In a 1977 book celebrating the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Black press on March 16, 1827, Dr. Lionel Barrow, then executive director of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, noted that the Black Press had four basic functions. Those functions were and still are to act as a watchdog, to answer attacks, to preserve Black culture and to present a different viewpoint from those in the White press.
When carrying out those functions during World War II, the Black Press was closely monitored by numerous federal government agencies, including J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, the Post Office, the Department of War, the Office of Facts and Figures, the Office of War Information and military intelligence, among others.
Wouldn’t ignore racism
They basically wanted the Black Press to either ignore the persistent atrocities inflicted on Black folks by White supremacists and racists or at least bury such coverage deep inside the papers rather than highlight them on the front pages or in editorials and columns.
Fighting against America’s hypocrisy, the Black Press was at its best, providing a model of unity and determination that would greatly benefit the 21st-century Black Press.
Some Black publications were effectively intimidated by the FBI and others. But a significant number continued to cover the racist activities, especially in the South.
According to Patrick S. Washburn in his book, “A Question of Sedition: The Federal Government’s Investigation of the Black Press During World War II,” the Black Press was considered “biased and unreliable” and “having an insatiable appetite for writing about discrimination” by government agencies.
Stirring things up
A 1943 FBI survey on “Racial conditions in the United States” was done “To determine why particular Negroes or groups of Negroes or Negro organizations have evidenced sentiments for other ‘dark races’ (mainly Japanese) or by whatever forces they were influenced by to adopt in certain instances unAmerican ideologies.” Furthermore, it continued, “Sources of information have volunteered the opinion that the Negro press is a strong provocateur of discontent among Negroes…”
A classic example of what messed with the nerves of Hoover and his cohorts was included in a Pittsburg Courier column written by journalist/historian J.A. Rogers:
“Even the boldest Negro writers cannot say all that’s in their hearts at a time like this. There are always underhanded Gestapo methods of cracking down on Negro publications… Don’t think that the Nazis have a monopoly on high-handed tactics.”
The Courier also published a letter-to-the-editor from a Black soldier, which stated that “I doubt if the Japs are as bad as we are led to believe. I doubt if they would treat loyal, patriotic citizens as badly as the Negro is treated in America.”
It was another letter to the Courier that probably most angered Hoover and his fellow supporters who wanted the Black press to see no evil, hear no evil, nor write about the evil White supremacists/racists who were brutalizing and often killing Black folks throughout World War II.
Victory at home
The letter, according to Washburn, was written by James G. Thompson, a 26-year-old cafeteria worker with the Cessna Aircraft Corporation. It read as follows:
“Like all true Americans, my greatest desire at this time…Is for a complete victory over the forces of evil which threatens our existence today. Behind that desire is also a desire to serve this, my country, in the most advantageous way.
“Most of our leaders are suggesting that we sacrifice every other ambition to the paramount one, victory. With this I agree; but I also wonder if another victory could not be achieved at the same time…Being an American of dark complexion… these questions flash through my mind:
“‘Should I sacrifice my life to live half American?’ ‘Will things be better for the next generation in the peace to follow?’ ‘Would it be demanding too much to demand full citizenship rights in exchange for the sacrificing of my life?’ ‘Is this kind of America I know worth defending?’ ‘Will America be a true and pure democracy after this war?’ ‘Will colored Americans suffer still the indignities that have been heaped upon them in the past?’
“I suggest that – while we keep defense and victory in the forefront – that we don’t lose sight of our fight for true democracy at home. The V for victory sign is being displayed prominently in all so-called democratic countries which are fighting for victory over aggression, slavery and tyranny.
If this V sign means that to those now engaged in this great conflict, then let us colored Americans adopt the double V for a double victory.
“The first V for victory over our enemies from without, the second V for victory over our enemies from within. For surely those who perpetrate these ugly prejudices here are seeking to destroy our democratic form of government just as surely as the Axis forces.”
Symbol of pride
The Double V campaign, spread throughout the country by the Black Press, became a symbol of pride for most Black folks who began setting up Double V gardens, Double V clubs, Double V songs, Double V beauty pageants, Double V fashion, Double V bands, pictures of Double V girls and a Double V hairstyle called the Doubler.
It is unfortunate that the Black Press in 2017 has no such unifying, productive symbol to promote at this time.
A. Peter Bailey’s latest book is “Witnessing Brother Malcolm X, the Master Teacher.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.