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Robert S. Abbott was the founder of an for 35 years editor publisher of The Chicago Defender. Although his politics were conservative and his economic philosophy free enterprise he none of us belongs in a study of radicals of Afro-American history. His was a radicalism for the black middle class. The expression of the frustrated hopes and bitterness of a believer in America thwarted in life by restrictions on his race. Himself something of a black Horatio Alger. He hated the racism of his country which excluded successful negroes from the status and prestige afforded successful whites. There was paper he was a stalwart battler of all forms of racial discrimination. In an interview shortly before his death he said that he had always had only one goal in life quote complete equality of negroes with white people. Abbott's parents had been plantation slaves. His father died while he was quite young and his stepfather a Savannah Georgia minister saw him through grade school and sent him off to Chaplin University in Orangeburg South Carolina. Young Robert
went on to Hampton Institute where he worked evenings to our intuition and board so he could learn a predator's trade like his friend the end of a field secretary William Pickens Abbott first saw the North while on a fund raising tour for his college. Pickens had been a singer in the touring Talladega Quintet and habit was a member of the Hampton quartet. After graduating Hampton he moved on to Chicago again working nights while attending school this time studying law. He earned his law degree but could not succeed as a jurist. As a friend told him he was quote a little too dark to make any impression on the court in Chicago and growth. Abbott was well aware of the difficulties of his dark complection had caused him to be rejected as a suitor of one of Chicago's high bred light brown young ladies. Eventually he married into the black bourgeoisie only to have it end in one of the highly publicized divorces of the 1920s. The first issue of the defender appeared in 1905. The initial four page sheet was peddled in the streets by Abbott
himself and carried the ambitious banner of the world's greatest weekly when he died in 1940 at the age of 70. He could take pride in having if not the greatest at least one of the most influential weeklies in America. Abbott could be called a radical of the pre-World War One variety. He belonged to that small group of black educators and journalists who made up the Niagara Movement and he was an early supporter of the end of the ACP Wiley idolized Booker T Washington's economic views he could not agree to Washington's moratorium on civil rights agitation nor could he agree to the adage cast down your buckets where you are meaningless south in Abbott's opinion. The South was but a chamber of horrors. It was only in the north that the Negro could live a life of industrious respectability. ONE WORLD WAR ONE stop the inflow of European immigrant laborers and send thousands of white workers off to save the world for democracy. Abbott saw an opportunity for Southern Legros to effectively escape the chamber of horrors and find work in the
north from 116 to 1919 the defender was the major promoter of the Great Migration resulting in the influx of a quarter million negroes into northern urban centers using the national edition of the defender Abbott told Southern negroes of opportunities in freedom lying beyond Dixie and to accent the differences between north and south he published innumerable tales of Southern lynchings beatings peonage oppression and sexual exploitation. There was an implied moral that no self-respecting individual would consent to live under such conditions. He asked southern blacks have the race to stop there Jim Crow cars. Can you buy a Pullman sleeper where you wish. Well they give you a square deal in court yet and to the southern white Abbot announce that Negroes have said as the song goes I hear you calling me. And I boarded the train singing Goodbye Dixie van. The defender circulation skyrocketed and Southern whites fearful of losing their cheap labor just supply had a fender salesman arrested or beaten and their papers burned.
The migration movement became a crusade which was opposed by conservative southern blacks as well as by whites. And it was the last radical cause for Abbott. He could never understand the forms of radicalism which came out of the urban ghettos which he had done so much to create a post World War One black radicalism was as disturbing to Abbott to have his migration crusade Admin. to Southern conservatives. He was one of the early enemies of Marcus Garvey in the UN IAEA and the defender was one of the first of many papers sued for libel by Garvey a front page story in the October 4th 1900 defender revealed the extent of Abbott's disregard for Garvey as a defender reporter had obtained certain off the record facts from a UN I remember. And Abbott printed them complete with the admission that the information had been given confidentially. The article closed with the self-righteous comment as a newspaper we would be derelict if we failed to expose any scheme
whereby the members of our race were made victims of spurious investments. Abbott had risen from the ranks of toilers and while you sympathize with their plight could not appreciate their affinity for black nationalism nor could he appreciate economic radicalism. His goal was respectability and prestige for the Negra and he could not see how agitators of any kind could bring respect to a race which was already stereotyped as emotionally reserved and intellectually unstable. In addition to this type of rather superficial disliking for agitators Abbott did held some analytical criticisms more worthy of consideration. Labor unions were untrustworthy allies of the black man according to Abbott. And as with all issues he applied the logic of race first in evaluating the worth of trade unions. He pointed to the dangerous position for a neg rose during labor strikes. They were easily replaced by whites and
