Forum for Protest

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Summary

Throughout American history, blacks have served honorably in combat. This service led many to believe that whites would finally view them as equals--an assumption that always met with disappointment. However, in World War II, many blacks, especially those in the black press, believed that military service would finally bring about change. In his interesting book, Forum for Protest: The Black Press During World War II, Professor Lee Finkle calls this era the zenith of the black press, as white liberals finally were attracted to an integrationist/civil rights movement. (9) In his estimation, it was also at this time that whites finally noticed what he calls a conservative black press in America as an agent of power, a realization that aroused either approval or, more often, fear. This fear is ironic, given that Finkle believes that the press was overly conservative, and not the agent of revolution.

Finkle begins his tale in the early days of the black press, when northern freemen began agitating against slavery. He documents the infrequent successes--and many failures--of publications from that era. With the advent of the Civil War, Frederick Douglas began articulating what would be known as during WWII as "Double V"--that exemplary service on the battlefield by blacks would lead to respect from whites. (27) Although blacks served, they met with resentment, and did not receive the just treatment for which they had hoped.

During the Gilded Age, the black press began to mature. Although many editors remained in the Republican fold, papers were not just mouthpieces of the party. Indeed, as Finkle asserts, "Newspapers were published that were becoming more than just partisan sheets edited by men more interested in politics than journalism."(30) However, Booker T. Washington of the famed Tuskegee Institute, became the dominant personality of the era. In Finkle's account, he comes across as almost calculating in his attempts to buy the newspapers of black editors who disagreed with his conciliatory stance. Washington used his money and influence to keep the press in line with his views. Indeed, Washington is not a likeable character in Finkle's volume, and the reader comes away with the distinct impression that the author does not particularly like him.

The passing of Booker T. Washington heralded the emergence of a modern black press. Voices such as W.E.B. DuBois spoke to a new urban, sophisticated readership, hungry for news. The press helped meet this need, even as controversy erupted over the role of blacks in the military during the First World War. Like the Japanese youths in Eric Muller's Free to Die for their Country. The Story of Japanese American Draft Resisters in World War II, black youths were encouraged by news editors to enlist to demonstrate their loyalty (echoing Frederick Douglass during the Civil War) even if they had to serve in segregated troops, so that whites might respect them after the war. Not all editors, however, presented the idea so hopefully. Robert Abbot, in his Defender eagerly presented discriminatory practices against black troops, so much so that Federal authorities came down on him. (46)

The dawning of the Second World War brought many of the same frustrations as previous eras. Again, black newspapers encouraged blacks to enlist, and, again, they met with segregation and abuse. The black press cried out against the most blatant abuses, but called upon troops to remain loyal to the country, and avoid doing anything that might be considered mutiny. If troops rebelled against their commanders, the press was ambivalent--they disliked the mistreatment, but believed that the troops had to be 100 percent obedient to achieve equality.

Finkle views this era of the black press as one of transition. The old guard, which called on blacks to accept the status quo in hopes of a better tomorrow, was passing. A more militant generation, raised on the papers of the era, was coming to the fore. Finkle sees the black people, not the leaders in the press, as agents that brought on the Civil Rights era. In his estimation, the papers were vehicles to retard, not advance, the black cause.

Commentary

Liz Jones, Spring 2007

Professor Finkle has written an interesting volume that discusses the reactions of the black press during the Second World War. His style lends itself to quick reading, and the book would prove useful to both graduate and undergraduate students of history.

Although Finkle's tale is an intriguing one, there are some problems with the work. As reviewer Alan Osur points out, the book was written in the 1970s, and Professor Finkle might have been judging the war from the so-called New Left perspective. So, while the work of the black press might have seemed quite conservative to him, from the perspective of the FDR administration, their writings probably seemed quite radical indeed.

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