Sunday, October 1, 2023

75 years covering race in Chicago: A newspaper for a diverse city

Fletcher Martin
    Since February, I've been doing deep dives into the history of the Sun-Times to mark its 75th anniversary as a daily paper. I've written how we covered major disasters, and City Hall.  A prudent man would not have attempted to encapsulate as broad and fraught topic as our coverage of race over 75 years into one 3,000 word story. But I am not a prudent man. And yes, there was hesitation over whether I was the right person to tell this story, and I pointed out that if Jonathan Eig can write the definitive biography of Martin Luther King, then I can do this, or try to. It could easily have been three times as long and gone all sorts of other places. But this is where it went with the space I had.

     The way newspapering worked in 1951 was, when a reporter got to the end of the page he was pounding out on his Royal manual typewriter, he would zip out the copybook — a thick bundle of newsprint and carbon paper — from under the typewriter platen, remove one beige sheet and yell “Copy!” or “Boy!” Immediately, a copy boy, who by then was sometimes a girl, would run over and rush the page over to the city desk.
     Only nobody came running when Fletcher Martin called “copy” at the Chicago Sun-Times newsroom at 211 W. Wacker Dr. in 1951. He sat there, arm out, waving a page over his head. The copy boys ringing the room gazed determinedly into space.
     Martin was a former World War II correspondent who had been city editor of the Louisville Defender. He spent a year at Harvard as a Nieman Fellow — the first Black person to hold a Nieman Fellowship, then the first Black reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times.
     Hence the problem. Copy boys were the lowest form of life in a newsroom yet felt entitled to simply ignore Martin — until a white assistant city editor saw what was happening, stepped in and read the nearest copy boy the riot act.
     “Boy,” he said, according to a reminiscence published years later. “Go over, and get that copy. It’s hot copy, and his is as important as anyone else’s.”
     Or more. Martin brought a perspective that would serve the paper well in the 1950s as it tried to pivot into the civil rights era. The Sun-Times sent him to cover the NAACP convention in California in July 1956, and he wrote about two figures who were transforming America. His story began:
     “SAN FRANCISCO — Two widely dissimilar men have captured the imagination of the NAACP convention here and may emerge as the new Negro leaders. They are Thurgood Marshall, special counsel of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., leader of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala.”
     Marshall would become the first Black U.S. Supreme Court Justice. And King ... well, he needs no explanation, one hopes.
     As the Sun-Times looks back during its 75th year of continual daily publication, race is a key lens through which to understand the newspaper’s history. Race is often referred to as “the third rail” of Chicago politics — in both the “provides animating power” and the “touch it and you die” senses.
     A fraught topic. But ignoring it isn’t an option. Race is too huge a subject to tackle thoroughly, too important to be sidestepped.
     The Sun-Times played a dual role regarding race. First as a news source reflecting the enormous changes — and lack of change — that have affected the city since the daily paper began in 1948, from the impact of Black vets returning home, their eyes opened to the possibilities of life, to the struggles over housing, redlining, the riots to Latino migration and the rise of the Asian community as an outspoken force. In the early 1950s, thousands of white Chicagoans would rampage in the streets if a Black family moved where they thought they didn’t belong.
     And second as an employer of Black, Latino and Asian writers, editors, photographers, columnists, executives. Martin was the first of a string of talented journalists who would distinguish the paper, such as Pulitzer Prize-winning photographers John H. White and John J. Kim.

To continue reading, click here. 


  1. "Canadian felon-in-training David Radler", that's a good one, but you left out his co-conspirator Conrad Black who is just as evil!

  2. Jump above not working to go to the rest of the story in the online paper

  3. Eig's King and Steinberg's Sun-Times, an apt comparison, in that both are brutally honest in laying out the flaws of their subjects, an approach that a terrifyingly large proportion of our fellow citizens can't comprehend.


  4. Great column! If you were to expand it into a book, I would buy it and read it.

  5. Your mention of Fletcher Martin in 1951 makes me wonder how the Sun-Times, as well as the other Chicago papers, reported on the Cicero race riot of July, 1951, when a large mob of whites attacked an apartment building that housed a single black family. White teens from the city rode the "L" to Cicero, and became participants.

    The Cicero disturbance was one of the biggest "white riots" of the postwar era (the late 1940s and the 1950s), and probably the most notorious. Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson sent in the Illinois National Guard. Armed with bayonets, rifle butts, and tear gas, the troops finally ended the riot without opening fire., but it could easily have ended a lot differently

    The Cicero rioting lasted several nights, involved two to five thousand white rioters, and received worldwide condemnation. It was the first race riot to be broadcast on local television (I have hazy memories of that...I was almost four). Many Chicagoans viewed the rioting in Cicero from their living rooms before they read about it in the papers.

    During the late 1940s, Chicago housing attacks (“white riots”) were often ignored by the newspapers, but the Cicero riot in 1951 brought national and even international attention for the first time, during a period of enormous residential change in the city. Cicero was not the first postwar "white riot". Nor was it the last.

  6. No need to wonder Grizz. Of course it was big, front page news. It's also thoroughly described in my most recent book.

    1. I'd still like to see those front pages. And I have your book. It's a must-read.

    2. Email me and I'll send it to you.

    3. Received. Thanks. Nice-looking crowd in Cicero. Very much like the jeering white folks I remember seeing in images from the South (and in Chicago) in later years...the Fifties and Sixties. At the time, I was four, and living in East Garfield Park, just over four miles northeast of 6139 W. 19th...which is still there.

  7. Great article. Appreciate the effort you put into this.

  8. Great article, loved the photo of Cynthia Dagnal-Myron with Kiss. Odd to see Peter sticking his tongue out but not Gene.

  9. Just curious: Fletcher Martin appears to be wearing a fez...?


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