As we look at the state of Black America, we see that if ever there was a need for us to have a “come to Jesus” moment; it’s now.
For those who are either too young to know or too complacent to remember, all one would have to do is perform a little historical research to learn how the Black church and the Black press were the two primary catalysts undergirding the Civil Rights struggle and how they both led the way in fighting for the rights of African-Americans across this country.
From the onset, the Black press and the Black church provided Black people with the necessary foundation that they needed in this country, to deal with the unjust laws and serious issues they faced throughout the struggle.
But do Black people have the same appreciation for these storied institutions that they once had?
With the myriad of issues that Blacks are experiencing today, it is apparent that Black people must return to these foundational roots if they plan to deal with the issues we face today and help them overcome their struggles, as in times past.
FOUNDATION OF THE BLACK PRESS
“We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us, too long has the public been deceived by misrepresentations…”
These were the words that boldly appeared in the first issue on the front page of the first African-American owned and operated newspaper that was published in the United States.
The Freedom’s Journal, founded by editors Samuel Cornish and John B. Russwurm, was published weekly in New York City from 1827 to 1829.
Cornish and Russwurm believed that many of the other newspapers in New York City misrepresented Blacks and that Freedom’s Journal would be the alternative to those papers that grossly distorted African-Americans. They believed that people were being given ignorance and lies instead of the truth and believed that Freedom’s Journal would change the perception of Black people in society. The Freedom’s Journal went beyond racism, seeking to strengthen the bonds in all Black communities and challenged Black people to become conscious of their position in a White-dominated society.
The Freedom’s Journal provided international, national, and regional information on current events and contained editorials declaiming slavery, lynching and other injustices. The Journal also published biographies of prominent African-Americans and listings of births, deaths, and marriages in the African-American New York community. Freedom’s Journal circulated in 11 states, the District of Columbia, Haiti, Europe, and Canada.
By the end of the 1930s, Black newspapers had reached new heights of circulation and influence and were tested during World War II, when the United States government decided to flex their muscles against them because of their influence.
In the PBS film, “The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords”, the narrator shared how James Thompson, a Black cafeteria worker from Wichita, Kansas, suggested in a letter to The Pittsburgh Courier that African-Americans should use the war overseas to press for change in their own backyard.
In the film, a voice-over of Thompson states, “Should I sacrifice my life to live half-American? Will things be better for the next generation in the peace to follow? Let me colored Americans adopt the Double V for the double victory. The first “V” for victory over our enemies from without. The second “V” for victory over our enemies from within.”
The Black press got behind the Double V campaign and was so effective that in 1942, J. Edgar Hoover presented Attorney General Francis Biddle with lengthy reports on what he saw as seditious activity by the African-American press, asking Biddle to indict a group of publishers for treason.
John Sengstacke, publisher of the Chicago Defender, had a meeting with Attorney General Biddle where he boldly told him, “What are we supposed to do about it? These are facts and we aren’t gonna stop. That’s what it’s all about.” Sengstacke declared, “That’s what the Black press is all about, protecting Blacks in this country.”
As the war ended, the campaign for equality at home and abroad had pushed the combined circulation of Black newspapers for a record high of two million papers a week. But victory at home had yet to be won. The Black press was a catalyst behind the success of the Civil Rights Movement.
FOUNDATION OF THE BLACK CHURCH
Following the slave revolts in the early 19th century, states like Virginia and others passed laws requiring Black congregations to only meet in the presence of a White minister.
Many Black slaves didn’t want to be constrained by having a White minister oversee them, while also continuing to justify slavery. Black congregations began to grow rapidly, with most of their members being slaves. The Black church, numbering several hundred each before the Civil War, started being led by free Blacks, instead of any White overseers.
In plantation areas, Black slaves organized underground churches and hidden religious meetings called the “invisible church”. Slaves were free to mix evangelical Christianity with their African roots, African beliefs and African rhythms. They turned Methodist hymns into what are now called Negro spirituals, which gave the church members a secret way to communicate and, in some cases, to plan rebellion.
