Note: This paper was prepared and delivered in part to a panel at the Union for Democratic Communications (UDC) national conference which was held at Wayne State University in Detroit during the weekend of September 30-October 1, 2016. Other panelists in this roundtable were Zenobia Jeffries of Yes! Magazine; Prof. Charles Simmons, retired from Eastern Michigan University and a former senior correspondent for the Muhammad Speaks newspaper in the 1960s and 1970s; Peter Werbe of the Fifth Estate and radio broadcaster in the city for years; and Reginald Carter, former managing editor of the South End and editor staff member of the Inner City Voice.
Introduction: The Social Need for Independent Media
This conference of the Union of Democratic Communicators is well served by holding this gathering in the city of Detroit during this important period.
Detroit for the more than 180 years has been a center in the movements for the abolition of slavery and national oppression as a major conduit within what became known as the Underground Railroad. One of the first urban rebellions in the history of the United States occurred here in 1833 around the threat of sending Lucie, the wife of Thornton Blackburn, back into slavery in the South. After escaping from detention in Detroit they fled to Windsor, Ontario across the River. Their legal case established Canada as a refuge for Africans fleeing from involuntary servitude in the U.S.
Africans in Detroit in 1833 had threatened to burn down the city if this couple was turned over to slave catchers. Even though there was slavery in the formerly French and British territory and the history of Native removal warrants a separate panel to review, events surrounding the Blackburn saga has served to shape a method in which the political outlook of Africans in Detroit can be viewed extending to the modern period.
As it relates to media, the African population during slavery began to create its own communication mechanism through various forms. There were institutions which arose in the religious area that were independent in character and anti-slavery.
Some of the earliest of these institutions being the First African Baptist Church of the Southeast of the U.S. beginning in the late 18th century. Later the more well-known African Methodist Episcopal Church grew out of the African Society of Philadelphia led by Richard Allen, Sarah Allen and Absalom Jones.
In 1827 the Freedom Journal was founded in New York City under the leadership of Samuel Cornish and John Russworm. According to the Black Past website, “Freedom’s Journal was the first African American owned and operated newspaper in the United States. A weekly four column publication printed every Friday. Freedom’s Journal was founded by free born African Americans John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish on March 16, 1827 in New York City, New York. The newspaper contained both foreign and domestic news, editorials, biographies, births and deaths in the local African American community, and advertisements. Editorials deriding slavery, racial discrimination, and other injustices against African Americans were aimed at providing a counterweight to many of the white newspapers of the time period which openly supported slavery and racial bias.”
This site continues noting that “Freedom’s Journal was not born solely out of the perceived need to defend African Americans as much as a desire within the black community to create a forum that would express their views and advocate for their causes. Russwurm and Cornish placed great value on the need for reading and writing as keys to empowerment for the black population and they hoped a black newspaper would encourage literacy and intellectual development among African Americans. Relatedly the newspaper sought to broaden its readers’ awareness of world events and developments while simultaneously strengthening ties among black communities across the Northern United States. Subscriptions were $3 per year and Freedom’s Journal at its peak circulated in eleven states, the District of Columbia, Haiti, Europe, and Canada.”
Later in the 19th century and also in response to the need to abolish slavery and foster national consciousness, Mary Ann Shadd, an African writer, is said to have been the first woman of her race to publish and edit a newspaper the Provincial Freeman beginning in 1853 in Chatham, Ontario. Shadd was born in Wilmington, Delaware in 1823, the oldest of 13 children.
Her father had worked with William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist and newspaper publisher of The Liberator, beginning in 1831. Shadd moved to Canada in the early 1850s in response to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. She spent considerable time in Detroit doing investigations for articles in the newspaper. During the Civil War she returned to the U.S. to aid in the effort to end slavery.
