Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

Civil Rights & Black Freedom

In Jeanne Theoharis’s important and timely book, A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History, she writes, “The modern Black freedom struggle remains one of the most important examples of the power of ordinary people to change the course of the nation. But the popular stories we get impoverish our ability to see how change happens. A more expansive history transforms how we imagine what a movement looks like, sounds like, and pushes for, and understand how it is received and often reviled. It shows us that leadership, vision, steadfastness, and courage came in many forms, as did the opposition to it.”53  Looking at daily coverage of black freedom struggles in the black press offers one way to challenge the silences and distortions that too easily render the civil rights movement as a depoliticized feel good story. In addition to iconic figures like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., the black press informed readers (and reminds us today) that civil rights was a mass movement with a large cast of characters. Clara Luper led sit-in protests in Oklahoma City in 1958, nearly two years before the Greensboro sit-ins; Claudette Colvin was arrested after refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, nine months before Rosa Parks; Victoria DeLee ran for Congress as a member of the United Citizens Party, a group she helped found because black people were excluded from the Democratic Party in Dorchester County, South Carolina; Lonnie Smith, a Texas dentist, and the NAACP successfully challenged the all-white primary; and over 460,000 students stayed out of school to protest racial segregation and educational inequality in New York City, the largest protest of the civil rights era. The black press is a particularly important source for studying the civil rights movement, particularly the local people and protests who often escaped national attention. While white newspapers ignored the racism and inequality that fueled black demands and frequently criticized even moderate civil rights leaders, most black editors and reporters saw themselves as working in support of the movement. Reading articles from the New York Amsterdam News, Los Angeles Sentinel, or Chicago Defender that are advocating for particular policies or political positions encourages readers to examine historical and contemporary coverage in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune more critically. When African-American newspapers were openly advocating for the humanity of black people, they also made it clear that “mainstream” white newspapers were not politically neutral. By centering the “fighting press,” Black Quotidian encourages visitors to examine the political commitments and lacunae of all news media.  

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