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Simpson Street Free Press

How the Chicago Defender Newspaper Helped Spark “Great Migration”

Once known as "The World's Greatest Weekly," the Chicago Defender newspaper has been publishing news and information for nearly 117 years. Providing dependable and important news to the African American people of Chicago, it remains one of the most influential black weekly newspapers in the nation.

The newspaper was launched by Robert S. Abbott in 1905. Inspired by his beliefs in equal job opportunities and social justice, Abbott published the first issue of the Chicago Defender on May 5th, of that year. By 1910 the Defender began to gain popularity and readership.

The Chicago Defender soon became more than just a newspaper. It was also a beacon, especially for African American readers in the Southern United States.

To distribute the paper beyond the city of Chicago, Abbott worked out a system with railroad workers who agreed to take the Defender across state lines by rail into the South. This method of circulation was informal, but very effective. And it was often against the law. White distributors refused to circulate the paper and groups like the Ku Klux Klan would confiscate the paper and threaten people who were found reading it.

But that didn’t stop the black population from reading. At the paper’s height, it is estimated that four out of five African Americans read the Chicago Defender. By the 1920s readership reached 500,000 people a week.

The Defender used large, sensationalist headlines and graphic images to capture the attention of readers. The paper often covered the racial injustice African Americans faced in the United States. During World War I, they published articles supporting the Great Migration --- the mass movement of African Americans from the South to the North. The paper posted job listings and train schedules and even declared May 15, 1917 as “The Great Northern Drive.”

The paper’s influence was wide reaching, with more than 110,000 people migrating to Chicago between 1916 and 1918. After the war, the Defender covered events like the Red Summer Riots of 1919 and featured well known journalists of the era, Walter White and Langston Hughes, as columnists. The paper was also a champion for fair housing policies and equal employment opportunities.

In 1953, the Chicago Weekly Defender became the Chicago Daily Defender, reporting daily during the Civil Rights Movement. They reported on the deaths of Emmett Till and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., among others, and criticized the United States Armed Forces for their treatment of black servicemen.

After publisher John H. Sengstacke, who had succeeded John Abbott, passed away in 1997, circulation declined to less than 20,000. In 2003, the Defender was bought by Real Time Inc. and in 2008, returned to weekly publications. In 2019, the Defender stopped their presses and began reporting online. While many Chicago families were nostalgic for the print version, the transition to the online Defender proved successful, reaching 475,000 unique visitors a month.

Now, 117 years strong, the Chicago Defender is still providing news in a fair and balanced manner.

[Sources: Smithsonian Magazine; Britannica; The New York Times; Chicago Defender]

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