Shadd was an advocate of African emigration to Canada and other parts of the Western Hemisphere during the antebellum period. She would issue a 50-page monograph in Detroit during 1852 entitled: “A plea for emigration, or, Notes of Canada West in its moral, social, and political aspect; with suggestions respecting Mexico, West Indies, and Vancouver’s Island, for the information of colored emigrants.”
Later Shadd would study law at Howard University in Washington, D.C. becoming perhaps the first African American woman again to break this barrier. She would live until 1893 in the nation’s capital.
In the aftermath of slavery and the defeat of federal reconstruction in the late 1870s, by the mid-1880s, a nationwide campaign was undertaken to effectively close any avenues of African American advancement in the U.S. Nonetheless, literacy rates among African Americans rose with the advent of schools in the South and migration to urban areas of the North and West. An era of independent African American newspaper publishing came into existence along with the escalation and production of cultural work in the areas of literature, music, theater, visual arts, photography and design.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett represented this emergence of an intellectual stratum within the African American community two decades after the Civil War who defied the racist society pushing the constraints to their limits. Wells was born in Holly Spings, Mississippi during the Civil War in 1862. She would move to nearby Memphis, a major urban center, during the late 1870s in the midst of one of the worst yellow fever epidemics in U.S. history. By 1884, Wells as a young educator had refused to exit the women’s section (non-smoking) aboard a passenger train near Woodstock, Tennessee. She was physically ejected from the train. Not to be humiliated, Wells filed suit against the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company winning initially but having the decision later overturned on appeal.
Wells had become a cultural figure in Memphis during the mid-to-late 1880s by her participation at the lyceum and as a contributor to the African American newspaper the Evening Star. By the early 1890s, she had partnered with another published to put out a newspaper The Free Speech and Headlight. She would eventually take total control of the publication. After her uncompromising stand in protest against the lynching of three of her friends by a white mob in 1892, Wells newspaper offices were firebombed while she was away in New York. She would never return to live in Memphis again. She settled in Chicago and married Ferdinand Barnett, an attorney and newspaper publisher of the Conservator. They remained married until her death in 1931 at the height of the Great Depression.
These developments in the late 19th and early 20th century would spawn the advent of the Women’s Club Movement which encompassing hundreds of thousands of African Americans. These organizations were opponents of lynching and advocates of women’s suffrage and other progressive policies.
Some of the early participants in the Civil Rights and Pan-Africanist Movements of the late 19th and early decades of the 20th century were women such as Anna J. Cooper, Addie B. Hunton, Mary Church Terrell, Amy Ashwood-Garvey, Shirley Graham Du Bois, and many others. The activities of these women and their organizations cannot easily be categorized alongside white women’s activists who often operated in far different social milieus and class circles.
The Great Depression to the Civil Rights Era
During the early decades of the 20th century a vibrant African American press would emerge. Scholnn Freeman’s paper yesterday on the Race War Radicals: The Critical Return of the New Negro Press is an important review in light of developments of the last two decades as it relates to the emergence of the Pan-African world press in the digital media platform.
These publications such as the Chicago Daily Defender, the Atlanta Daily World, the Negro World, the Crisis, Opportunity, etc. represented what is now described as the “Golden Era of the Black Press.” Leading up to the post-World War II, many of these papers maintained a militant opposition to racism and class exploitation. Their editorial thrust leaned in an anti-imperialist direction.
What is often overlooked by many scholars both historically and today is the activity of the radical left newspapers and journals. Freeman mentioned Hubert Harrison who was the subject of a political biography Jeffrey B. Perry in recent years. I wrote a review of this book describing it as a much-needed work in the recovery and analysis of this often neglected period.
Other publications also warrant review such as:
The Messenger–founded and edited by Chandler Owen and A. Philipp Randolph in 1917, both members of the Socialist Party and successful labor organizers. Randolph later served as the leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters while Owen continued as a journalist with the Chicago Bee after 1928 when the Messenger ceased publication, eventually entering electoral politics as a candidate and speech writer for Republican and Democratic politicians.
