Traveling with Twain

In Search of America's Identity

Tri-State Defender celebrates its 60th anniversary of keeping the African-American voice alive in Memphis

We interview Bernal E. Smith II, publisher of the Tri-State Defender, the day before the Memphis weekly newspaper, which also serves nearby Arkansas and Mississippi, celebrates its sixtieth anniversary.

Our conversation with Smith, which focuses on the Defender’s past as well as present and future, reminds me of two interesting tidbits of journalism history. First, the Defender is part of a strong Memphis-Chicago journalism connection. Ida B. Wells, the feisty editor and part-owner of Memphis’s Free Speech and Highlight and a crusader against lynching, continued her crusade in Chicago, as author and editor of the African-American Conservator. The Tri-State Defender was founded by John Sengstacke, publisher of the flagship Chicago Defender.

Second, the Tri-State Defender reported key events in the early history of the U.S. civil rights movement, despite risk to its reporters. The Defender’s Alex Wilson covered the Mississippi murder of Emmett Till, a Chicago 14-year-old, in 1955, and the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. Wilson was knocked to the ground at Central High, hit on the head with a brick, and kicked as he knelt. Attackers shouted, “Run, nigger, run,” but he refused to run. He said later, “They would have had to kill me before I would have run.”

For more on the Defender’s role in history, see an excerpt from Dan Tham’s video of our interview with Smith, the paper’s publisher.

For more on the Defender, see an excerpt from Dan Tham’s video of our interview of Smith, the paper’s publisher.

Loren Ghiglione

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