Historian Says Newspapers Upheld White-Supremacist Political Economy

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  • “Printing Hate” is a new series on newspapers’ role in instigating racial violence from 1865-1960s.
  • Some newspapers served as mouthpieces for a white supremacist agenda, a historian told Insider.
  • She said newspapers often worked with white leaders to thwart Black economic aspirations.

A new series, “Printing Hate“, captures the role newspapers had in instigating racial lynchings and massacres from 1865 through the 1960s.

The project is a partnership from the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism and journalism schools at several universities. Sixty journalism students were selected to report and write the series.

Professor Kathy Roberts Forde, an American journalism historian at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, was quoted in “Printing Hate”. She has a book coming out next month titled, “Journalism and Jim Crow: White Supremacy and the Black Struggle for a New America.”

Forde told Insider that much of local newspapers’ coverage during that time period was to uphold the white supremacist political economy — and newspapers affiliated with the southern Democratic party served as mouth pieces for that agenda.

“They used their soft power, their storytelling power of their newspapers, to spread an ideology of white supremacy,” Forde said.

“And they did it through political stories, economic stories, social stories, etc. But then they also used the newspapers as the institutions themselves — they used that hard power of a news media institution joining forces with politicians and political leaders in devising electoral violence against Black southerners.”

Newspaper reports instigated the Danville Massacre in 1883, the project found

African Americans' homes following the race massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921

 

Smoke rises from the ruins of African Americans’ homes following the race massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921.

Reuters

The first two pieces in the series, released Monday, show how newspapers in some cases spread lies agitating racial tensions that led to violence, including the Danville Massacre.

The project reported that on Nov. 4, 1883, the Richmond Dispatch wrote: “These negroes had evidently come to regard themselves as in some sort the rightful rulers of the town. They have been taught a lesson — a dear lesson, it is true … but nevertheless a lesson which will not be lost upon them, nor upon their race elsewhere in Virginia.”

The “lesson” the newspaper was referencing was the lynching of Black men for daring to leave their home to vote, the series reported. In three days of violence, seven Black men were killed and two white men were injured.

This type of violence from white citizens was common then, Forde said.

“Throughout the 1883 election season, the Democrats incited racial animus through inflammatory reports and commentary about ‘Negro misrule’ in newspapers across the state,” Forde told Insider.

All of this was brought about because of a newspaper report raising fear of Black political power in the area, the project found. Many newly emancipated Black people were starting businesses and being elected into public office, which white newspapers interpreted as some sort of loss for white residents.

This was common during that time period because white newspapers always had a political agenda and mystified much of their editorial and reporting, Professor Jane Dailey, who was also quoted in the “Printing Hate” project, told Insider. Black newspapers provided the balance.

“There were many Black papers throughout that time period that constantly pushed back against these institutions,” Dailey said. “They were absolute thorns in the side for anyone who wanted to stop talking about white supremacy.”

Newspapers were one of many institutional pillars that upheld white supremacy, historian says

Greenwood neighborhood after a mob passed during the race massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma

 

A view of the Greenwood neighborhood after a mob passed during the race massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 1, 1921.

Reuters

Newspapers often collaborated with white political and business leaders to thwart Black economic aspirations and opportunities, Forde said, citing the 1919 Elaine Massacre in Arkansas.

Roughly 100 Black sharecroppers went to meet with The Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America about organizing a union because they were fed up with unfair low wages. Armed white men showed up to the church where the meeting took place and shots were exchanged between the men and two union armed guards.

In response, Gov. Charles Brough called in 500 soldiers, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Many local newspapers that day also ran racially provoking headlines, pushing hundreds of white people from outside the county to scurry in and hunt and murder Black citizens, according to a dissertation on the incident. At least 200 Black people were killed.

“Newspapers in Arkansas were co-conspirators with the white political leaders, including the governor, as well white plantation owners in covering up this racial massacre,” Forde said. “It was all about squashing the economic hopes and work of Black tenant farmers and sharecroppers.”

Black men were lynched when they exerted political autonomy, were able to escape the penal debt system as farmers, or had successful businesses in competition with white businesses, Forde said. And she added newspapers often fomented feelings of fear by white people, acting as one of many institutional pillars that upheld white supremacy.

She said that still reverberates throughout media today, with many newsrooms across the US still majority-white, newsroom leadership lacking diversity, and news content and coverage needing to be more diversified.

“My position is we need a revolution in journalism standards that orients journalism toward serving the goals of a multiracial, just democracy,” Forde said. “We need to have serious conversations today in the news industry itself and in journalism higher education about what those sorts of standards might look like.”

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