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Black press is key to self-determination

Melvin B. Miller
Black press is key to self-determination
“These smartphones are really cool, but sometimes I really miss newspapers.” (Photo: Dan Drew)

A wise man once said, “You never let your adversaries define you.” That is a lucid description of the strategic role of the press. Black History Month is an appropriate time to consider the outstanding black and progressive press in Boston: David Walker’s Appeal, William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator, William Monroe Trotter’s Boston Guardian, and the Bay State Banner. Each publication had a different voice, depending upon the circumstances of the time. They all had to combat the offensive images of blacks in the major press.

David Walker was born in North Carolina in 1785, but he moved to Boston as an adult because he could not tolerate the enslaved status of blacks in the South. He became the Boston agent for New York’s Freedom Journal, then he began publication of his “Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World.” He exalted the history of blacks in Egypt and Abyssinia while encouraging slaves to rebel. His pamphlets were so threatening to slaveholders that they put a price on his head. Walker died in the doorway of his shop in Boston’s North End in 1830.

Garrison began publication of The Liberator the next year, and republished many of Walker’s articles even though he did not support rebellion as the solution. The Liberator became the nation’s preeminent anti-slavery journal, and abolition became a major political issue in the North.

Walker recognized the stultifying effect of slavery on the human spirit and insisted that by demeaning the humanity of slaves, whites felt justified in imposing such inhuman conditions on others. Garrison, who was white, included blacks in his political leadership group in order to avoid the appearance of racial discrimination.

With the election of Abraham Lincoln as president and enactment of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery, the race problem was still not solved. Racial segregation was declared by the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) to be constitutionally permissible as long as conditions were “separate but equal.” Several years before that case, Chief Justice Roger Taney had ruled in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) that blacks had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

William Monroe Trotter graduated from Harvard University with honors in 1895. He became the editor and founder of the Boston Guardian in 1901 to challenge the concept that blacks in America need not be respected. His early battles were with Booker T. Washington who had made a speech in Atlanta in 1895 that had compromised the status of blacks. In his “Atlanta Compromise” speech Washington promised that blacks “shall not agitate for political or social equality.”

Trotter led a life of anti-Jim Crow protest. He later had the temerity to confront the president of the U.S., Woodrow Wilson, about racial discrimination in public service. He died in 1934 without attaining his ambitious goals of equality for African Americans. His brother-in-law Charles Steward periodically published the Boston Guardian until old age rendered that task impossible.

The Bay State Banner was established in 1965 as the successor to the Boston Guardian. The country had entered an extraordinary period. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had outlawed racial discrimination in employment, education and places of public accommodation. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 made it more difficult to deny black access to the voting booth. The Banner was expecting to chronicle an extraordinary era of progress. The original motto was “Unity, progress, let’s do it ourselves.”

African Americans have indeed progressed in the past 50 years. While all civil rights issues have not yet been resolved, concern for income and wealth disparity now looms as an even larger issue. With few constitutional protections to rely on, progress will depend on the ambition and effort of African Americans. It will be even more critical for the black press to inform, encourage and motivate those who enter the very competitive business world.

As survival of the black press becomes more challenging in the technology-driven economy, it is important for black youth to consider what media, then, will define who and what they are.