Book Review: “The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America”


Ethan Michaeli, who was once a reporter for The Chicago Defender in the 1990s, has written a new book “The Defender: How The Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America.”


Named for its founder’s aspiration to be a “defender” of the race, the “Chicago Defender” was exactly that in the early years of its long history – opposing lynching and Jim Crow, as well segregation in the U.S. military during World War II


Robert Abbott founded the paper in 1905 and used it as a platform to challenge the injustices of a nation that failed to live up to its ideals. The newspaper condemned lynching, urged multitudes of Blacks to leave the brutality of the South for opportunities in the North, and encouraged the political clout of African Americans.


Defying the southern power structure that banned his paper as subversive, Abbott enlisted the help of Pullman porters to circulate his paper throughout the South.


As the Defender grew in clout, Abbott gained wealth and huge status in Black and white America.


His successor and nephew, John H. Sengstacke, took the paper into the modern age, influencing local and national politics as the paper got out the Black vote, even helping to support the political career and eventual presidency of Barack Obama.


In its heyday its staffers included Langston Hughes and Ida B. Wells. This book is a penetrating look at a paper whose story is the story of African Americans in the twentieth century.


“The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America” by Ethan Michaeli, c. 2016, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 633 pages; $32.


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