Thursday, August 11, 2005


COPYRIGHT 2005 Leslie Jones McCloud

During the middle of the Great Depression, the Chicago Defender and the
Black Press found
itself in trouble with the United States government for it‘s stance on
World War II and the
outcome of an editor's conference called by government officials in 1918.
Specifically, Chicago Defender founder Robert S. Abbott was called on the
carpet for his
news coverage of lynching in the South and North and his effort that
brought more than
50,000 Black Southerners to Chicago during the Great Migration.
Near the end of the 1930s, the Chicago Defender, needed new leadership.
Before his death
February 29, 1940, Abbott called on his nephew, John Sengstacke to run
the newspaper.
And he did so, although, reluctant.
"I wasn't too keen on it," he told John Taylor, a Chicago Defender
reporter in 1975.
Graduating in 1933 from Hampton University with a degree in Business
Sengstacke went home to Savannah, Georgia instead of coming to Chicago
like Abbott had
wanted. Three months later he was in Chicago.
Upon arrival, he said he did everything from writing editorials to
running the presses.
In six month's time he asked Abbott for stock in the company because he
didn't' want a "long
legal hassle," he said.
But there were bigger concerns that needed his attention besides the
newspaper's growing
wealth and legacy.
Sengstacke had become alarmed by the growing threat of censorship.
by the United States government, who in turn, was serious about their
allegations of
treason against the newspaper.
Along with other African American newspapers, the Defender protested the
treatment of
African American servicemen fighting in World War II and urged the
integration of the armed
In 1942, J Edgar Hoover, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation
provided Attorney
General Francis Biddle with lengthy reports on what he saw as seditious
activity by the
African American press.
It started innocently enough. A cafeteria worker named James Thompson,
wrote a letter to
the Pittsburgh Courier, troubled by the fact that he might be called upon
to defend a
nation in which he was treated like a second-class citizen.
He suggested that African Americans espouse a 'double V' campaign. The
symbol stood for
victory at war over enemies 'from without,' and victory at home against
the enemy of
prejudice 'from within.' When other readers wrote to congratulate
Thompson on his idea, the
Courier launched a huge publicity campaign, complete with lapel pins and
stickers, 'double
V' hair styles and songs.
The Chicago Defender picked up on the campaign.
It kept awareness of the injustices of segregation alive during the war.
It also brought
attention to Jim Crow-style segregation in the armed forces. The troops
themselves were
segregated, but black outfits were assigned white commanding officers.
Even the military's blood supply for the wounded was segregated by race.
White soldiers
brutalized black soldiers, and race riots took place in camps where
troops of both races
resided. The military tried to suppress word of these events, with
partial success; only
the black press reported discrimination and discord within the troops and
thusly, their
newspapers were banned from military grounds.
J. Edgar Hoover saw the double V campaign as an act of sedition. The
Chicago Defender had
once again, become the subject of a government investigation.
With President Franklin D. Roosevelt's approval, Hoover sought to indict
black publishers
for treason and shut down the Black Press.
May of 1942, Franklin Roosevelt told his Attorney General, Frances
Biddle, to instead, talk
to some of the black publishers and ask them to tone down what they were

Comments on this situation were discussed by Sengstacke, before his death
in 1997, with
Patrick Washburn. The film, The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords, by
Stanley Nelson is
based the interview.

"June, mid-June, 1942, John Sengstacke, the publisher of The Chicago
Defender and -- and
the top publisher, if you want to call him that, of the black press,
walked in the room at
the Justice Department and Biddle was there to meet him. There were all
these papers, like
The Cleveland Call and Post laid out on the table, included his own. And,
he looks at these
newspapers. They're all playing up the fact the blacks and whites are
killing each other
off at these Army camps in the South. And, ah, Biddle says, "See these
newspapers? These
are hurting the war effort and if you don't stop writing this stuff,
we're gonna take some
black publishers to court under the Espionage Act," Washburn said.

"Well, Sengstacke, who is incredibly tough and was also a college
graduate, like Biddle,
although he didn't go to Harvard and Harvard Law School, says to, Biddle,
"Look, we've been
writing' this stuff since the 1820s, since black newspapers started in
this country, and we
don't intend to stop now. And if you don't like it, just take us to court
under the
Espionage Act." And you -- you've got to realize what an incredible thing
that is for
Sengstacke to say to Biddle because Biddle's the Attorney General of the
United States, the
top law officer. He clearly has the right to take 'em to court if he
wants to," Washburn

