I was privileged to attend the Annual Conference of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), the trade association for more than 200 newspapers in Black America. I was also honored to receive NNPA’s North Star Community Service Award, which is named after the militant newspaper founded by Frederick Douglass in 1847. It was a real treat to have the opportunity to meet and interact with Black writers and publishers from around the country. As a kid I can remember being a paperboy for the Pittsburgh Courier in the Hill District of the “steel city.” Every Thursday you could hear the voices of young boys hollering out “get your Pittsburgh Courrrrrrrrrier!” The few nickels and dimes I collected put some change in my pocket and enabled me to stride with a little pride.
When I moved to Youngstown, Ohio, the Buckeye Review was the principal voice for the Black community. Founded by Earl B. Dickerson, this cherished news organ was passed on to McCullough Williams Jr. and eventually Margaret Linton-Lanier. For a time I served as advertising director for the Buckeye Review.
In 1988, after completing my tenure as executive director of the National Rainbow Coalition and Deputy Campaign Manager for Rev. Jesse L. Jackson’s historic presidential campaign, I decided to utilize the pen as an instrument to offer perspectives on a range of civil rights/human rights and public policy issues of relevance to people of African descent, other people of color, poor and working people and the progressive movement. The Black Press became the medium of choice to build a constituency for my ideas and the projects/initiatives I wanted to advance. For nearly two decades, with the exception of a brief hiatus during my independent campaign for president in 1992, I cranked out 52 Vantage Point articles every year to more than 100 newspapers affiliated with NNPA (I was never in the weekly news service packet; I just mailed them to selected newspapers myself). It worked. I developed quite a following across the country via Vantage Point.
The Black Press gave me a voice to articulate my views and develop a responsive audience for projects like the State of the Race Conference in Baltimore in 1994 and the State of the Black World Conference in Atlanta in 2001. For this I am forever indebted to Bill Garth, publisher of the Citizen Newspapers in Chicago, who encouraged me to start writing a column (and agreed to publish it) and William Ellis Sr., publisher of the Akron Reporter (and his son) who also signed on and carried my column without fail for as long as I continued to write. I suspect my story is the story of countless activists and journalists who found their voice via the Black Press.
From its inception, the Black Press has been a weapon in the Black freedom struggle. As quasi-free Blacks struggled to create a new African community in the U.S. in the face of enslavement, racial discrimination and exclusion, they built an array of independent institutions as focal points for unity and action. As I recounted in a recent article for Black History Month, our forebears created independent African churches, African free schools, mutual aid societies, abolitionist organizations and Colored People’s Conventions as community-building institutions to preserve, protect and advance the interest of Black people. Beyond these basic institutions, however, there was a critical need to have a means for leaders to communicate with each other and their constituents in the emerging but embattled African community. And, there was a fervent desire for what we would call Kujichagulia/self-determination today. Though there were Whites who were sympathetic, our forebears did not want to be dependent on others to speak on their behalf. Hence in 1827 when John B. Russwurm and Rev. Samuel Cornish launched Freedom’s Journal as the first Black newspaper in the U.S., they proclaimed: “Too long have others spoken for us…We wish to plead our own cause.”
Ever since that moment, from the eloquent anti-abolitionist crusade of Frederick Douglass, the relentless anti-lynching campaign of Ida B. Wells, the chronicling of key events in the struggle against southern apartheid, the spirited ideological debates over the direction of the Black Freedom struggle between seminal leaders like Booker T. Washington, Marcus Mosiah Garvey, A. Philip Randolph, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King to recording the heroic leadership and deeds of the likes of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Mary McLeod Bethune, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Daisy Bates and Gloria Richardson, the Black Press has been an indispensable galvanizing force in the Black freedom struggle.
Since Africans in America have obviously made significant progress since the days of Russwurm and Cornish, including the election of an African-American president, there are those in White America and some in Black America who question whether there is still a need for a “Black Press” and other independent “Black” institutions. That question was emphatically answered by Danny Bakewell Sr., publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel and chairman of NNPA, during his Power of the Black Press address at the National Press Club. In effect, Mr. Bakewell declared that those who have benefited from generations of struggle should use their status to uplift the vast number of Blacks who are afflicted by poverty, unemployment, underemployment, inferior education, crime, violence and disproportionate incarceration rates. He suggested that the Black Press must hold the U.S. government, corporate America and Black leadership accountable in terms of the urgent need to eradicate racial disparities and achieve social and economic justice and equity for Africans in America, especially the disadvantaged and dispossessed. Time and time again Chairman Bakewell reminded the publishers and writers that “we wish to plead our own cause.” And, in a tone reminiscent of Frederick Douglass, he challenged Blacks in positions of power to use it to unapologetically advance the interest and aspirations of Black people.
It is clear to me that Danny Bakewell was saying that the Black Press must continue its traditional role as a weapon in the Black freedom struggle. I totally agree with his perspective. And I was not the only one who was pleased with the direction outlined by Bakewell. Dorothy Leavell, publisher of the Chicago and Gary Crusader, chairwoman of the NNPA Foundation and unflinching advocate of a militant Black Press, said she is thrilled to have Danny Bakewell as a partner to engage the struggle. I left the conference confident that, with this dynamite duo at the helm, we can count on the Black Press to effectively “plead our cause” in these critical times.
(Dr. Ron Daniels is president of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and distinguished lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website http://www.ibw21.org and http://www.northstarnews.com. Daniels can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)