The Negro Champion—was the organ of the first effort at mass organizing among the Communist Party (Workers) stemming from the founding of the American Negro Labor Congress (ANLC) in 1925. The ANLC was founded in Chicago and surfaced in the aftermath of the dissolution of the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), where the Workers Party had gained its first African American and African Caribbean recruits.
The Liberator—the successor to the Negro Champion which become the official publication of the League of Struggle for Negro Rights (LSNR) formed in 1930 during the Great Depression. The news organ circulated during 1929-1932.
The Negro Worker—described itself on its cover from July 1931, Vol. 1, No. 7 as the Organ of the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers based in Hamburg, Germany. The publication reflected the efforts of the Communist International to organize an international federation of African workers including the continent, Europe and the U.S. This journal campaigned extensively on behalf of the Scottsboro defendants in Alabama whom on numerous occasions faced the death penalty.
Other leading figures in left journalism of the period included Claudia Jones, an African Caribbean communist. Jones did tenant and youth organizing as early as the late 1930s in New York City. She wrote extensively for the communist-allied press and took on the revisionism of Earl Browder in Political Affairs in the aftermath of the conclusion of World War II when Jones accused the Party of liquidating the African American national question under the guise of integration.
Jones would be indicted during the Cold War period for violating the Smith Act spending a year in prison before she was deported to Britain. In England during the 1950s until her death in 1964, she organized among the Caribbean community initiating the annual Carnivals and founding the West Indian Gazette newspaper in London during 1958. Jones’ role in the UK was more in line with her work centered in national liberation and Pan-Africanism.
The Movement Press Takes a Turn: Muhammad Speaks, Inner City Voice/South End and the Black Panther
After the Nation of Islam became a critical force in the African American community nationally in the late 1950s, the organization under the direction of Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X created the Messenger Magazine, different in character politically from The Messenger of Randolph and Owen. This publication focused heavily on what appeared to be efforts to recruit for the NOI with not much information about the broader African American struggle and social conditions.
However, by 1961, the Muhammad Speaks would emerge as a weekly newspaper published in Chicago. The paper was initiated by Malcolm X and would employ many professional journalists as writers. Prof. Charles Simmons was hired by them in the late 1960s where he served as a senior correspondent focusing considerably on African and Middle Eastern affairs.
The newspaper was circulated broadly on a national level as a condition of membership in the Fruit of Islam, the male wing of the NOI. In addition to its own correspondents, stringers and contributors, there were reprints from news agencies in both the U.S. and internationally, including the African continent. Writers such as Charles Howard, Sr., Eldridge Cleaver while still in prison, Ethel Minor and others appeared in its pages.
Later appearing within months of each other, the Inner City Voice of Detroit and the Black Panther of Oakland, California would emerge. 1967 has been described by journalist and activist James Foreman, the former executive secretary and international affairs director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), as “The High Tide of Black Resistance.” There were over 160 outbreaks of urban rebellion that year according to the National Advisory Commission Study on Civil Disorder, popularly known as the Kerner Commission Report. (1968)
The Inner City Voice was founded in the aftermath of the July 1967 Great Rebellion in Detroit by leading revolutionaries in the area. Its first issue in October of that year focused on the rebellion, the Black Power Conference held in July in Newark, the Black Congress in Chicago that coincided with the National Conference for a New Politics held over Labor Day weekend, and the visit by the-then SNCC Chairman H. Rap Brown (later known as Jamil Abdullah al-Amin).
Early issues of the Black Panther and the Inner City Voice reflected the low-budget and technical challenges facing such publications during this time period. However, by 1968, both the Black Panther and the Inner City Voice would experience profound transformation technically and politically.
The South End newspaper at Wayne State University was radicalized in 1967 during the same time period as the Rebellion. In the second year of radicalization, John Watson, a leading organizer of African American youth as well as Marxist theoretician, was appointed the editor, providing the Inner City Voice with far greater resources to publish a daily newspaper. Many of the papers were distributed off campus among African American workers in factories, students in high schools and in community settings.
Also the Black Panther incorporated modernized technology as well and became a regular weekly publication. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense founded 50 years ago this month in Oakland, California, would declare the organization a Marxist-Leninist party by late 1968. The Black Panther and the South End promoted internationalism.
There were of course sometimes sharp ideological divisions between the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW) in contrast to the BPP. In simple terms, the League saw the African American working class as the vanguard of the Black Revolution. The Oakland-based Panthers came to suggest that the so-called Lumpen Proletariat was the most revolutionary force within the oppressed nation.
At any rate in retrospect these political differences do not necessarily take away from the journalistic contributions of the Inner City-South End and the Black Panther during 1968-1973.
These publications, the Muhammad Speaks, Inner City Voice-South End and Black Panther served to encourage other newspapers and journals to come into existence or move further to the left. Additional journals and newspapers such as the Negro Digest, later the Black World, the Black Scholar, African World, Contrast in Toronto, to name only a few, provide an excellent overview of the radical thinking prevalent among African Americans during the 1960s and 1970s.
Our Work: The Pan-African News Wire
The decline in newspaper and journal publishing cannot be exclusively viewed within the context of the impact of the state and corporate attacks against the Black Liberation Movements which developed during the 1960s and 1970s. There has been much discussion, even at this conference, about the disappearance of investigative journalism, substantive news content within the corporate media outlets and the collapse of hundreds of publications over the last four decades.
This phenomenon was represented in the broader mainstream press beginning in the 1950s with the spread of television and its coverage of the news. Perhaps one of the most humorous but instructive manifestation of the increasing dominance of television over print media was the conflict in 1957 between gossip columnist based at the New York Mirror Walter Winchell and early Tonight talk show host Jack Paar.
Neither of these media personalities liked each other and when Winchell sought to spread rumors about Paar, he struck back with a vengeance. Winchell, a cold warrior with connections to Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, had already fallen into disfavor by many within the American public. Paar utilized the new technology to ridicule his nemesis characterizing him as a relic.
Later the 1962-63 newspaper strike in New York City was a turning point in the status of print media. In its aftermath, many local newspapers in the city folded. Since 1963, this downsizing within the industry has accelerated. Today many young people and even those from older generations get their news from smart phones, tablets and lap top computers.
Vanity Fair in an article published in 2012 said of the strike led by the printers’ unions that “One of the most dramatic and vexing strikes in American history was under way. The showdown of 1962–63 pitted around 17,000 newspaper employees—pressmen, photoengravers, paper handlers, reporters, elevator operators, office boys—against the owners and publishers of seven New York City newspapers, who were determined to curtail the influence of Big Six and nine other clamorous unions. Over the next 114 days, 600 million newspapers would go unprinted; newspaper-obsessed New Yorkers would be forced to navigate their metropolis without them. President John F. Kennedy would denounce the president of Big Six, Bertram “Bert” Powers, who spearheaded the strike; the Publishers Association would be shaken by the defection of its only woman, Dorothy Schiff of the New York Post; and the newsgathering abilities of local TV stations would grow in size and sophistication. The strike would put a decisive end to New York as a boisterous newspaper town, one that in the 1920s had possessed 19 dailies.” (Nov. 30)
This article continues stressing “At its core, the New York newspaper strike was a battle over technology. The 1950s and 1960s saw the emergence of computerized typesetting systems that would revolutionize the newspaper composing room. Newspapers that prohibited unions, such as the Los Angeles Times, rushed to install cutting-edge computers such as the RCA 301. Newspapers with union contracts, including those in New York City, faced tempestuous resistance from labor leaders, who could easily see that automation would cost jobs. Today, new technology is again shaking American newspapers as the Internet drains away more and more advertising revenue. Cities with dailies may soon face a newspaper blackout much darker than what New York experienced a half-century ago. For a brief period, New York was a laboratory that demonstrated what can happen when newspapers vanish.”
