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New Book Highlights Historic Black Newspaper


American newspapers once stood for something more than a marketing plan. The Chicago Defender was founded in the early 20th century to fight segregation in the South, build strong and lively African-American communities in the North and to root for the Chicago American Giants. It would become in many ways one of the most influential newspapers in the United States. The Defender could claim partial credit for the Great Migration north, the end of segregation in the U.S. military, the election of presidents, including Warren Harding, Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy and encouraging the career of a young South Side legislator named Barack Obama. Ethan Michaeli, who was once a reporter for The Chicago Defender in the 1990s, has written a book "The Defender: How The Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America." Mr. Michaeli joins us now from Chicago. Thanks so much for being with us.

ETHAN MICHAELI: Oh, thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Did The Defender have a role in making Chicago the center of what was called the Great African-American Migration?

MICHAELI: The publisher of The Defender, Robert Abbott, was himself a migrant. He knew that it was extremely difficult for African-Americans to make a living, to find jobs in the North, largely because unions in Chicago discriminated. But with the beginning of World War I, the unions lowered their barriers and African-Americans were allowed to work in a lot of professions in which they'd previously been restricted. And Robert Abbott saw that this was actually hurting the economy of the South, which was of course based on discriminating against African-Americans and keeping them in a lower state of wage dependency. So as African-Americans left and the South's economy began to suffer, Abbott encouraged them to leave and to find better opportunities and a more liberated lifestyle in the North, in northern cities especially.

SIMON: And could he be a little idealized about what African-American life was like, at least in the pages of The Defender?

MICHAELI: Well, The Defender was really organized as a newspaper that was counter propaganda to the newspapers of the South, which at that time were supporting segregation, supporting Jim Crow. So The Defender would do things like publish articles that would compare the schools of the South that were segregated schools for African-Americans against the schools of the North, which were not exactly integrated or not exactly as integrated as The Defender might have suggested, but certainly offered a lot more opportunity than was available in the South and a much better quality of education with better quality institutions. So maybe some exaggeration, but I would say compared to their competition for the hearts and minds of the African-American community, they were the accurate source of news.

SIMON: A lot of people might be surprised to learn The Defender began as more or less a Republican newspaper.

MICHAELI: Well, at that time, of course African-Americans voted almost unanimously for the Republican Party, which was the party of Abraham Lincoln. And that loyalty persisted up through the middle of the 20th century when Franklin Roosevelt really led the wholesale shift.

SIMON: So people might not be surprised to know that The Defender considered itself instrumental in the election and later years of the likes of John F. Kennedy, but Warren G. Harding.

MICHAELI: Well, that's right. African-American votes were critical votes in a number of states depending on the election cycle, especially as the migration happened. These shifts in population gave African-Americans a lot of leverage. And Democrats in Chicago, especially Mayor Ed Kelly, was absolutely determined to bring African-Americans into the Democratic fold. Of course, the history of the Democratic Party was a history of Southern segregation and racism, and that was something that took quite a bit of effort to overcome with the African-American electorate.

SIMON: I was interested to read in here that when Barack Obama ran for Congress, The Defender didn't necessarily think that this was the greatest (laughter) step forward in electoral democracy.

MICHAELI: Well, when Barack Obama ran for Congress, he was up against Bobby Rush, who was an icon of the community who had come up as a leader of public housing residents on the South Side. So it was certainly an audacious move for the young Barack Obama to take on Bobby Rush at that time. The Defender, however, did recognize the talent that was there and saw that there were something special about Barack Obama if it was something that still needed to be cultivated before it was ready for a bigger stage.

SIMON: Mr. Michaeli, The Defender began as a weekly, became a daily, now it's back to being a weekly and a website. Can a weekly or a website do for a community what a daily newspaper used to represent in the life of a great city?

MICHAELI: Scott, I had to think about how to end the book. And what I had to conclude was that institutions like The Defender are still needed. We do still see of course the issue of race in the United States and the issue of racism, of targeting African-Americans. The Defender will retain a role as a truth teller in that situation as long as the conditions require it to.

SIMON: Ethan Michaeli, author of "The Defender: How The Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America," thanks so much for being with us.

MICHAELI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.