It is through the Black church that Black slaves were provided with a mode of psychological refuge from the White-dominated world that treated them inhumanely and unjustly.
After the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Northern churches, mostly founded by free Blacks, sent missionaries to the South to minister to newly freed slaves; including teaching them how to read and write.
Black preachers provided leadership, encouraged education and economic growth, and were often the primary link between the Black and White communities.
The Black church established and/or maintained the first Black schools and encouraged community members to fund these schools and other public services. For most Black leaders, the churches always were connected to political goals of advancing the race and moving forward.
The Black church also held an important leadership role in the Civil Rights movement, as their strength within the Black community made them natural leaders in the moral struggle for social justice. Notable leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph David Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth, to name a few, were instrumental minister-activists who helped during the struggle and often served as links between the Black and White communities.
MORE THAN A MINISTER
Richard Allen was born into slavery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on February 14, 1760. At the age of 17, Allen converted to Methodism after hearing a White Methodist preacher rail against slavery. His owner eventually converted to Methodism as well and allowed Allen and his brother to purchase their freedom for $2,000 each in 1783.
Allen soon became a member of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, where he became an assistant minister and conducted prayer meetings for the Black parishioners. Although Blacks and Whites worshiped together at the church, Allen became frustrated with the limitations that the church placed on him and other Black parishioners. In 1787, Allen left the church and that same year, along with the Reverend Absalom Jones, Allen helped found the Free African Society, a non-denominational religious mutual-aid society dedicated to helping the black community.
In 1794, Allen and 10 other Black Methodists founded the Bethel Church, a Black Episcopal meeting, in an old blacksmith’s shop. Allen became the first African-American to be ordained in the ministry of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Bethel Church became known as “Mother Bethel” because in 1816, with support from representatives from other Black Methodist churches, Bethel Church birthed the first national Black church in the United States, the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, and Allen became its first bishop.
Helped by his wife, Sarah, Allen helped to hide escaped slaves. The basement of the Bethel Church was a stop on the “Underground Railroad” for Blacks fleeing slavery.
His understanding of the power of the Black dollar and of an economic boycott, led Allen to form the Free Produce Society in 1830, where members would only purchase products from businesses or people who used non-slave labor. His passion for equality and fairness inspired him to vehemently speak out against slavery. Allen’s life’s work and his writings were the primary influence for future Civil Rights leaders such as Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass and activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Allen died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on March 26, 1831, but today, the AME Church boasts more than 2.5 million members.
MORE THAN A JOURNALIST
Ida B. Wells was born a slave in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Both of her parents knew how to read, so they taught her how to read at an early age. Growing up around political activists gave Wells a sense of hope about the hope and future possibilities for former slaves in American society. After both of her parents and her infant brother died unexpectedly when she was 16 years old, she had to take on the responsibility of raising her five younger brothers and sisters.
While in Memphis, she had become accustomed to riding the train in whatever seat she chose, but in 1883 she sued the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad because they forbade her from sitting in the ladies coach. This incident sparked Wells to write an article about the experience, which became an instant success and helped influence her to change her career to become a journalist.
Wells continued to fight against injustices all throughout the South and decided to use the power of her pen to expose the motives behind the violence against Black people. As lynching had become one of the main strategic tools to terrorize Blacks in the South, Wells wrote about lynching and began to expose it, becoming the focal point of her crusade for justice.
When three of her male friends, who were successful businessmen, were lynched on the pretext of a crime they did not commit, Wells wrote about the situation with a clarity and forcefulness that riveted the attention of both Blacks and Whites. She advocated for both an economic boycott and a mass exodus, and traveled through the United States and England, writing and speaking about lynching and the government’s refusal to intervene to stop it. This so enraged her enemies that they burned her presses, and put a price on her head, threatening her life if she returned to the South. She remained in exile for almost forty years.
