March 31, 2017

John H. Sengstacke (right), 1941. Credit: Library of Congress Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The Chicago Defender has humble beginnings. Started by Robert Sengstacke Abbott in the rooms of a boardinghouse, the paper quickly grew into a nationally-distributed enterprise. (Abbott himself became one of the first black self-made millionaires.) Ethan Michaeli, author of The Defender: How The Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America, traces the paper’s influence through history, from the Great Migration to the desegregation of the military.

Three Takeaways:

  • Abbott was able to start his paper thanks to new technology: the “portable” printing press. By churning out editions in his boarding house, Abbott was able to keep costs low and focus on producing news.
  • President Truman’s executive order desegregating the military marked a major step in the Civil Rights movement. But a little known fact? The Defender played a big role in making it happen.
  • When a young man running for the Illinois State Senate walked into the paper’s offices in an ill-fitting suit, the staff was not impressed. Luckily, they gave him another chance. “The Defender looked at Barack Obama, looked at his talents and his accomplishments… and said, this is a decent person with integrity.”

More Reading:

Ethan Michaeli, The Defender, Culture, Kara Miller

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