22 Feb From Communism to Black Power: The Atlanta Daily World’s Conservative Framing of Civil Rights Radicalism
From Communism to Black Power:
The Atlanta Daily World’s Conservative Framing of Civil Rights Radicalism
Fred Carroll, Kennesaw State University
African Americans suffered greater economic hardships than white Americans during the Great Depression and were routinely deprived of aid distributed by New Deal agencies. Accordingly, communist organizers enjoyed growing support during the Great Depression among influential black artists, scholars, union members, and journalists as they denounced capitalism’s exploitation of people of color worldwide and demanded recognition of African Americans’ right to self-determination. However, Atlanta’s black newspaper, the Daily World, steadfastly opposed the party and its supporters. “The Communists advocate militant resistance to discrimination,” the editors wrote. “That is absurd, particularly in Dixie.”1 Three decades later, Black Power activists aggravated establishmentarian black leaders but thrilled youthful protesters as they criticized the halting pace of integration by brazenly rebuking and ridiculing white authority and endorsing Marxist politics and black separatism. Again, the Daily World rejected the leading radical movement of the moment. Editors labeled the term “Black Power” an “obnoxious” phrase and rarely covered the Black Power Movement.2 In both cases, the Daily World’s coverage illustrates how the paper’s editors shaped readers’ understanding of radical black politics throughout the mid-twentieth century with straightforward criticism in editorials and purposeful silences in news reporting. But while Georgia’s premier black newspaper diverged from the general reportage of a progressive national black press before World War II, in the late 1960s it would reflect the condemnatory consensus of commercial black journalism toward the Black Power Movement.
In my new book, Race News: Black Journalists and the Fight for Racial Justice in the Twentieth Century, I argue that journalists at leading national and regional black newspapers – such as the Baltimore Afro-American, Chicago Defender, and Pittsburgh Courier – transformed how they wrote the news between the two world wars by incorporating into their newswriting the racial militancy of the New Negro Movement, the modernist sensibilities of the Harlem Renaissance, and the Marxist critiques of the American political economy of communists and socialists. By framing the news this way, they broadened the parameters of what was considered acceptable political discourse for millions of black men and women. This change occurred even though most publishers – business owners desiring wealth and political influence – expressed either skepticism or ambivalence about aspects of the politics of anticolonialism, anticapitalism, and Black Nationalism. Circulations spiked at these papers as two decades of surging progressivism was reinforced by a more robust commitment to news reporting, a savvy embrace of sensationalism, and modernized production and distribution. By the late 1940s, as many as six million people each week read a black newspaper – a number equal to about half of the nation’s total black population.
But Atlanta’s own Daily World never embraced this template for progressive reportage. Founded in 1928 by William Alexander “W. A.” Scott II, an energetic printer’s son who had graduated from Morehouse College, the World started as a weekly newspaper and then became the nation’s only black daily in 1932. After W. A. Scott was murdered in 1934, his brother, Cornelius Adolphus “C. A.” Scott, took over the Daily World, and guided its editorial and business decisions as editor and publisher for sixty-three years.3 Like most southern black newspapers, including the nationally-circulating Norfolk Journal and Guide, the Daily World practiced a brand of journalistic agitation that promoted gradualism, a mode of racial reform favored by paternalistic white leaders who made small concessions to the black middle class with the intent of reinforcing white supremacist rule. Southern black publishers tempered demands for immediate equality for pragmatic reasons – to protect physical property from destruction and editorial employees from violence. Their approach also ensured the continued support of black advertisers whose businesses benefitted from the cautiousness of carefully negotiated race relations. As managing editor Frank Marshall Davis wrote on March 14, 1932, the day the first daily edition appeared, the Daily World promised to “serve the best interests of the community in a sane and sensible manner.”4 Over the next several decades, the Daily World would consistently endorse a more conservative approach to civil rights reform, arguing for the rights of citizenship and the end of racial discrimination with prudent discretion that aimed to avoid white supremacist retribution.
