The Black Press

Power of the black press

Posted February 8, 2007

"The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords" is the first film to chronicle the history of the Black press, including its central role in the construction of modern African American identity. Directed by summer resident, Stanley Nelson, it recounts the largely forgotten stories of generations of Black journalists who risked life and livelihood so African Americans could represent themselves in their own words and images.

From the founding of the first Black newspaper, Freedom's Journal in 1827, Black abolitionists like Frederick Douglass recognized the press as a powerful weapon against the enforced silence of slavery. This tradition of crusading journalism was carried on by pioneering scribes like Ida B. Wells, one of the first female newspaper owners in America and a leader in the fight against lynchings and Jim Crow. Robert S. Abbott built the Chicago Defender into the most powerful and successful Black-owned newspaper of all time and is often credited with inspiring the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to northern cities.

"The Black Press" goes on to contrast mainstream coverage of World War II with the nearly forgotten "Double V" campaign spearheaded by the Pittsburgh Courier. Black newspapers, linking the struggle against fascism abroad to segregation at home, terrified J. Edgar Hoover into trying to indict them for sedition, and helped lay the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement to come. Charlotta Bass, editor and publisher of the California Eagle for 40 years, ran for Vice President on the Progressive Party ticket in 1952, the first African American to run for national office.

Ironically, the Black press in a sense became a victim of the success of the very movements it nurtured. During the Civil Rights struggles and urban insurrections of the 1960s, white-owned papers at last began to hire African American journalists and even compete for Black readership. The film asks if integration into the mainstream media has left many communities bereft of a committed Black journalistic presence.

Martha's Vineyard Film Society presents "The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords," Saturday, Feb. 10, 7:30 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Spring Street, Vineyard Haven. Tickets: $6 or $4 for society members.