin would approve.
This article has been updated to correct the caption of the lead image.
Bill Celis, Associate Dean for Diversity, Inclusion and Strategic Initiatives, University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism