The White Press & Jim Crow

Sign created by white neighbors who wanted to keep Black people out of Sojourner Truth housing projects. Sign reads: “We want white tenants in our white community,” Detroit, Michigan, 1942 (Library of Congress)

Within a frame of a two competing ideas of the United States “one liberal, the other illiberal,” Journalism and Jim Crow examines how white publishers of Southern newspapers, enriching themselves from the exploitation of Black people in all manner of ways, mainly through convict leasing programs and debt peonage, used their media platforms to establish and perpetuate the violence of Jim Crow (p.305). Central to this was an effective program of white terrorism intended to severely limit, if not eliminate, a Black press fighting for a new, multi-racial, liberal America, the negative consequences of which are still with us today.

This 300-page book, edited by Kathy Roberts Forde and Sid Bedingfield, is organized around ten chapters by various authors, with Forde and Bedingfield carrying the heaviest load writing the introduction, epilogue, and three chapters. Advantaged by the journalistic backgrounds of its writers, the book horrifies as it explains the role of southern white newspapermen in ending Reconstruction, ushering in Jim Crow, and disguising it all in a narrative of “The New South” (P. 31). This narrative, as D’Weston Haywood says in the book’s second chapter, “Fight for a New America,” “was no more than a marketing tool for white supremacy, masking the political economies of the South that hinged on labor exploitation, state-sanctioned racial discrimination, and racial terror” (p.59). Importantly, the editors argue in the book’s introduction that this history reveals itself today in a right-wing media “attacking other journalists as ‘fake news’ and ‘enemies of the people’, with the goal of destroying public faith in both a consensus notion of truth and an independent press committed to the democratic values of transparency, exposure and honest public debate” (p.2).

The book begins with a chapter by Forde explaining the role of The Atlanta Constitution’s co-publisher, Henry W. Grady, going up North to spread the gospel of a “New South” in order to attract Northern financial investment. The New South, Grady argued, was the smart choice for white northern business investment, provided northern whites would leave it to southern whites to handle “their own business”. The falseness of the claim of “The New South” was attacked by the aforementioned T. Thomas Fortune, most known for his work in The New York Age, as well as Ida B. Wells, writing in the Memphis, Tennessee-based Memphis Free Speech and Headlight. Frighteningly, the Headlight was burned down by white terrorists after Wells exposed that the lynching of three Black men doing well in business was not due to rape but because of their economic success. Wells then went on to write for the New York Age. This is one example of how the book dramatically shows the blood on the hands of the white southern press in lynching and then looks closely at the role of newspapers in spreading and resisting white supremacy in case studies of most southern states.

The book’s chapters on Alabama, Tennessee, and Florida make plain how key white publishers were also, or were principally, industrialists using “convict leasing” and collaborated with state officials to exploit Black labor and build their empires. One particularly shocking example is told in the chapter: “Death of Democracy, North Carolina” by Kristin Gustafson. This chapter presents the history of a coup in Wilmington, NC in 1898, where a multiracial Fusionist government, one of both Republicans and Populists, was overthrown by southern Democrats through assassination and white mob violence. The coup was orchestrated by Democratic Party officials and Josephus Daniels, publisher of the Raleigh News and Observer. Daniels co-owned the paper with industrialist Julian Shakespeare Carr who made his money in tobacco and railroads. The overthrow culminated with the replacement of the Fusion government with a Democratic one, and key in the strategy was the destruction of the city’s Black Published newspaper, The Wilmington Daily Record. However, as total domination was the objective, the destruction of the paper was not sufficient and its publisher, Alexander Manly, had to escape from the city to save his life. Ultimately, Manly was forced from Wilmington and the newspaper business as he ended up working as a painter in the North.

The case for the role of the publishers of southern white-owned newspapers in upholding white supremacy is told clearly and compellingly, revealing detail that will be unknown to most readers. However, the frame liberal versus illiberal with Black journalists representing the thread of liberalism, seems to hinge on Haywood’s chapter, which relies on too few examples of Black voices centering the Black freedom struggle in those terms. The only clear Black-authored statement with claims of a “New America” is W.E.B. Dubois’ in the NAACP’s inaugural issue of The Crisis, a publication with significant white investment. Haywood’s chapter does share a fascinating history of a Black press in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but more pointedly, largely refers to this press as “militant” (p. 59). Further undermining the idea that the freedom dreams of the Black press deserve to be absorbed into the liberal tradition is the example Haywood provides of newspaperman T. Thomas Fortune. Fortune, who appears in a few chapters because of his centrality to the history of the Black press, called for “outright ‘revolution'” (p. 67). Overall, better supported than a Black liberal press is Haywood’s idea that “the militant Black press engendered a Black counterpublic that flew directly in the face of the false logics of white supremacy” (p. 69).

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Justin Laing

Justin Laing is the principal of Hillombo LLC, a consulting firm that partners with organizations in the nonprofit sector in antiracist evaluation, research and strategy. His research interests are largely participatory with pedagogical intentions.

Comments on “The White Press & Jim Crow

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    This is an excellent review. It also illustrates why we need to control our media instead of allowing racist organizations and Facebook to censor or control how we communicate with our respective communities. Sadly, many of our so-called Black Studies programs have no means to incorporate such ideas, news, and social justice issues within their white control curriculum. We often have the wrong books and readings that do not help us to push back at those fighting about sharing our real stories instead of these false narratives. How can someone have tenure and sit on their hands during these times? We are in a Superbowl against racism, and we have our third-string quarterbacks in the game. One of Malcolm X’s speeches was directed against the racist LAPD. We have a similar department in Omaha, NE., the birthplace of Malcolm X.

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