UA journalism assistant professor Linda Lumsden teaches journalism history—and she has a special interest in the alternative press. Her fourth book, Black White and Red All Over: The Radical Press in its Heyday, 1900-1917, will be released next year by Kent State University Press. In a study published in the latest issue of Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, the journalism historian looked at the Black Panther Party newspaper, The Black Panther, and discovered a feminist perspective that contradicts the party's early hyper-masculine image.
What led you to look at the Black Panther Party newspaper?
I've always been interested in the radical press, more so than the mainstream press. They represent the voice of the voiceless. They've been the leaders of the social movements and tend to follow the radicals. I'm familiar with the women's movement of the '60s, and I decided to look at the black press. There was the Chicago Defender and then The Black Panther. I found them to be interesting and found issues on microfilm. There are dozens of reels here at the UA library. ... I went through 200 articles between 1968 and 1980.
How did social change occur?
The Black Panthers recognized the intersection of class, race and gender, and their women were being informed by the women's movement. But black women have a tradition of resistance and being strong; they've had to since the time of slavery. Many people talk about how women were an important part of the Panthers. They were pretty adamant about saying, "We are equals." The public voice, however, was their newspaper. In the newspaper, they sent a message out, "We are all about egalitarianism, and women are warriors and are strong." The contradiction was that in their private lives, there was domestic abuse and violence—but they kept that private. In the public voice, women were equal, and they were leaders—and they were especially leaders when the men were shot or sent to prison.
Did the newspaper change perceptions outside the black community?
It had a circulation of 130,000 all over the world at its high point. And, yeah, at one point, all radical newspapers looked to it. It was also the best-looking paper of that time. The main art director who did so many of these empowering drawings of women was Emory Douglas. A couple of years ago, a picture book was written about his art. He did high-quality drawings of black culture and, really, American culture, especially in his portrayals of women. (The newspaper) was definitely an influence on all of the radical movements of the '60s and '70s, and everyone looked to them.
Is there something current media can learn by looking at your study and these newspapers?
I think all media can learn what an important role alternative media play in sort of countering mainstream media in America. ... There was a rich print culture, but no radical groups could be on TV or radio. Today, the development of the Internet has been a boon for the alternative voice to find a space and put forth their point of view in the world. This is the theme of the book I'm doing now on the radical press before World War I. That voice really added to the diversity that is the foundation of ideals in journalism and the central role of press in democracy.
Is there still such a thing as alternative media?
Definitely. You find it online, and places like the Tucson Weekly and the Phoenix New Times. These weeklies have long-form, investigative pieces that you rarely see in any medium-to-large newspapers these days, other than The New York Times or The Washington Post. Nonetheless, you have to get outside the big, corporate media. Again, the alternative press is on the fringe, not the mainstream, and it's never something people do to get rich.
Your new book looks at a period that was actually even more radical.
The 1910s are similar to the '60s. They did everything that people did in the '60s, except LSD, because it hadn't been invented. There was free love, and they were challenging all of the restrictions of the Victorian era. In the Greenwich Village of the 1910s, this was a time of really exploring and changing, much like the '60s. There were hundreds of papers published by socialists, anarchists and the Wobblies. Virtually all of them were shut down because they were all against the war—and what came out of the alternative media in terms of free speech was much closer to the ideals of democracy than the mainstream press.