The Chicago Defender is a Chicago-based weekly newspaper founded in 1905 by Robert S. Abbott for primarily African-American readers. Historically, The Defender is considered the "most important" paper of what was then known as the colored or negro press. Abbott's newspaper reported and campaigned against Jim Crow era violence and urged blacks in the American South to come north in what became the Great Migration. Under his nephew and chosen successor, John H. Sengstacke, the paper took on segregation, especially in the U.S. military, during World War II.
In 1919–1922 the Defender attracted the writing talents of Langston Hughes. Later, Gwendolyn Brooks and Willard Motley wrote for the paper. It was published as The Chicago Daily Defender, a daily newspaper, from 1956 to 2003, when it returned to a weekly format.
Role in the Great Migration
The editor and founder Robert Sengstacke Abbott played a major role in influencing the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North by means of strong, moralistic rhetoric in his editorials and political cartoons, the promotion of Chicago as a destination, and the advertisement of successful black individuals as inspiration for blacks in the South. The rhetoric and art exhibited in the Defender demanded equality of the races and promoted a northern migration. Abbott published articles that were exposés of southern crimes against blacks. The Defender consistently published articles describing lynchings in the South, with vivid descriptions of gore and the victims' deaths. Lynchings were at a peak at the turn of the century, in the period when southern state legislatures passed new constitutions and laws to disenfranchise most blacks and exclude them from the political system. Legislatures dominated by conservative white Democrats established racial segregation and Jim Crow.
Abbott openly blamed the lynching violence on the white mobs who were typically involved, forcing readers to accept that these crimes were "systematic and unremitting". The newspaper's intense focus on these injustices implicitly laid the groundwork upon which Abbott would build his explicit critiques of society. At the same time, the NAACP was publicizing the toll of lynching at its offices in New York City.
The art in the Defender, particularly its political cartoons, explicitly addressed race issues and advocated northern migration of blacks.
After the movement of southern blacks northward became a quantifiable phenomenon, the Defender took a particular interest in sensationalizing migratory stories, often on the front page. Abbott positioned his paper as a primary influence of these movements before historians would, for he used the Defender to initiate and advertise a "Great Northern Drive" day, set for May 15, 1917. The movement to northern and midwestern cities, and to the West Coast at the time of World War II, became known as the Great Migration, in which 1.5 million blacks moved out of the rural South in early 20th century years up to 1940, and another 5 million left towns and rural areas from 1940 to 1970.
Abbott used the Defender to promote Chicago as an attractive destination for southern blacks. Abbott presented Chicago as a promised-land with abundant jobs, as he included advertisements "clearly aimed at southerners," that called for massive numbers of workers wanted in factory positions. The Defender was filled with advertisements for desirable commodities, beauty products and technological devices. Abbott's paper was the first black newspaper to incorporate a full entertainment section. Chicago was portrayed as a lively city where blacks commonly went to the theaters, ate out at fancy restaurants, attended sports events, including "cheering for the American Black Giants, black America's favorite baseball team", and could dance all night in the hottest night clubs.
The Defender featured letters and poetry submitted by successful recent migrants; these writings "served as representative anecdotes, supplying readers with prototype examples ... that characterized the migration campaign". To supplement these first-person accounts, Abbott often published small features on successful blacks in Chicago.
Continued historical influence
In 1923, founding publisher Robert Sengstacke Abbott and editor Lucius Harper created the Bud Billiken Club and later organized parades to promote healthy activity among black children in Chicago. In 1929 the organization began the Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic, which is still held annually in Chicago in early August. In the 1950s, under Sengstacke's direction, the Bud Billiken Parade expanded and emerged as the largest single event in Chicago. Today, it attracts more than one million attendance with more than 25 million television viewers, making it one of the largest parades in the country.
Abbott took a special interest in his nephew, John H. Sengstacke, paying for his education and grooming him to take over the Defender, which he did in 1940 after working with his uncle for several years. He urged integration of the armed forces. In 1948, he was appointed by President Harry S. Truman to the commission to study this and plan the process, which was initiated by the military in 1949.
Sengstacke also brought together for the first time major black newspaper publishers and created the National Negro Publishers Association, later renamed the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA). In the early 21st century, the NNPA consists of more than 200 member black newspapers. Two days following the publishers' first meeting in Chicago, Abbott died.
One of Sengstacke's most striking accomplishments occurred on February 6, 1956, when the Defender became a daily newspaper and changed its name to the Chicago Daily Defender, the nation's second black daily newspaper. It published as a daily until 2003, when new owners converted the Defender back to a weekly. The Defender was one of only three African-American dailies in the United States; the other two are the Atlanta Daily World, the first black newspaper founded as a daily in 1928, and the New York Daily Challenge, founded in 1971.
Sale to Real Times
Control of the Chicago Defender and her sister publications was transferred to a new ownership group named Real Times Inc. in January 2003. Real Times, Inc. was organized and led by Thom Picou, and Robert (Bobby) Sengstacke, John H. Sengstacke's surviving child and father of the beneficiaries of the Sengstacke Trust. In effect, Picou, then chairman and CEO of Real Times, Inc., led what was then labeled a "Sengstacke family-led" deal to facilitate trust beneficiaries and other Sengstacke family shareholders to agree to the sale of the company. Picou recruited Sam Logan, former publisher of the Michigan Chronicle, who then recruited O'Neil Swanson, Bill Pickard, Ron Hall and Gordon Follmer, black businessman from Detroit, Michigan (the "Detroit Group"), as investors in Real Times. Chicago investors included Picou, Bobby Sengstacke, David M. Milliner (who served as publisher of the Chicago Defender from 2003 to 2004), Kurt Cherry and James Carr.