For 200 Years: Alternative Press Voices Dissident Views
This article originally appeared in Issue# 38
We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the public been deceived by misrepresentation of things which concern us dearly. It shall ever be our daily duty to vindicate our brethren, when oppressed, and to lay the cause before the public... From the press and the pulpit we have suffered much by being incorrectly represented. Men... have not hesitated to represent us disadvantageously, without becoming personally acquainted with the true state of things.
- Freedom's Journal, 1827
History, it is said, has been written by the victors. The media, it should be added, have spoken for their owners. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the long, activist tradition of dissident and ethnic press in this country has been virtually ignored by media history textbooks which chose to write about the rich and powerful individuals who published the nation's 'great" papers.
One has to search long and hard to uncover the dissident tradition media with a conscience - which insured that diverse voices would be heard above an otherwise closed marketplace of mainstream ideas. Exploring these alternative voices provides insight into the nature of mass media in the United States and illuminates the rich diversity created by America's minorities.
Their legions are numerous and span centuries. Since the earliest days of the republic, foreign-language newspapers dotted the colonies providing linkages between new and old homelands for a nation of immigrants.
A militant black press began in the 1820s in response to racist media attacks and the refusal of white papers to print black responses. More than 1,200 black-owned newspapers were started just in the 40 years following the Civil War.
Today, with the controversy over bilingualism a major political issue, it's worth noting that bilingual Native American/English and Spanish/English newspapers appeared in what is now the United States in the very first years of the 19th century. In later decades, populist, utopian, socialist, communist and anti-war publications presented politically unpopular views to a changing nation.
Despite government harassment, ethnocentric and jingoistic sentiments, racist attacks, severe shortages of funds, and ostracism, the dissident press survived and persisted for centuries. It enriched, defined and defended the lives of America's minority populations and fostered a true interplay of ideas. As Lauren Kessler says in the introduction to The Dissident Press, "Blacks, suffragists, populists, socialists, immigrants and others who professed aberrant beliefs were heard, not in the closed marketplace of the conventional press but in the marketplace of their own creation. It is these marketplaces — the thousands of publications created and sustained by those who do not represent the homogeneous middle — that collectively present the marketplace of ideas."
Not all immigrant and minority press were at odds with the mainstream, and this clarification should be made to avoid sweeping generalizations. For instance, while the black press was a militant activist voice opposing slavery in the l800s, and racial discrimination in the 1900s, other minority and ethnic publications were far less oppositional. The publications of Americanizing groups like the Poles and Czechs, for example, often had "clearly detectable patriotic undertones" and became zealous protagonists of the American way of life, according to media scholar Lawrence Martin. Thus, the nature and content of minority media reflects the political, social and economic patterns of each group.
While it can be dangerous to ignore the differences between these communities, they do share certain characteristics. Most significantly, perhaps, they became the "voices of the voiceless," filling the communication needs of groups facing varying degrees of discrimination and isolation. They thus helped shape a response to pressures as diverse as slavery, assignment to Indian reservations, or the transition from life as a landed serf to that of an urban laborer.
Response to Crisis
As noted by two important writers on this subject, Felix Gutierrez and Clint Wilson, crises often spurred the development of papers in black, Latino, Asian-American and Native American communities. El Misisipi (1808), the first Spanish-language paper in what is now the United States, explored the warfare and political turmoil that was sweeping through their homeland of Mexico.
The struggle against slavery triggered the founding of the nation's first black newspaper, Freedom's Journal (1827), which aggressively fought slavery, advocated rights for freed blacks and built a sense of community identity among black Americans in its era.
Its Native American counterpart, the Cherokee Phoenix (1828) faced a different crisis, that of the federal government's efforts to displace the Cherokee nation from millions of acres of lands it held.
And the first Asian-American newspaper, the Golden Hills' News (1851) spoke to the trauma experienced by Chinese workers confronting a culture vastly different from their own, one which subjected them to legal, economic and social discrimination.
These, then, were voices of collective identity; they were also voices crying out of pain.
In a broad sense, the history of the dissident press is often also the history of the social ideas that changed America. Many of the proposals it broached eventually became acceptable mainstream positions, even if. others remained on the fringes. The fundamental changes in the nation's economic system advocated by the socialist press have never been accepted, but abolition, women's suffrage, child labor laws and the success of some of this century's antiwar movements are only a few examples of ideas that worked their way from dissident pages to the courts and the statute books.
Although often harassed for their advocacy in spite of the First Amendment, these David-like papers accepted the challenge of disseminating opinions, beliefs and information against the Goliath of the established power structure. The minority press, in addition, presented radical ideas on behalf of its group and helped to persuade readers that they were worth working toward. Abolition, civil rights, reparations for World War II internment, reimbursement for appropriation of Native American lands — all became believable, and thus possible, when they were printed in the black-and-white of their representative newspapers.
- Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Advocacy aided, but did not solve, the problem of lack of access to mainstream media that these groups had long faced. As the first issue of the Cherokee Phoenix put it, "Our views as a people have been sadly misrepresented." Freedom's Journal editorialized "We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the public been deceived."
But denial of access and equal opportunity were not the only reasons for the dissident press' existence. The need for self definition and a sense of achievement were equally essential motivating forces.
The myriad short-lived and financially strapped journals represented their cultures, politics, races, religions and/or classes in a society that promoted a homogenized middle, and was devoid of commitment to media pluralism.
And they proclaimed their cause boldly. The first issue of Elizabeth Cady Stanton's The Revolution unabashedly announced, "The enfranchisement of women is one of the leading ideas that calls this journal into existence...We think The Revolution a fitting name for a paper that will advocate so radical a reform as this involves in our political, religious and social worlds." Frederick Douglass spoke of similar goals, "The object of the North Star will be to attack slavery in all its forms and aspects, advocate universal emancipation, exact the standard of the colored peoples, and hasten the day of freedom to our three million enslaved countrymen." More than a century later, one could find that same spirit in an editorial of La Raza, a 1970s Chicano newspaper that declared, "In the pages of the Chicano press the grito of the barrio youth echoes."
Many sagas could be told about the papers that represent this creative and courageous tradition, the abuses they overcame, and their internal conflicts, the passion with which they debated their missions, and their inner struggles about their degree of militancy or accommodation with the larger society.
Regardless of what they said, when they said it or how they chose to speak their minds, when dissident ideas were excluded from the mainstream, thousands of small, poorly funded and frequently short-lived journals responded to the challenge. And even today, despite the closed enclave of the conventional media, in the age of the computer and the satellite they continue to sing their own songs, a chorus of media with a special conscience and a message to be heard.