Mattie Smith Colin was a seasoned reporter for the Chicago Defender when the newspaper sent her to cover the return of Emmett Till’s body. The 14-year-old Chicago native, who was visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta, had been brutally beaten and shot for allegedly whistling at a white woman. An open casket funeral – insisted upon by Till’s mother – followed.
Chicagoans, and much of the rest of the country, recoiled. The ensuing coverage by the Defender and others helped spur the U.S. civil rights movement.
Colin died in December at the age of 98, but her work at the Defender, alongside the efforts of other black reporters, editors and photographers, embodied the activist, community-first bent of the African-American press. Dailies and weeklies like the Defender, the St. Louis American and the Los Angeles Sentinel portrayed African-American life in its fullness – civic events, celebrations, religious life, marriages, births and deaths – and they countered the stereotypical ways mainstream media covered blacks (if they were covered at all).
Then – and now – they’ve been a critical voice in reporting the lives of black America.
“At a time when the credibility of media is under attack, it is important to note that for people of color, the mainstream media has always lacked credibility,” said Martin Reynolds, a journalist and codirector of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, a nonprofit that promotes diversity in the newsroom. “The black press and the ethnic press as a whole have consistently maintained far more credibility in their communities than their mainstream counterparts.”
Is the time right for a new wave of black media activism? And can the black press retain its effectiveness in a new media landscape?