In the early 1930s, the actions of the Communist Party and those sympathetic to its call for racial equality directly challenged the sensibilities of gradualism’s supporters – especially those at Atlanta’s Daily World. In particular, two prominent court cases during that decade captured national attention, and the Daily World’s responses to them fully displayed its antagonism to an ideology that directly challenged the American way. Throughout six years of court proceedings, lawyers affiliated with the Communist Party feuded with NAACP attorneys over how they should handle the appeals of nine black men convicted in a prejudicial trial in 1931 of raping two white women in Scottsboro, Alabama. The Daily World wanted the NAACP to take charge of the case, fearing that the “loud and undiplomatic tactics of the powerless Communists” would arouse “the prejudices and passions of Dixie whites” who oversaw the courts and filled the jury pools. Unlike the NAACP, the Daily World suggested to African Americans in the South, “the Communists have nothing to lose, no matter how the wind blows.”5 After the NAACP and its supporters were sidelined, the Daily World worried the defendants would be “sacrificed on the double altar of Red propaganda and race prejudice” as communists organized parades and public demonstrations in their support.6 Before the case’s US Supreme Court hearing in 1932, the paper noted that “any decision favorable to the lads will be rendered, not because of Communistic asininities, but in spite of them.”7 Afterward, the Daily World reiterated that the court had “rendered its majority decision not because of them but in spite of them” and proclaimed: “The tragedy of the case lies in the fact that the Reds are still in control.”8
Frontispiece, Angelo Herndon, Let Me Live (New York: Random House, 1937).
Just a year later, Communist Party member Angelo Herndon was convicted in Atlanta of fostering insurrection for organizing industrial workers. While the paper printed objective news about court dates, petitions, and speaking engagements during the case’s five years of trials and appeals, its editors avoided editorializing in support of Herndon. The prosecution had stoked fears about black communists seizing private property and marrying white women, associating Herndon with a brand of radical politics and lascivious freedom that jeopardized the material and social gains that black Georgians had achieved through the politics of accommodation. Nevertheless, Herndon was cleared in 1937 when the US Supreme Court struck down the state’s law on insurrection. The Daily World’s editors swiftly attempted to narrow the meaning of the verdict, writing that they “hoped that the Herndon decision will be accepted purely as a protector of the right of free speech and not as an encouragement to radicalism.”9 In the Daily World’s framing, communism was foreign and anti-American, and the mere perception of endorsing such an ideology would intensify racial hatred in Georgia. As the paper editorialized in 1938,
If we were in Russia, PERHAPS we would be Communists. But we are in America, and if we would be OF America we must use AMERICAN methods to integrate ourselves into the body politic.10
The Scott family’s rejection of communism ultimately proved fortuitous after World War II as physical combat against fascism became an ideological battle against the Soviet Union and international communism. As the anticommunism movement strengthened, leading black publishers purged their newsrooms of progressive editors and reporters and again reoriented their template for newswriting. Papers that once depicted communism as a racially enlightened alternative to the racist American way now employed journalists who blamed segregationists for making people in Asia and Africa doubt the United States’ commitment to democracy, compelling potential allies to seek friendship with the Soviets. However, such reportage narrowed the parameters of acceptable political discourse by casting radical black politics as illegitimate. In response, frustrated progressives and Black Power activists would revive a dormant alternative black press in the 1960s and express marginalized political views in rival publications.
Silencing Black Power
As the modern Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, leading black publishers presented themselves as establishmentarian dissidents and primarily advocated for civic inclusion from within the prevailing two-party political system and capitalist economy. In the early 1960s, they generally backed the hundreds of student sit-ins that erupted across the South but also urged caution and asked young protesters to seek the counsel of their elders. And yet, the Daily World continued to prove more conservative than most of its peers – a tradition attributed to location, business dealings, and the political preferences of the Scott family. C. A. Scott would later say he and his family believed, “we as a paper should not be pushed too far to the right or the left. We ought to stand up on the basis of our knowledge and experience and maturity and judgement to do the fair, honorable thing in this crisis. And that’s what we did.”11 Thus, the paper covered the sit-in movement in Atlanta in the 1960s much as it had the Herndon case in the 1930s – perfunctorily. The paper published arrests and covered court proceedings, but it rarely explored protesters’ motivations and seldom expressed unconditional support for them. Sit-ins were more confrontational than boycotts and court cases. Young protesters demanded immediate change and escalated racial tensions when they refused to leave public places. The Daily World warned as early as 1960 – the year of the first sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina – how direct action could aggravate racial tensions:
We are aware that the students are non-violent in their approach to ending segregation, but we must recognize the fact that violence is resulting from their procedure.
