Cast the First Stone

Too often in life we focus entirely on what is presented to us.

During Black History month, we hear the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we are shown the images of Rosa Parks, and we recount the bravery of Harriet Tubman.

This undoubtedly occurs because these figures are larger than life. They have given American society a tremendous gift, one that continues today.

However, this February remember the names that are not so legendary, because the legacy they have left undoubtedly is. Though many examples exist for the sake of this column I would like to offer one.

On May 5, 1905 Robert S. Abbott, with an investment of 25 cents and a press run of 300 copies, began publishing The Chicago Defender.

Smuggled into the South because distributors there refused to circulate it, the Defender was passed from person to person, and read aloud in barbershops and churches. Many groups such as the Ku Klux Klan attempted to confiscate the paper, but at its height the Defender was estimated to have reached four to five African Americans with every copy sold.

Using yellow journalism techniques adopted from other papers of that time, the Defender began to attack racial injustice and it campaigned for blacks to migrate from the South to the North. In just three years, from 1916 √¢?”1918, Chicago’s black population tripled.

Abbott, a brother of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity (of which we have a chapter here at St. John’s), attacked racial inequities with sensational headlines and graphic images that conveyed the horrors of lynching, rape, assault, and other atrocities effecting black Americans.

The Defender also attracted the writing talents of Langston Hughes and Pulitzer-prize winner Gwendolyn Brooks, helping them gain notoriety and critical acclaim.

Years later the paper was heralded as “The World’s Greatest Weekly,” because of its aggressive work promoting racial tolerance and equity. In 1965 the paper purchased The Pittsburgh Courier, and formed a newspaper chain along with such papers as The Michigan Chronicle in Detroit, and The Tri-State Defender in Memphis.

John H. Sengstacke, Abbott’s nephew and heir, assumed editorial control in 1940. He eventually founded and became the first president of the National Negro Publishers Association.

Now known as the National Newspaper Publishers Association, the organization was established to unify publishers of African American newspapers across the country, something that also helped spur the civil rights movement.

It was 50 years ago last week, February 6, 1956, that The Defender became The Chicago Daily Defender, the largest black-owned daily in the world.

Today, racial tensions and problems still remain. Though lynching and cross burning have fortunately decreased, poverty, unemployment, racial profiling, and ongoing segregation have continued the disease of racism. One can look back only 14 years ago and recall the brutal beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles.

Despite these disappointments, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s still proves to be defining moments for our country. The work of King, Parks, Malcolm X, and others resulted from, among other things, the Defender’s unwavering attacks and dogged persistence for racial equity.

Aspects of life that years ago seemed unconscionable have now become commonplace. African Americans are able to vote, schools are no longer segregated by law, toilets and waiting-rooms are no longer blemished by ‘white’ and ‘colored’ signs, jobs that were previously closed to the entire group have opened and the diversity of workplaces continues to grow.

We have seen Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice serve as Secretary of State, while Clarence Thomas sits on the Supreme Court and Barack Obama wins a near landslide senatorial election in Illinois.

However, in a well-publicized 2003 study, researchers at the University of Chicago and Harvard University found that there was widespread discrimination in the workplace against job applicants whose names were merely perceived as "sounding black." The researchers found that these applicants were 50 percent less likely than candidates perceived as having "white-sounding names" to receive callbacks for interviews, no matter their level of previous experience.

I would be a complete fool to say that American society is the model for tolerance and racial diversity, but staying true to my idealistic, optimistic self, I still feel that the leaders we celebrate this month would be proud of what America has accomplished in less than 50 years.

In our very own community here at St. John’s, we have seen strides regarding faculty diversity, the inception of the Multicultural Advisory Committee, and the constant growth of cultural organizations.

Though 81 percent of the faculty at St. John’s is white, University Provost Dr. Julia Upton R.S.M. and Dr. Clover Hall, vice president of institutional research and academic planning, both stated that the university has a commitment to the value of diversity and is actively seeking to improve it within the faculty.

Once again, the University moves in the right direction, something that I have become more aware of as the end of my tenure as Editor in Chief approaches.

This February, let us celebrate the encouraging trend in our country and in our school. Let us look deeper into problems and solutions, all the while focusing on more than what is simply presented to us.