Civil decency. Human honesty.


The Birmingham Reporter pushed the boundaries.

By Tom Gordon

By the time you read this, Black History Month will have come and gone. But history is worth studying year-round, particularly when it involves people whose contributions to our state and nation have often been overlooked or ignored.

Have you heard of a newspaper called The Birmingham Reporter? I hadn’t until last year. The Reporter was a newspaper published for black readers, and it lasted from 1909 until 1934. Its publisher and chief voice was a man named Oscar W. Adams. If that name rings a bell, it may be because you remember his son, the late Oscar Adams, Jr. who was appointed Alabama’s first black Supreme Court justice in 1980 and served until 1993.

Issues of The Reporter are on microfilm at the downtown Birmingham Public Library. Its pages offer glimpses of life in Birmingham’s black community, and those glimpses take in the often daunting issues facing Birmingham blacks and their black brothers and sisters elsewhere. Those pages also show that even long ago, before the 1950s and ’60s brought forth the strong voices of Fred Shuttlesworth and Martin Luther King, Jr., our community had strong voices calling for change.

Oscar Adams and The Reporter addressed a host of issues in their time: Lynchings and mob violence. Inmates being leased from jails to work in brutal conditions in local mines. Obstacles to voting. Segregation and mistreatment from drivers on street cars. Violence at the hands of white cops. Lack of meaningful economic opportunities. Inadequate education. Even lack of access to decent elevators in various downtown office buildings. It goes without saying that some of those issues are still with us.

Now these were things I read about, again and again, in issues of The Reporter published in 1917 and 1918. But in those same issues, I also was reading about the support, in words and deeds, that the Birmingham black community was giving to the nation’s effort in the horrific conflict of World War I. About 200,000 black service members deployed to Europe, and about 40,000 saw actual combat. Many black soldiers, including a number of Alabamians, trained at Camp Dodge, Iowa, and The Reporter carried accounts of their training and the praise they were earning.

“Alabama Boys Make Hit,” stated one of the headlines in a May 1917 edition of the paper over a story on a musical program that some Alabama recruits put on before a largely a white Iowa audience. “They Prove Real Soldiers—Alabama Troops Make Splendid Showing as Result of Army Training—White Men Explain That This is Example of the Negro With a Chance.”

On The Reporter’s pages you can read about black miners boosting their output, view photos of black soldiers standing straight and proud, and editorial cartoons from other papers harshly depicting the German enemy. There also are stories in which leaders such as Adams and Birmingham Industrial School Principal A.H. Parker (for whom Parker High is named) lend their support to bond drives, Liberty Gardens, the recruitment of patriotic speakers known as Four Minute Men and other programs to support the war effort. And as they did so, they said the war was an opportunity for black Alabamians to gain the citizenship rights and opportunities to which they were entitled.

In one of The Reporter’s 1918 issues, William S. Buchanan, then the president of Alabama A&M University, said “the Negro is far too patriotic to embarrass his government in the time of the nation’s peril by making any demands whatever, and yet our fellow citizens must expect us to look forward to certain long-sought benefits as a result of this great conflict in which we are freely mingling our blood with that of our countrymen and our country’s allies.”

Buchanan’s remarks hint at the conflicted feelings toward the war among black Americans, feelings that surfaced during subsequent wars such as WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, mixed feelings about black men and women being called to fight so that people far away could have rights that they themselves could not fully enjoy at home.

The Reporter would illustrate that ambivalence by highlighting a patriotic rally at a place like Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on one page and running a strongly worded editorial about a racial atrocity on another. Sadly, there were plenty of the latter. In an edition in May of 1917, after the lynching of several blacks in south Georgia following the killing of a white farmer and the wounding of his wife, Adams could not contain his anger.

“Does the white race believe that the colored race is going to stand for this always?” he wrote. “… It is a shame before the living God and man that we should continue to preach democracy and permit such autocracy and savagery within our own borders.”

Adams then expressed his desire, his hope that “the men who are dominating this country will wake up to a sense of justice and stop the people of their race from destroying the people of my race by mob rule, jim crowism, prejudice and every other kind of hell-fired scheme that can be perpetuated against humanity.”

And toward the end, as if to answer a question—what do you people want?—he started it plainly: “We don’t want any more nigger treatment, we want the same treatment that is accorded any other form of humanity. Thank God this is no social question. It is just a common question of civil decency and human honesty and fairness.”

Civil decency. Human honesty. Fairness. Together, they don’t seem like much. But if he were around today, Oscar Adams would still find them wanting. And he would be raising his voice.

Extras

“The reports from the daily press herald forth the fact that the white man is not quite ready for the democracy spoken of by President Woodrow Wilson; the democracy being fought for by white men and black men in France. Lynchings are (as) common now as they ever were, and are more appalling now than in years past. Some years ago they lynched only Negro men, now they lynch Negro women. It would be no surprise to the editor of this publication to pick up the daily paper and find where this element of whites had lynched men, women and children of the Negro race.”

From “The Lynchers Go Merrily On,” a May 1918 editorial in The Reporter about the lynching of five blacks in south Georgia following the shooting death of a white farmer and the wounding of his wife.

“The world is watching the American Negro with more eager interest than ever before. The world recognizes the fact that opportunity is knocking at the door of our race with a louder tap than ever before in our history. Some there be who doubt us; many there be, who trust us. It is for us to so act that the result of this world’s conflict may bring lustre to the record of our race, wipe away all racial prejudices and yield to us equal status in the realm of American manhood.”

From a speech given by Oscar Adams Sr. published in a June 1918 edition of The Reporter.

“No doubt the most outrageous and inhuman practice in Birmingham is its elevator and street car service. It is one of these foolish ideas of separate but not equal accommodations … It is up to the citizens of both races to get busy and eradicate these evils, destroy this unfair treatment on the street cars of Birmingham, and have this wolf, the destroyer of human kindness to understand once and for all  times that the sun of civilization, the sun of fair play, is too high now in American civilization for a further tolerance of (these) scandalous and inhuman practices as are now plain to our local situation.”

From “Jim Crow Elevator Is No Benefit, in Fact,” an editorial published on April 27, 1918 about black citizens having to ride freight elevators to see doctors or lawyers and about the ongoing mistreatment of black passengers on local streetcars.

“Our country needs us all, every ounce of brain and manpower that is within us must be used for the cause of the nation that freedom might cover the lands as the sand covers the bottom of the sea.

From a Reporter editorial, March 1918.

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