America's leading black-owned newspaper enters its 75th year
Chicago — If newspapers are the rough drafts of our history books, then it is easy to see the importance of the Chicago Defender, the nation's leading black-owned newspaper.
After 30 years with the paper, staff cartoonist (and private pilot) Chester Commodore explains, "The white press never has printed when a black was born or married, or hired or promoted, or buried. This is the role of the black press," he adds as he quickly sketches Jimmy Carter being optimistic. "It gives a black history, a black record, which otherwise would be left out."
According to former Defender editor Leroy Thomas, "Without the Chicago Defender's documentation, the history of America's blacks would have been severely altered -- largely confined to word-of-mouth transmittal, and as few books as white publishing houses deemed worth printing to maintain a liberal posture."
Today larger, better-paying, white-owned newspapers, radio, and television are covering black issues more, sometimes with black reporters hired away from the Defender. The Chicago Defender has seen all other black daily newspapers forced out of business. And its own circulation has dropped from a peak of 100, 000 to just 20,000 among Chicago's 1 1/2 million blacks.
But the Chicago Defender is celebrating its 75th anniversary with a firm pledge to expand its coverage.
Still operated by the same family, the paper is proud of the role set out by its founder, Robert S. Abbott, who wrote in 1930: "Before I started on my life's work -- journalism -- I was counseled by my beloved father that a good a newspaper was one of the best instruments of service and one of the strongest weapons ever to be used in defense of a race which was deprived of its citizenship rights."
The paper's battle for those "citizenship rights" goes on in many ways -- not just in its editorials, political columns, and news reports from around the world, but on its society and sports pages as well.
As the flagship of a chain of 10 black newspapers in Illinois, michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida, the Chicago Defender regularly reminds readers that blacks can and should have a loud voice in national politics.
The paper points out that, according to the US Census Bureau, 16 million blacks will be eligible to vote in 1980. It calls on blacks to vote rather than waste this privilege as one-third of the 9 million registered black voters did in the last presidential elections.
Columnist Roy Harvey is a leading advocate of black participation in politics , calling on blacks to correct rather than blindly support "the racism that is part of the Democratic and Republicans parties."
TWo weeks ago the paper prodded an embarrassed Coca Cola Company into abandoning its national beauty contest because it was a whites-only-need-apply operation.
The paper naturally focuses on the high black unemployment rate on discrimination in housing, health programs, schools, and job opportunities. The paper singles out particular cases of discrimination or white ignorance -- such as the near lily-white Academy Awards or the new NBC program Skag, which gives only minor roles to blacks although blacks makes up a quarter of the work force in the basic steel industry.
One recent editorial charged the Pentagon with trying to discourage black enlistment in the US Army because "the fear of a black Army looms more and more as an inescapable possibility."
But there is also plenty of room in the paper for black pride -- listing such achievements as the fact that the nation's top 100 black-owned companies had combined sales of $1.22 billion in 1979. All of the top 100 reported sales of more than $5.2 million.
For Defender sports editor Lee D. Jenkins, the paper has a great deal of work to do both in recording black history and in correcting discrimination. He does his part in his sports columns, "letting people know there aren't any black managers or third base coaches."
Yet Mr. Jenkins displays another side of this southside Chicago newspaper -- patience and calm. Showing off the paper's presses, set into what had been the Illinois Automobile Club's swimming pool before the days of white flight, and telling of the discrimination he has faced in his work in a white-dominated world, Mr. Jenkins, "I had been a black a long time, and not being accepted was old hat to me."