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State

Illinois Bicentennial: ‘The World’s Greatest Weekly’ defends equality for more than 100 years

Newspaper becomes a national voice for African-Americans

On May 5, 1905, Robert Sengstacke Abbott founded the Chicago Defender newspaper in a small kitchen in his landlord’s apartment, with an initial investment of 25 cents and a press run of 300 copies.

The Chicago Defender’s first issues were in the form of four-page, six-column handbills, filled with local news items gathered by Abbott and clippings from other newspapers. Five years later, the Chicago Defender began to attract a national audience.

By the start of World War I, the Chicago Defender was the nation’s most influential black weekly newspaper, with more than two-thirds of its readership base located outside of Chicago.

During World War I, the paper utilized its influence to wage a successful campaign in support of The Great Migration, an effort to encourage African-Americans to leave the rural Southern United States and move to other parts of the country. It published blazing editorials, articles and cartoons lauding the benefits of the North, posted job listings and train schedules to facilitate relocation, and declared on May 15, 1917, as the date of the “Great Northern Drive.” The Chicago Defender’s support of The Great Migration encouraged Southern readers to migrate to the North in record numbers. Between 1916 and 1918, at least 110,000 people migrated to Chicago, nearly tripling the city’s black population.

Following the war, the Defender covered controversial events such as the Red Summer Riots of 1919, a series of race riots in cities across the country. The Chicago Defender campaigned for anti-lynching legislation and for integrated sports. In 1923, the Chicago Defender introduced the Bud Billiken Page, the first newspaper section just for children. The Chicago Defender, along with the Chicago Defender Charities, is the producer and organizer of the world famous Bud Billiken Day Parade and Picnic. The parade originated in 1929 as a vehicle to showcase children.

Today, the Bud Billiken Parade is the largest event of its kind. Columnists at the Defender included Walter White and Langston Hughes. The paper also published the early works by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Heralding itself as the “The World’s Greatest Weekly,” the Defender spoke out against segregation of the armed forces in the early 1940s and actively challenged segregation in the South during the civil rights era.

In 1940, John H. H. Sengstacke, Abbott’s nephew and heir, assumed editorial control and continued to champion for equality. In 1956, the Chicago Defender began publishing on a daily basis. In 1965, Stengstacke purchased The Pittsburgh Courier, including it in his Sengstacke Newspaper chain, along with papers such as the Michigan Chronicle in Detroit and the Tri-State Defender in Memphis. Sengstacke served as publisher of the Defender until his death in May 1997.

The Chicago Defender is the flagship publication of Real Times Inc., a media company that also includes among its holdings the Michigan Chronicle, the Front Page, the New Pittsburgh Courier and the Tri-State Defender.

One hundred and four years after its first issue, the Chicago Defender won the prestigious John B. Russwurm Award during 2009’s National Newspaper Publishers Association Merit Awards Gala, along with two first place and two third place awards, including the John H. Sengstacke General Excellence Award.

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