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.