Ibram X. Kendi in Black Perspectives:
Giving voice to the voiceless, the Chicago Defender condemned Jim Crow, catalyzed the Great Migration, and focused the electoral power of black America. Robert S. Abbott founded The Defender in 1905, smuggled hundreds of thousands of copies into the most isolated communities in the segregated South, and was dubbed a “Modern Moses,” becoming one of the first black millionaires in the process. His successor wielded the newspaper’s clout to elect mayors and presidents, including Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy, who would have lost in 1960 if not for The Defender’s support. Along the way, its pages were filled with columns by legends like Ida B. Wells, Langston Hughes, and Martin Luther King. Drawing on dozens of interviews and extensive archival research, Ethan Michaeli constructs a revelatory narrative of race in America and brings to life the reporters who braved lynch mobs and policemen’s clubs to do their jobs, from the age of Teddy Roosevelt to the age of Barack Obama.
Ibram X. Kendi: Please share with us the creation story of your book—those experiences, those factors, those revelations that caused you to research this specific area and produce The Defender.
Ethan Michaeli: I decided to write the first comprehensive history of The Chicago Defender because I worked there from 1991 to 1996, and knew this was a story that needed to be told. I am white and Jewish, raised in a suburb of Rochester, New York, and arrived at The Defender as a fresh graduate of the University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English literature. I had no particular interest in civil rights or racism or African American history, which is not to say that I was dismissive, but just to underscore how much I thought race was an issue which had been dealt with in the ‘60s. So that when a friend–another white, Jewish, University of Chicago graduate–offered to recommend me for a job he was leaving at an “African-American-owned newspaper,” I didn’t appreciate the significance. I reasoned that in this putatively post-racial era, some newspapers would have white owners while others would have black owners, and what was the big deal? In those years at The Defender, then still holding its own as one of the city’s three daily newspapers, I received a crash course in African-American history as well as the mechanics of journalism.