With specific reference to the radical African American press of the 1960s and 1970s, the Muhammad Speaks was dissolved several months after the death of NOI leader Elijah Muhammad in early 1975. This took place amid a recession which marked a worldwide restructuring of the global capitalist system.
The Black Panther continued to publish until 1980. The newspaper faced problems associated with the decline of the Black Panther Party, a subject which extends beyond the scope of this paper.
Therefore, the creation of the Pan-African News Wire in January 1998 was in part a response to the decline of radical African American media in an increasing digitized framework. When the internet became a popular communications technology in 1994 its impact became immediately evident. The soon innovations in html technology with software such as mosaic and netscape prefigured the replacement of hard copy newspaper and journal publication.
The PANW started out by issuing press releases in response to the overturning of the unprecedented convictions of two white Detroit police officers in the killing of African American Malice Green in 1992. The two officers were put on trial and convicted in 1993 by a jury impaneled by the now defunct municipal Recorder’s Court.
Later PANW moved into publishing reviews of the television series aired on the life of European settler-colonialist Cecil Rhodes. Eventually news items and analysis would characterize the bulk of the output.
With the advent of blog technology we quickly moved into this area of communication. Photo filing and sharing, the reproduction of historical documents, research reports and interviews would soon follow.
Over the last six years much of the content found on the blog is accessible through social media outlets such Facebook and Twitter. Within the course of this technology we have been able to reach millions.
From an academic standpoint it is quite striking to note the degree to which electronically generated journalism and scholarly writings are now cited by what are considered established academic sources and institutions. Our work has even penetrated ruling class organs such as Air Force University in Alabama, the NATO War College, Voice of America, Institute of Security Studies, among others.
This broad exposure of the PANW lead as well to collaborations with satellite television news networks such Russia Today (RT), Press TV (Iran) and Television Continental (TVC) based in Lagos, Nigeria, which is promoted as the only pan-African network news and entertainment network, posturing itself as a possible alternative to CNN and the BBC in Africa and the world.
In regard to partnerships with other news and scholarly websites, our work is regularly published by the Center for Research on Globalization in Canada, the 4th Media in Beijing, People’s Republic of China, News Ghana, Pambazuka News, to name a few. In turn these articles and research reports are reprinted by other news outlets internationally such as The New Worker in Britain, African Nordic Institute in Sweden, the Zimbabwe Herald in Harare and Southern Times in Namibia.
Since this upsurge in electronic publishing we have been cited in at least 100 identified academic journals, research reports and books. Some articles and reports have been serialized in publications in Ghana and other African states.
In October of 2012, as a result of an interview this writer conducted with RT International on the military and political situation in Syria, the British Office of Communications (OFCOM) censured the Moscow-based network saying it violated its standards for impartial reporting. This was a surprising development that someone in Detroit could make statements over an international satellite news network which is carried by cable providers in the UK prompting such a robust exercise of supposed authority. OFCOM issued a 13-page report where this writer’s name was repeated throughout the document. (http://panafricannews.blogspot.com/2012/11/abayomi-azikiwe-panw-editor-focus-of.html)
Coinciding with the OFCOM complaint against the RT interview with myself, the network had been rated as a major competitor with the BBC. This is clearly a threat to imperialist-oriented corporate as well as state-sponsored news media. RT is said to have anywhere between 700 million and one billion viewers worldwide. Their audience is growing substantially within the U.S. and Western Europe. (http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/enforcement/broadcast-bulletins/obb217/obb217.pdf)
Chairman Mao Tse-Tung of the Chinese Communist Party said many decades ago in an essay entitled “TO BE ATTACKED BY THE ENEMY IS NOT A BAD THING BUT A GOOD THING”, issued during the Third Anniversary of the Founding of the Chinese People’s Anti-Japanese Military and Political College on May 26, 1939, that “Some people attack the college; they are the country’s capitulationists and die-hards. This only goes to show that the college is a most revolutionary and progressive one, or otherwise they would not attack it. The vigorous attacks by the capitulationist die-hards testify to its revolutionary and progressive nature and add to its luster. It is a glorious military institute not only because the majority of the people support and praise it, but also because the capitulationists and die-hards strenuously attack and slander it.”