Eventually, Wells purchased partial interest in a black newspaper, the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight (later renamed Free Speech), and became its editor. Wells did not shy away from controversy in the pages of Free Speech. A turning point in her career occurred when she wrote an article that was very critical of Memphis’s separate but not-so-equal schools. The anonymous piece described the rundown buildings and teachers who had received little more education than their students. Such revelations did not sit well with members of the local Board of Education. Along with everyone else who had heard of Free Speech, they knew that Wells was the one who had written the article. The uproar cost Wells her teaching job.
Wells earned enough money to purchase a half-share of Free Speech and under her leadership the circulation increased from 1,500 to 4,000. Readers relied on Free Speech to tackle the most controversial subjects, even when that meant speaking out against African-Americans as well as Whites. When Wells received word that her friend Tom Moss, the father of her goddaughter, had been lynched, she quickly came to the realization that lynching’s were not being used to punish criminals, but was being used to enforce White supremacy. Moss’s only crime was that he was successfully competing with a white grocer, and for this he and his partners were murdered. In a series of deeply scathing editorials in Free Speech, she urged African-Americans to boycott Memphis’s new streetcar line and move out west if possible.
African-Americans listened to Wells and began leaving Memphis by the hundreds. Two pastors of large Black churches took their entire congregations to Oklahoma, and others soon followed. Those who stayed behind boycotted White businesses, creating financial hardships for commercial establishments as well as for the public transportation system. The city’s papers attempted to dissuade Blacks from leaving by reporting on the hostile American Indians and dangerous diseases awaiting them out west. To counter their claims, Wells spent three weeks traveling in Oklahoma. Upon her return she published a firsthand account of the actual conditions. Fast becoming a target for angry white men and women, she was advised by friends to ease up on her editorials. Instead, Wells decided to carry a pistol.
Wells continued her advocacy work until she died in Chicago on March 25, 1931, at the age of 68.
RECLAIMING OUR ROOTS
As we look at the state of Black America, we see that if ever there was a need for another movement, it is now. Both the Black church and the Black press were catalysts behind the advancement of African-Americans beyond the unjust laws and challenges they were facing.
According to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, African-Americans are among the most likely to report a formal religious affiliation, with fully 87% of African-Americans describing themselves as belonging to one religious group or another.
While the U.S. is generally considered a highly religious nation, African-Americans are markedly more religious on a variety of measures than the U.S. population as a whole, including level of affiliation with a religion, attendance at religious services, frequency of prayer and religion’s importance in life.
On each of the measures concerning religion, African-Americans stand out as the most religiously committed racial or ethnic group in the nation, but when it comes to younger African-Americans, they are more likely than their older counterparts to report being unaffiliated with a religion. Roughly 20% of African-Americans under the age of 30 are unaffiliated with any religion, compared to just 7% of African-Americans who are age 65 and older.
In order for the future generations of leaders to embrace religion and a sense of hope, they must first be in tune with reading and understanding how to use their voice.
Dr. King stated that “our lives begin to end, the day we become silent about the things that matter.” The power of the Black voice has and continues to make a difference in our world.
The Black church and the Black press have always been on the side of right and on the side of justice. As unjust laws were created and enforced; as poll taxes were levied; as dogs were unleashed; as jail cells were filled; the Black church and the Black press were on the frontlines together.
It wasn’t just Martin Luther King that led the way. The entire Black community stands on the shoulders of those that have come before, laid a firm foundation and given us the roadmap to follow.
Young people still have to learn their true history and not solely rely on blogs, social media and Internet web sites for facts and their information. Social media and technology has given younger people an opportunity to gather information and be expressive in a new, unique way. The importance of the Black press and newspapers is still significant when it comes to spreading news by us, for us and about us.
Our senior citizens and experienced historians must play an active role in teaching younger people about the Black church and the Black press. Our Black churches must get back to being the moral compass for the Black community and must get back to taking up social causes that impact the Black community. If this is not a non-negotiable, the Black community will continue to face continuous peril.
To do that, it takes an active community that includes the Black church and the Black press.