Does the First Amendment apply to me: Press Freedom in the Long Struggle for Civil Rights

Does the First Amendment apply to me: Press Freedom in the Long Struggle for Civil Rights

Earnest L. Perry Jr., Ph.D.
Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Research Missouri School of Journalism

The Fallen Journalists Memorial will commemorate the courage of journalists who faced oppression, danger and even death to bear witness and bring the truth to light. The memorial will call attention in particular to the role of the Black Press in advancing equity for all citizens, a purpose that has preeminent and lasting historical significance.

Journalists representing the Black Press fought for both freedom of the press and the right to be treated as equal citizens. Violence was the weapon used by most opponents, but it did not stop Black men and women from providing a voice for their readers. Mary Ann Shadd Cary and her family actively helped in the Underground Railroad. When Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, she moved to Canada, where she opened a racially integrated school and started the Provincial Freeman. She was the first black woman publisher in North America and the first woman publisher of any background in Canada. Cary found First Amendment freedoms north of the border that she could not get in her country of birth.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, one of the early Black women journalists, lost her newspaper in 1892 after a mob destroyed the printing press and other machinery because she dared to accuse white men of lynching three Black men. She was in New York at the time and decided to stay there. She eventually moved to Chicago and got married. She continued to write and report on lynchings in the South, often under threat from white supremacists.

The early 1900s saw the birth of legendary newspapers such as the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, the Baltimore Afro-American and the Amsterdam News. The publishers and journalists at these newspapers advocated for Black equality and inclusion. They were aggressive in covering racial violence in the South and various forms of discrimination in the North. During World War I and II, they lobbied government officials to force defense contractors to hire Blacks and the military to desegregate its forces.

The Black Press was more successful during World War II because government officials, in particular President Franklin D. Roosevelt, needed a unified country to win the war. Many Blacks were apathetic to the war because they questioned why they should fight for a country that considered them second-class citizens. In expressing this sentiment in editorials and news stories, the Black Press opened itself up to sedition charges and investigation by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. The Black Press chose a middle ground. Led by the Pittsburgh Courier, it repurposed Roosevelt’s Double V, victory at war and victory in the 1944 election, to champion victory in the war effort aboard and victory against racist enemies at home. Many Black Americans embraced the effort because it presented an authentic picture of their place in this country. Throughout much of the war, Black publishers and journalists face federal investigations, confiscation of newspapers near military bases and the threat of losing mailing privileges, which would have decimated its national circulation. Its freedom of the press was under attack from a government that claimed to be fighting for democracy abroad.

The efforts of the Black Press and other civil rights groups leading up to and during World War II laid the groundwork for the all-out push to dismantle Jim Crow in the 1950s and 1960s. The Supreme Court’s unanimous Brown v. Board of Education decision striking down separate, but equal school systems sent shockwaves through country, but it was the violent murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till and the subsequent acquittal of two white men charged with his death that changed the course of news coverage of race in America. Mamie Bradley’s decision to hold an open-casket funeral for her son and the significant coverage it received in the Black Press exposed Southern justice for Blacks that the white press could not ignore. The trial of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam brought reporters, both Black and white, from around the country and the world. Though the not guilty verdict was a forgone conclusion, the trial opened the door for the white press, first newspapers and later the upstart television news media, to chronicle the battles in Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma and other parts of the South that would lead to the end of Jim Crow, but not the long struggle for equality that continues today.

Several journalists faced violence covering the movement. L. Alex Wilson, editor and general manager of the Tri-State Defender of Memphis, Tennessee was attacked by a white mob while covering the Little Rock Nine integration in 1957. Photographs of the brutality he faced that day were published in Time magazine. Wilson would later become editor of the Chicago Defender. He died at the age of 51; some attribute his death to the injuries he suffered in Little Rock. Don Hogan Charles, the New York Times, first Black photographer, risked his personal safety to take photos of the Civil Rights era and was known to check his tailpipe for bombs constantly. Paul Guihard, a reporter for a French news service died from a gunshot wound while covering the admission of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi in 1962. Evelyn Cunningham, a reporter for the Pittsburgh Courier, received significant awards as both a reporter and an editor. Cunningham’s coverage on Southern lynchings earned her the title “the lynching editor.” She also conducted in-depth interviews with Civil Rights leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, journalists, both Black and white, faced mobs of segregationists who saw them as allies of those forcing them to change their way of life.

The journalists who document the long struggle for equality and social justice in this country seldom get their time in the limelight. That is not the role they play in the historical narrative. However, it does not mean that they should be forgotten. The stories they told and continue to tell are ones that address the still unmet ideals of the First Amendment for those whose ancestors came to this land not by choice.

Those First Amendment ideals can be seen today in journalism that is not only produced by mainstream news organizations, but also by independent journalists and regular citizens

carrying cell phones. All journalists, both past and present, who put their lives on the line to tell the story of America, both good and bad, deserve to be honored. That is why it is so important to find a prominent and accessible location for the only national memorial commemorating America’s commitment to a free press by honoring the journalists, including those in the Black Press, who sacrificed their lives in service to the cause of freedom for all.

Dr. Earnest L. Perry is the Associate Dean of Graduate Studies and Research at the Missouri School of Journalism and chair of the Publications Committee for the Association on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. He is also the former president of the American Journalism Historians Association. Dr. Perry’s research interests center on African American press history, specifically on the Black Press during the first half of the 20th Century, as well as underrepresented groups and the lack of ethnic minorities in the mainstream media.