Civil right workers stage a sit in at Sprayberry’s restaurant, 1960. Photo by Charles R. Pugh. AJCP338-044l, ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION PHOTOGRAPHIC ARCHIVE. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVES, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY. COPYRIGHT ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION. COURTESY OF GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY.
Scott’s reluctant coverage of the sit-ins spurred the founding in 1960 of the Atlanta Inquirer, a rival newspaper that offered more supportive news and editorial coverage of the city’s sit-in movement and of the more militant political views voiced by young black activists. Atlanta’s black citizens desired such news, and by 1965, the Inquirer sold about 24,000 copies each week. In comparison, the Daily World sold about 30,000 papers daily.12
Competition, though, did little to alter how the Daily World covered the Civil Rights Movement as riots and urban uprisings inspired a more confrontational style of black activism. By the late 1960s, most major black newspapers condemned the Black Power Movement, casting its members as media-created sensations without followers who jeopardized the hard-won gains achieved with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Daily World worked to minimize the Black Power Movement’s influence in the South by printing few stories – and fewer editorials – about the Black Panther Party, Nation of Islam, or other Black Power organizations. The paper concluded:
Black power advocates are offering absolutely nothing constructive or helpful to the cause of our people. They are simply confusing our youth.13
[blockquote text=”Black power advocates are offering absolutely nothing constructive or helpful to the cause of our people. They are simply confusing our youth.” show_quote_icon=”yes”]
Atlanta Daily World, March 22, 1968: 6.
Atlanta Daily World, August 11, 1972: 1.
In its totality, the Daily World’s coverage served to further marginalize radical organizations in a section of the United States where many were already skeptical or hostile about the motives and feasibility of progressive movements. Moreover, the influence of such coverage stretched far beyond Atlanta and Georgia as tens of thousands of readers in the South and elsewhere read news coming out of the Daily World’s offices through the Scott Newspaper Syndicate, founded in 1931 by W. A. Scott, which distributed news and features to small weekly papers across the South and elsewhere.16 The Scott family was hardly alone among commercial black publishers in purposely restricting the robustness of news coverage of radical movements such as communism and Black Power. In doing so, the Daily World pragmatically protected the economic, political, and social gains already made by middle class black southerners – but at the cost of further diminishing efforts to pursue full equality, which remains elusive today.
Carroll, Frederick. “From Communism to Black Power: The Atlanta Daily World’s Conservative Framing of Civil Rights Radicalism.” Atlanta Studies. February 22, 2018. https://doi.org/10.18737/atls20180222
- “The Communists Rise Again,” Atlanta Daily World, December 29, 1932, 6A.
- “Some New Year Resolves,” Atlanta Daily World, January 2, 1968, 6.
- Leonard Ray Teel, “W. A. Scott and the Atlanta World,” American Journalism 6, no. 3 (1989): 158–78; and Maisah B. Robinson, “C. A. Scott, Dean of the Black Press, Reflects on the World,” Atlanta Daily World, March 25, 1999, 8.
- Davis, “Your World Now Daily,” Atlanta Daily World, March 14, 1932, 1.
- “Scottsboro Still with Us,” Atlanta Daily World, November 9, 1932, 6A.
- “The NAACP Withdraws,” Atlanta Daily World, January 6, 1932, 7.
- “It’s Up to The U.S.” Atlanta Daily World, Oct 9, 1932, 8A.
- “Scottsboro Still with Us,” Atlanta Daily World, November 9, 1932, 6A.
- “The Herndon Decision,” Atlanta Daily World, April 29, 1937, 6.
- “Beware of Communism,” Atlanta Daily World, April 6, 1938, 6.
- Scott quoted in Alton Hornsby Jr., “Georgia,” in The Black Press in the South, 1865–1979, ed. Henry Lewis Suggs (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983), 129.
- Hornsby, “Georgia,” 129, 139.
- “Carrying Protest Too Far,” Atlanta Daily World, March 22, 1968, 6.
- “Bad Ties,” Atlanta Daily World, August 11, 1970, 6.
- “The Eldrige [sic] Cleaver Image,” Atlanta Daily World, August 11, 1972, 4.
- Teel, “W.A. Scott and the Atlanta World,” 159, 170.