Mao continues saying “I hold that it is bad as far as we are concerned if a person, a political party, an army or a school is not attacked by the enemy, for in that case it would definitely mean that we have sunk to the level of the enemy. It is good if we are attacked by the enemy, since it proves that we have drawn a clear line of demarcation between the enemy and ourselves. It is still better if the enemy attacks us wildly and paints us as utterly black and without a single virtue; it demonstrates that we have not only drawn a clear line of demarcation between the enemy and ourselves but achieved a great deal in our work.” (Marxists.org)
Challenges in the Digital Age and the Problems of Mass Mobilization and Organization
This effort to create a “New Negro Press” so to speak is not limited to the efforts of this writer and fellow co-thinkers based in Detroit. There are numerous other online news agencies, blogs, social media groups, etc. who are conducting this work and gaining broader audiences.
Some of the most notable are Black Agenda Report, Black Commentator, Black America Web, Roots, Black Star, Black Women in Brazil, and a host of emerging sites that are too numerous to mention. This technology is transforming the collection, dissemination, analyses and utilization of news information and knowledge production.
However, as was pointed out in other panels and roundtables, the problems of overcoming corporate cooptation of tactics developed by social media and web activists are very much in evidence. Some of these new outlets have been won over by ruling class interests who see the profitability of alternative sources of news and information.
No one in this period could honestly deny that the utilization of websites and social media platforms have served as mechanism for the mobilization of mass sentiment and organizing. The Black Lives Matter Movement was jump-started as a hash tag. Demonstrations surrounding the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in 2013 illustrated this potential. This same assertion can be extended to the rebellions and mass protests when Michael Brown, 18, was gunned down by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014.
These manifestations and rebellions continued in Baltimore after the killing of Freddie Grey by the police. Most recently this summer there were outbreaks of demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands when Alton Sterling was killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota.
Last month the shootings at the hands of police guns sparked thousands to enter the streets in response to the violent deaths of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Keith Lamont Scott and Justin Carr in Charlotte, North Carolina. Charlotte, often dubbed as the “Wall Street of the South” was shaken as a result of these demonstrations which lasted for over a week.
Nonetheless, the new technology does not create conditions for the dismissal of tried and tested technics of organizing and mobilizing. The need for one-on-one contacts, sit-down meetings, and the deliberate physical confrontation with adversaries within the corporate structures and the capitalist state are still required to make effective change and to conduct meaningful political education.
This is why the discipline of organization remains a necessity. In our view the intellectual and ideological methodology of Marxism cannot be severed from the Leninist view of revolutionary organization deriving from a clear understanding as it relates to the role of the capitalist state.
Management theorist Peter Drucker in his book of two decades ago, the Post-Capitalist Society, falsely claims that class divisions are on the wane due to the appearance of an “information age.” However, this “information age” since the 1990s has witnessed the elimination of millions of jobs, houses and housing complexes, an expanding militarization both internationally and domestically, a displacement of people not witnessed since the conclusion of World War II, the deepening of class differences within capitalist societies even in North America and the further impoverishment of the nationally oppressed, women and the working class as a whole.
Therefore, the acquisition of information and knowledge does not preclude the necessity of revolutionary social change. This task requires the direct intervention of people operating in an organized fashion with the capacity of disrupting the normal functioning of the exploitative system and the harnessing of this state and its transformation in the interests of the majority of people within society.
By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire