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Newspapers boldly mirrored the black American experience

Sunday, February 07, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post- Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- For producer/director Stanley Nelson, the most dynamic footage in "The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords" is the most commonplace.

"One of the things I realized is that you don't see a lot of film of black people just strolling down the street," Nelson said. "Usually the camera is there for a reason, like at a march. But this says so much about the black community - you see the way they felt about themselves in the way they are walking."

That was important, Nelson said, because the black press showed black people as they saw themselves.

"It's a subtle, but really important point," Nelson said. "Today when you see most black intellectual writing, you're basically interpreting black people to a white audience. The black press wrote for a black audience."

From the 1920s to the 1940s, Nelson said the black press was rivaled only by black churches for influence in the lives of African-Americans, and the Pittsburgh Courier was one of the leading black newspapers in the country.

"It was a national paper, with editions published in a number of different cities," Nelson said.

One of the Courier's initiatives spread throughout the country. The "double V" campaign during World War II suggested that Americans should strive for victory in the war overseas and victory in the war against racism on the home front.

"It spread all over the nation," Nelson said. "Some papers didn't call it 'double V.' They didn't want to steal their thunder."

Nelson said the Courier had more columnists than any other paper in the country.

"They had 15 columnists who wrote on different subjects," Nelson said. "One guy wrote a column called 'A White Man's View'; another column was called 'As an Indian Sees It,' written by an East Indian; and one written by a Chinese-American. The Pittsburgh Courier was not only an incredibly powerful paper, it was an incredibly good paper."

"Soldiers Without Swords" explains that black newspapers began losing writers to the mainstream press during the 1950s and 1960s, when those papers needed reporters to cover race riots. But long before that time, some black papers had white staff members.

"We don't deal with a lot of this in the film, but one of the things we were told at the Pittsburgh Courier was that there were white journalists who would go down South and kind of infiltrate some of the Klan rallies and other things that black reporters couldn't go to," Nelson said.

Print and broadcast journalist Vernon Jarrett, who is interviewed in the film, said it's worth noting that black newspapers integrated long before white-owned newspapers did.

"My editor, in 1946, was Saul Garfield, a white gentleman," Jarrett said at a recent meeting with TV critics. "Seated across the desk from me was a white woman. These were whites writing about blacks at the Chicago Defender in 1946. They were not forced to do this. We're in the white media today because of the exigencies of the moment."

The role of sports writers in the integration of baseball didn't make it into the documentary because of time constraints. Nelson said that aspect of the story received attention in other TV reports and writings, but will be covered on a "Soldiers Without Swords" Web site accessible at http://www.pbs.org.

Nelson's documentary makes it clear black newspapers played an advocacy role for the black community that distinguished them from the mainstream press. He said if black newspapers hope to survive in the future, they'll have to return to those roots.

"The black press was basically started by people who had a real fire in their belly to make change," Nelson said. "As their descendants took over - I'm not saying all the time, but a lot of times - they didn't have the same fire in their belly."

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