according to Abbott labor organizers often failed to live up to the guarantees that Negro workers who struck would not be replaced by white workers when the strike was over. He told in one. Editorial in the defender of a Chicago Waiters Union which inaugurated a strike against Chicago restaurants this is a colored Waiters Union. Quote They had received the most flattering promises of help from the white union leaders. Did they get it. Not by a jugful colored waiters not only lost the strike and their positions but were forced to see their places taken by white union waiters. It is not difficult therefore to understand the reluctance of the colored brothers to follow the union leaders in a walkout and quote concerning the negro acting as a scab and strike breaker. Abbott commented quote We must live and if we cannot get a whole loaf we will take the part of the loaf we can get. And if Negroes are willing to work for less than the union scale quote This is a situation
for which the unions and selves are entirely responsible through their discriminatory policies excluding negroes. A cartoon in the defender issue in a defender issue of one thousand twenty one showed a dirty shuffling white entering a factory yard on his back were the words unskilled foreign labor outside the gate standing by a sign saying We employ a white help only was a Negra worker wearing well pressed work pants a clean shirt and industrious captains. Abbotts most thought provoking criticisms of the labor unions are usually dressed up in Bush slogans such as this comment that American worker was we were kings beside their brother workers in the older countries into this. Convoluted logic. Abbott from time to time injected a kind word for unions and even for
socialism the same defender issue which carried the above justification for strike breaking. Also included a story of how the Chicago employers were trying to incite white laborers with fabricated tales of. Negro unwillingness to strike in the late twenties. The diff Fender added the negro socialist Frank cross-ways to its editorial staff as a labor columnist. Abbott found cause during the Depression to write an editorial entitled Why We cannot hate Reds. It concluded that we may not agree with the entire program of the Communist Party but there is one item with which we do agree wholeheartedly and that is the zealousness with which it guards the rights of the race. If Abbott was hostile to nationalise then ambiguous on labor struggle just what did he propose as the solution for the black man. Indicative of his answer was a cartoon strip carried on the editorial page of the defender in the October issues of
one thousand twenty that told the story of George Smith the clean up man who pushed broom all day and studied accounting at home at night. Each week he visited the bank with part of his savings. A strong will power enabled him to overlook the frivolities of life and walk briskly past the sleazy dance hall. Opportunity finally presented itself to George and with a friend who also had business qualities. He entered a small mail order enterprise. After careful consideration he gave up his job as a porter and plunged into his new venture now wearing a suit and white collar. George worked hard eventually hiring us to Naga for a good looking one at that. He was nice enough to employ negroes years went by and there was continued growth and 5:8 with dozens of. Negro young men and women in his employ. Quote Smith's desire to help elevate his race was real. In Abbott's view prejudice and discrimination forced black people into a denigrating
lowbrow way of life he seemed to dislike the result as much as he disliked because he resented the working class pageantry and emotion of Negra as much as he resented the pageantry and color of festivities. His paper was filled with sex and sensationalism as if there was need to patronise debasement in order to sell papers to make grows defender accounts of lynchings like killed 11 burned 6 alive white farmer known as Leopold of Georgia outdoes Belgian Congo were run in with less political the bocher e such as pores or greens while she burns and socialite slits wrist with a rusty razor throughout much of the 1930s Abbott suffered from an illness which took his life just before the outbreak of World War 2. For 35 years the defender had carried the slogan American race prejudice must be destroyed. The cause was carried forward by the new editor Abbott's nephew whereas the paper previously had been dominated by the personal journalism of Abbott.
Robert S. Abbott : middle-class Black Radicalism (Episode 12 of 14)
Black power origins
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KPFA (Radio station : Berkeley, Calif.)
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Pacifica Radio Archives (North Hollywood, California)
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Ted Vincent discusses the efforts of Black middle-class radical Robert S. Abbott, who promoted the "great migration" of Blacks from the South to the North during World War I, and was editor-publisher of the Chicago Defender for 35 years.
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Race and Ethnicity
Abbott, Robert S. (Robert Sengstacke), 1868-1940; Chicago defender; African Americans--Civil rights--History
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Producing Organization: KPFA (Radio station : Berkeley, Calif.)
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Pacifica Radio Archives
Identifier: 15717_D01 (Pacifica Radio Archives)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Pacifica Radio Archives
Identifier: PRA_AAPP_BB2246_12_Robert_S_Abbott (Filename)
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Generation: Master
Duration: 0:11:58
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Chicago: “Robert S. Abbott : middle-class Black Radicalism (Episode 12 of 14); Black power origins,” 1967-10-31, Pacifica Radio Archives, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed September 20, 2020,
MLA: “Robert S. Abbott : middle-class Black Radicalism (Episode 12 of 14); Black power origins.” 1967-10-31. Pacifica Radio Archives, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. September 20, 2020. <>.
APA: Robert S. Abbott : middle-class Black Radicalism (Episode 12 of 14); Black power origins. Boston, MA: Pacifica Radio Archives, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from