Many Chicagoans have never held or even seen a print copy of the Chicago Defender, and now, no one will get the chance to pick one up off the newsstand. The South Side-based newspaper, which once called itself “The World’s Greatest Weekly,” has decided that the future lies online. The last print issue came out last week.
There are few institutions of which it can be said that the Chicago we know today would not exist without it. Founded in 1905 by Georgia-born Robert S. Abbott, whose parents had been slaves, the Defender soon became the city’s premier source of information aimed at black audiences.
It was a force for civil rights, desegregation and racial equality, while documenting the horrors of lynching and the dismal treatment of African Americans in the military. During World War II, Attorney General Francis Biddle told owner and publisher John Sengstacke that the newspaper “came close to being seditious” and threatened to close it down. Sengstacke invited him to “go ahead and attempt it.” Biddle didn’t.
African Americans journeying to the South, from Pullman rail porters to visiting entertainers and athletes, surreptitiously brought copies full of news and commentary that challenged the violent white supremacist status quo.
As Ethan Michaeli noted in his book “The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America,” one of its subversive messages was that a better life awaited black Southerners in Chicago and other Northern cities. “Every black man for the sake of his wife and daughters especially should leave even at financial sacrifice,” a 1916 editorial advised. “No Cracker there to seduce your sister, nor to hang you to a limb,” a poem promised.
The Great Migration not only offered escape to people treated as second-class citizens but deprived Southern farms and businesses of labor. The white-oriented Macon Telegraph said more than one farmer awoke to discover “every male negro on his place gone – to Cleveland, to Pittsburgh, to Chicago, to Indianapolis.”
Between 1915 and 1970, some 6 million black Southerners left Dixie, often risking retribution if their plans were found out by whites. In Chicago, they took jobs as factory workers and domestics, brought blues and jazz, and often encountered brutal resistance when they tried to move into white neighborhoods.
These transplanted Southerners kept reading the Defender because the paper, which in 1956 became a daily, reported on matters of interest to Chicago’s black community that the Tribune and other Chicago papers generally didn’t cover. The newcomer readers gradually became as important a part of the city as any other racial or ethnic group. Today, an African American transplant (from Ohio, not Mississippi) occupies the mayor’s office.
In 2008, the Defender went back to weekly publication. Like other newspapers, it has suffered from falling circulation, shrinking ad revenue and a proliferation of digital competitors. But it’s still here.
At every stage in the past 114 years, the Defender has filled an important role in shaping and informing Chicago. May it do so for another century and beyond.