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Grand occasion for celebration and reflection

The TSD’s 1951 tagline, the “South’s Independent Weekly,” stood out as a bold signal of a new voice for African Americans in the southern United States, and specifically in the Mid-South.

 Bernal E. Smith II

As I perused the tattered and torn pages of the November 3, 1951 issue of the Tri-State Defender, the inaugural issue of the newspaper, many thoughts, themes and emotions were evoked. For this column, I will focus on three primary themes: the historical struggle, the importance of the vehicle past and present, and going back to the future.

The TSD’s 1951 tagline, the “South’s Independent Weekly,” stood out as a bold signal of a new voice for African Americans in the southern United States, and specifically in the Mid-South – Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee. One must go on a historical journey to understand the significance of a Southern regional newspaper in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.

The journey began in 1905 with Robert S. Abbott’s founding of the Chicago Defender, a weekly publication that would grow to become one of the most successful black businesses in the country at one point, but more importantly one of the most influential in the plight of African Americans in a largely separate and unequal country. The realities of segregation were stark and severe in the South, where the publishing, distribution or even reading of similar publications was met with severe penalty from the white establishment of the time.  

Abbott and the Chicago Defender would go on to creatively and definitively change the lives of its readers with a message of empowerment and opportunity, ultimately sparking the “Great Migration” of African Americans from the South to Northern industrial cities such as Chicago and Detroit. Circumventing the many times violent and consistently oppressive nature of Jim Crow throughout the country, but certainly in the South, Abbott built a distribution network through the Pullman Porters, who would risk their jobs and lives in some instances to pass along the message of hope contained in the Defender to residents of the South.  

The Pullman Porters would take the newspapers and as the trains passed through Southern cities they would drop them in wooded areas, where leaders of the community, and particular the church, would retrieve them for distribution on Sunday, making the Sabbath a day of renewing spirit and mind. African Americans would go on to leave the South in mass for greater economic opportunities and freedoms in northern cities. Opportunities that still today are paying dividends, as evidenced by the fact that many of the largest and most successful black-owned businesses are currently based in Chicago or Detroit.

By 1951, John Sengstacke, the heir to his uncle’s vision, had helped grow the Chicago Defender into one of the nation’s most influential publications, ultimately making it a daily publication in 1957. He would co-found the Tri-State Defender in Memphis in November of 1951 with the well-respected former editor of the Memphis World and the Sphinx magazine of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated, L.O. Swingler.  

 Lewis O. Swingler
 Lewis O. Swingler

Swingler, a native Memphian and influential journalist, launched the Tri-State Defender to fantastic fanfare as indicated by the inspiring first issue. Sengstacke once described the Defender as a “cause press,” an advocate for the issues facing African Americans and a vehicle for change. It was obviously clear from that first front page that announced a “City Wide Election on Nov. 6th,” that contained an article chronicling COGIC’s 44th Convention and yet another article about speaker and business leader Dwight Palmer’s call to other Memphis business leaders for equality and an end to race discrimination that this was definitely a “cause press.” It was established as a publication not merely made for entertainment, gimmicks or other non-essential information, but as a source of encouragement and empowerment for a people whose social and economic conditions begged for such a source.

As we enter into this sixtieth year of continuous publication, and I reflect on that purpose and on the current overall social, educational, and economic plight of African Americans in Memphis, it seems that there still exists a significant need for a vehicle, a communication tool, a media outlet that reflects that same purpose. One that informs, that inspires, that elevates its readers very quality of life in its pages, print or web, each week. That is what attracted me to this challenge to revive – and in many instances – rebuild the Tri-State Defender and create a new paradigm for its existence rooted in the principal foundation established by its original founders.

Just like the cars we drive today, vehicles have been made contemporary and dynamic and yet their foundational purpose has never changed, a primary mode of transportation, moving people from one point to another. Similarly, the media vehicle that is the New Tri-State Defender will continue its transformation yet will remain rooted as a tool of moving its readers and the community at large to a better place.  

Lastly, one of the things that significantly stood out as I soaked in that inaugural 1951 issue of the TSD, was the overwhelming level of advertising and general support from businesses and individuals of all kinds, but certainly from the African-American community. Insurance agencies, institutions of higher learning, funeral homes, restaurants, beauty salons, barbershops, and on and on all widely and proudly represented. An overwhelming presence with names such as Universal Life Insurance, Tennessee State University, attorney Benjamin Hooks, and Russell Sugarman Sr. all represented.  

Then there were so many more, unrecognized names and businesses of African Americans demonstrating with great purpose not just the understanding of advertising but of investing in a vehicle built to improve their plight, to challenge, inform, connect and bring about positive change. Sure, there were household brand names such as Coke, Noxzema and numerous others (many of which still advertise in the Tri-State Defender today) in that first issue and in many of the subsequent issues, but the spirit of cooperative economics and dynamic community connectivity demonstrated in that one issue spoke volumes.  

It whispered – and then yelled – that sometimes you have to look back in order to move forward, and in some unique cases go back to understand and plan for the future you desire.

So many things have changed in 60 years, technology and systems, communities and habits. But beyond even those things, people’s attitudes and worldview have shifted and it is those shifts that sometime require a re-introduction, a re-acquaintance if you will, to those things that got us to where we are.  Those things that got us to where we are today, but more importantly that can serve to move us to where we desire to be.   

It is my contention that The New Tri-State Defender as it was referred to in that first historic issue and as we have begun to re-introduce it, falls in that category. As we come together on Thursday night (Nov. 10), it is certainly to kickoff a true celebration of OUR (in the broadest sense) past, but more importantly to inspire and propel an elevation of OUR future. I welcome and challenge you to join us.

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