Pleading Their Own Cause: Letters to the Editor and Editorials in Ten African-American Newspapers, 1929-30

Article excerpt

This research explores more than 1,534 published letters to the editor and 2,197 editorials in ten African-American newspapers from October 29, 1929, the day when the stock market crashed, through October 29, 1930. During this one-year period, African-American readers and editorial writers discussed and debated vital issues, attempted to make sense of the rapidly changing world, and created a sense of community on the editorial pages of their newspapers. This study, which examined papers from South, East, and West as well as the "Promised Land" of the North, is important because the largely unfiltered voices of black letter writers from 1929-30 are heard as they grappled in print with life and racism, pleaded their own causes, worked out their identities, and expressed their worries about daily life

There is a growing body of literature about the history of the I African-American press, but what is missing is a systematic JL study of the history and content of letters to the editor and editorials in these newspapers. This void is especially puzzling since coverage of the history of this press is flourishing as more historians and academicians have come to recognize the historical importance of African-American newspapers in the life and community of African-Americans. In 1971, for instance, historian Martin Dann urged more research into the content and history of black newspapers: "The black press was the focal point of every controversy and every concern of black people, representing the strengths and mutual reinforcements that united the black community."1

More research has followed Dann's call. In his 1998 book, The African American Press, Charles Simmons wrote that the black press has provided an essential record of the details of the efforts of a people to end the horror of slavery and then deal with subsequent generations of hatred and discrimination.2 Stanley Nelson's 1999 PBS television documentary, The Black Press: Soldiers without Swords, noted that for more than 150 years African-American newspapers had been "among the strongest institutions in bkck America." He argued that their editors helped create and stabilize communities, acting as advocates for the political and economic interests of their readers while also creating and maintaining thousands of jobs for African-Americans. He also explained that these newspapers guided readers "through a rigidly segregated world, suggested where readers could shop without humiliation, told them which employers did not discriminate. The sports and society pages in black newspapers lauded bkck athletes and professionals who the white press ignored."3

But this was not a one-way conversation. Over the years, thousands of readers of the African-American press talked back in letters to the editor. They scolded the editors when they thought they had been too timid, reminded them of the need of victimized people to finally fight back, and argued about tactics-should fighting back entail meat cleavers or peaceful boycotts, simple hatred of all whites, or an all-embracing love of only blacks? Thus, letters to the editor were a chronicle of some of the public response, debate, and discussion with the editors conducted on the editorial pages of the African-American press. As such, they are of vital importance in gauging the impact that the African-American press was having at a given time, especially if there was a crisis.

This article addresses part of the gap in the scholarly literature about letters to the editor in the African-American press and provides an important addition to what is known about these newspapers. It specifically explores published letters to the editor and editorials in ten African-American papers for a one-year period, from October 29,1929 (Black Tuesday, the day of the stock market crash), through October 29, 1930, which was a time when the nation's economic fabric was unraveling. More than 1,534 letters and 2,187 editorials published in the weekly papers from across the U. …