"Ah, well,, over the next 45 minutes or an hour, the two men calmed down.
At the end of
that time, Biddle tells, Sengstacke, he says, "Look, we're not gonna take
you to court
under the Espionage Act, you or the other black publishers, if you don't
write anything
that's more critical than what you're writing right now on the federal
government. However,
I hope that you and the other black publishers will tone down what you're
writing." And he
also promised that he would get black reporters into these press
conferences of white
officials. That was another little kind of thing that happened," Washburn
Sengstacke spread the word within the Black press about what happened at
the meeting.
Two years after assuming the role of publisher of the Defender,
Sengstacke, negotiated a
compromise with the Justice Department that protected the First Amendment
rights of the
African American press.
It was the first of many firsts for Sengstacke, according to Thomas
Picou, chairman of Real
Times, Inc., parent company of the Chicago Defender.
"John Sengstacke's was my uncle by marriage but also my guardian until
age 21," Picou said.
"He was chairman of a committee that desegregated the U.S Military as
part of the Committee
on Equality Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Forces.
"Through that, he developed a relationship with President Harry S.
Truman," he said.
He also founded the Negro Newspaper Publishers Association in 1940 and
helped Harry McAlpin
became the first African-American correspondent at the White House,
through the agreement
with the U.S. Justice Department. He arranged a meeting with the Brooklyn
Dodgers that
helped Jackie Robinson become the first MLB player, Picou said.

The Bud Billiken parade started in the 1920s by Abbott but
Sengstacke incorporated Defender Charities in 1945 to help support it,
along with
By 1956 the Chicago Defender began daily production, in time to chronicle
the events of the
Little Rock Nine, the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education school
desegregation case,
according to his son Robert "Bobby" Sengstacke, former photographer for
the Chicago
Defender. His photographs, many posted inside the newspaper, chronicled
Black Chicago
through to the Civil Rights Movement and the fruits of its success.
"He used the newspaper to go around the country helping to improve the
race, bit by bit.
He sent a team of reporters out of the Tri-State Defender in Memphis,
Tennessee to cover
the Little Rock Nine," he said.
Later, his father brought them to Chicago to make appearances.
"I don't know if they were here to raise funds or not. He put them up in
a downtown hotel
for several days. They were like any other kids. They didn't talk a lot
about it but they
all had to be gutsy to do what they did," Bobby Sengstacke said.

The 1960s found Sengstacke back to business as usual, serving the
community through
relevant news.
It also mean a more demanding schedule.
"There was so much responsibility with the paper but he found time to
come home. Sometimes
the press would break down and they would have problems getting the paper
out. My father
did a lot of great things but he wasn't easy to get along with because he
was very
headstrong," Bobby Sengstacke said.
But he always came out a winner, said Sengstacke, who is now the only
surviving son.” When
you are in charge, you want to make it successful so if people thought he
was a
dictator--we got paid and we made money," he said.
"You had to be persistent with him though. It was always about business,"
he said.
He was great friends with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said
Joslyn DiPasalegne,
Sengstacke family historian, granddaughter of John Sengstacke and Vice
President of Event
Marketing. He was heavily involved in the Civil Rights marches and
"Whenever Martin Luther King was in Chicago, he saw John," she said.
Sengstacke mostly focused on improving the Defender during the 1970s.
He expanded it's circulation as far as O'Hare International Airport. It
had a daily
circulation of about 25,000, according to newspaper records. He
criticized area merchants
for not wanting to handle his product.
"Some distributors just don’t want us The same goes for some hotels but
there are a lot of
Blacks patronizing their places," he told one of his reporters during an
He hoped for improved race relations.
"It provably won't come during my lifetime but I hope some day we will
graduate from
tokenism to become full fledged members of the American scene," he said.
He said African-
Americans as a race had to "keep the pressure on."
He reflected that his father never really got to chose his career path.
He said his uncle
Abbott was sick and there was no one else at the time, qualified to run
the newspaper.
"I never got to ask him what he wanted to do with his life. Nobody knew.
After he started
the daily, he slowed down," Bobby Sengstacke said.
John Sengstacke started Amalgamated Publishing, an advertising company
but when he turned
the company over to new leadership, the business went down hill, Bobby
Sengstacke said.
In the 1990s, the Defender rolled along on its own strength. Back in the
1950s and 1960s 90
percent of the youth had a Defender. You could always find a party going
on. All of that
dropped off," he said.
Near the end of his father's life, he began raising money for Provident
Provident had been closed. He opened it so that poor Blacks didn't have
to go all of the
way to Cook County Hospital. He wanted to make sure people on the South
Side had health
care. He raised $55 million but it absorbed all of his time for 10
years," Bobby Sengstacke

The paper ran into serious financial problems and John Sengstacke
returned his attention to
the newspaper. He was also fighting a lifelong battle with emphysema.
He was in his 80s. He went back to chain smoking and in about a year or
so after returning
to the newspaper. Soon after, he died," Bobby Sengstacke said.
John Sengstacke also owned the Courier newspapers of Pittsburgh and Miami
and the Chronicle
of Detroit.
Chicago Defender publication grew to become the largest African-American
daily in the
Besides being directly involved in the desegregation of the U. S. armed
force, he also
worked closely with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create jobs in the
United States
Postal Service for African-Americans, according to the African American
Registry Web site.
He died May 28, 1997 of emphysema.
His brother Fred Sengstacke, who started out at the Defender in 1935 as a
janitor, took
over as publisher.


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