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The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords

As entombed as most of our stories have been throughout American
history, many of us know about the Civil Rights movement and Martin
Luther King Jr., or slavery and Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.

Lesser known are Robert Abbot, Ida B. Wells, Charlotta Bass, and
the others who were pioneers of the Black press. They told our stories
when no one else would.

Now producer/director Stanley Nelson tells their stories in her new
video documentary The Black Press: Soldiers without Swords.

The video, which is almost ninety minutes long, chronicles the
history of the Black press from Freedom’s Journal, the first paper to
be published by African Americans, to the California Eagle, Bass’s
“for-the-people” Los Angeles publication.

Combining striking stills that capture the essence of the time and
the comments of sagacious scholars who put the movement in perspective,
Nelson creates a dynamic documentary and tribute to our publishing

Richly researched, the film contains a wealth of information on not
only the papers that were published but the stories they contained and
their significance to the community.

Black newspapers introduced former slaves to the printed word.
Robert S. Abbot’s Chicago Defender, perhaps the most successful Black
paper in history, convinced hordes of southern Blacks to migrate north.
The Pittsburgh Courier, published by Robert S. Vann, launched its
“Double V” campaign during World War II to enlighten America’s
consciousness about the inequalities African Americans continued to
endure at home despite their achievements in the war.

And Nelson provides engaging sidebars on the people behind the
papers as well. We find out that the somewhat eccentric Abbot required
everyone — even his first and second wives — to call him “Mr. Abbot”
and that he was the first Black publisher to become a millionaire.

Journalist Abie Robinson earned a mere five dollars a week as a
reporter for the California Eagle. And he wrote copy, edited it,
aligned the presses, and cleaned the bathrooms as well.

Yet he, like many of his Black journalist peers, enjoyed a
celebrity status in the Black community that approached that normally
reserved for African American entertainers and sports heroes.

Soldiers without Swords also contrasts White and Black newspaper
coverage of events ranging from abolitionist crusades, to birth and
wedding announcements, to World War II, and to the Civil Rights
movement. The documentary asserts that Black papers gave their readers
news from a Black perspective, never pretending to be unbiased — just
as the White press clearly made no effort to disguise its bent.

Early Black journalists, Nelson points out, even had a freedom
rarely enjoyed today. Not dependent on big company advertisers who
never considered the papers or the markets they reached anyway, Black
papers vociferously campaigned the needs and demands of the Black
community, denouncing White society whenever they saw fit.

With candid interviews from former staffers and incredible
photographs that reincarnate the times, Nelson uses his crisp
filmmaking skills to transports us back to the days when the Black
press flourished with a monopoly on the Black reading market.

The documentary convincingly demonstrates that the written word has
played as fundamental a role as music or religion in the evolution of
Black consciousness. It is a useful instructional tool, capable of
enlightening students about the importance Black journalists and
publishers have played — and continue to play — in print media.

All journalism, history, and Black studies professors should
include this film in their libraries. Media centers should hold several
copies. The world at large should become more familiar with the
important information Nelson presents.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

© Copyright 2005 by

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