How FDR Emasculated the Black Press in World War II

Instead of indulging in politically risky sedition prosecutions of the black press, the government relied on indirect methods of behind-the-scenes manipulation and intimidation.


With the notable exception of the internment of Japanese Americans, World War II still has a reputation as a "good war" for civil liberties. In 2019, for example, the authors of a leading history survey text declared that "Franklin Roosevelt had been a government official during World War I. Now presiding over a bigger world war, he was determined to avoid many of the patriotic excesses."

But President Roosevelt's civil liberties abuses extended far beyond the internment camps. There are few better examples of this than the government's campaign against the black press. Historian Patrick Washburn, the leading authority on that topic, concluded in A Question of Sedition: The Federal Government's Investigation of the Black Press During World War II that "the black press was in extreme danger of being suppressed until June 1942."

The government's motive was no mystery. The black press had tirelessly documented Jim Crow conditions in the military, federal medical facilities, and defense industries, as well as acts of violence against black troops. These were stories their readers wanted. When William Hastie, the law school dean at Howard University, asked 56 black leaders soon after Pearl Harbor to summarize the general attitudes of African Americans, a stunning 36 said that most did not completely support the war effort.

A leading outlet for this criticism was the Pittsburgh Courier, best known for publicizing the Double V campaign (fighting for democracy simultaneously at home and abroad). A vigorous supporter of this effort was the libertarian writer Rose Wilder Lane, who contributed a regular column for the paper. The Courier was not an outlier in its willingness to question government policy. During this period, the New Deal loyalist Archibald MacLeish, who served as both Librarian of Congress and director of the War Department's Office of Facts and Figures, forwarded to Attorney General Francis Biddle "seditious" articles from the Washington, D.C., Afro-American and suggested "a very useful preventive effect, if your department could somehow call attention to the fact that the Negro press enjoys no immunity." A month later, the president urged both Biddle and Postmaster General Frank C. Walker to personally admonish black editors to cease "their subversive language."

Matters came to a head in June 1942, when Biddle summoned John H. Sengstacke—the publisher of The Chicago Defender and the president of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), an African American group—to his office. Placed on the table before Sengstacke were copies of several leading black papers, including the Defender, the Courier, and the Baltimore Afro-American. Biddle declared them seditious, and warned that the government was "going to shut them all up." Sengstacke suggested a compromise: The newspapers might be willing to tone it down if the government agreed not to issue indictments—and agreed to give black journalists more access.

Biddle verbally assented, and thereafter black publishers muted their willingness to question wartime abuses. A federal study of content in the Pittsburgh Courier, for example, showed that the paper devoted considerably less space to the Double V campaign in April 1943 than in August 1942. Moreover, the main targets of negative coverage over that period shifted away from the federal government and to local governments and private businesses. A postal inspector identified a noticeable weakening in "the vigorness [sic] of its complaints" about discrimination.

But despite Biddle's promise, the authorities did not become more cooperative in sharing information with black journalists. This bureaucratic stonewalling led a frustrated Sengstacke to question if "the government really wants sincere cooperation or whether there are clandestine forces working against the interest of a section of the Negro Press."

While federal authorities did not bring legal charges against the black press for the balance of the war, that doesn't mean they shifted to a hands-off approach. Instead, they ratcheted up both intense monitoring and informal pressure. In the first half of 1942, FBI agents visited leading black newspapers that had carried critical stories about the federal government. Moreover, postal inspectors admonished two leading papers that the "benefits of citizenship" carried an obligation not to "'play up' isolated and rare instances in such a fashion as to obstruct recruiting and in other ways hamper the war effort."

Federal officials seemed particularly upset about the articles of George S. Schuyler, an editor and columnist at the Courier. Rated as particularly offensive were his arguments that the status quo offered no hope for "liberty, equality, and fraternity" and that the "Negrophobic philosophy, originating in the South, had become the official policy of the government." An official at the Department of Justice reacted to these statements by urging the Office of War Information to take "action" against the paper.

Schuyler was especially forceful in challenging the internment of Japanese Americans: "This country probably has as many of its citizens in concentration camps as has Germany." He rejected accusations that those interned, whom he described as industrious and thrifty, presented any sort of genuine national security threat. Schuyler admonished African Americans to look beyond their own grievances, because "if the Government can do this to American citizens of Japanese ancestry, then it can do this to American citizens of ANY ancestry….Their fight is our fight."

Schuyler was exceptional in depicting the plights of African Americans, Japanese Americans, and right-wing sedition defendants as analogous and interdependent. The Roosevelt administration, he concluded, was persecuting the latter for what they "said and wrote," and had presented no evidence of collusion or participation in a conspiracy. If these individuals could be put on trial for opposing the administration's policies, he asked, "then who is safe? I may be nabbed for speaking harshly about Brother [Secretary of War Henry L.] Stimson's treatment of Negro lads in the Army."

In the end, informal pressure suited the government's purposes far better than direct legal punishment. As a Department of Justice analysis pointed out, the likely result of taking legal action against "a paper as prominent and as respected by the Negro population as the Pittsburgh Courier" would be "further unrest and possibly [arousing] a spirit of defeatism among the Negro population." It also would have almost certainly alienated many black voters from Roosevelt in key Northern states: The Courier had the highest circulation of all black newspapers and had provided past support for Roosevelt. So instead of indulging in politically risky sedition prosecutions of the black press, the government relied on more indirect methods of behind-the-scenes manipulation and intimidation to quiet criticism.