Check out this excerpt from Atlanta Studies, complete with interactive timeline and map!
The Grapevine of the Black South: The Scott Newspaper Syndicate in the Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement
In the summer of 1928, William Alexander Scott began a small four-page weekly with the help of his brother Cornelius. In 1930, his Atlanta World became a semi-weekly, and the following year, W.A. began to implement his vision for a massive newspaper chain based out of Atlanta, the Southern Newspaper Syndicate. In April 1931, the World became a tri-weekly along with several of the Syndicate companion papers, among them the Birmingham World and Memphis World. Finally, in March 1932, the Atlanta World became a daily. When the Syndicate’s reach began drifting beyond the bounds of the South in 1933, Scott changed its name to the Scott Newspaper Syndicate.
In the generation that followed, the Syndicate helped formalize knowledge among the African-American population in the South. It gave black readers in Atlanta, for example, much the same news that it gave readers in New Orleans. In the decades after World War II, the Civil Rights Movement would explode throughout the region, with black southerners finding a collective identity in that struggle. This collective identity could not come solely from skin color or resentment of Jim Crow. The relative uniformity in post-Brown activism in the South was built on the commonality of the news, and the subsequent interpretation of that news. Or, as Gunnar Myrdal explained, the press was “the chief agency of group control. It tells the individual how he should think and feel as an American Negro and creates a tremendous power of suggestion by implying that all other Negroes think and feel in this manner.” It didn’t create a complete homogeneity in black southern thinking, but it gave thinkers a similar set of tools from which to draw.
The only way to understand that thinking is to first understand the systematic dissemination of information through the region, and that dissemination was principally the project of the SNS. From the period March 1931 to March 1955, there were no less than 241 newspapers associated with the Syndicate. Because so many of its newspapers were small, or didn’t last long, or weren’t saved, or didn’t leave behind business records, the Scott Newspaper Syndicate has often been given short shrift in discussions of the black press. The syndicates associated with the Pittsburgh Courier and Baltimore Afro-American hold sway. Stories abound of Pullman porters toting copies of the Chicago Defender down South to provide black southerners with information they otherwise wouldn’t have. Porters actually did that. Northern and eastern syndicates were incredibly influential. But such examinations of more widely available black newspapers neglect the existence of a legitimate and flourishing network of black newspapers throughout the South. This book is an analysis of that network and its relationship to the black South in the generation before the civil rights movement.
The black southern press in the post-World War I period became the modern version of the nineteenth century kinship network, the grapevine, and it looked much the same and served similar ends. Syndicate papers dominated in small towns of the southern countryside. In a pragmatic effort to avoid racial confrontation developing from white fear, newspaper editors developed a practical radicalism that argued on the fringes of racial hegemony, picking their spots, urging local compromise, and saving their loudest vitriol for tyranny that wasn’t local and thus left no stake in the game for would-be white saboteurs.
But the Syndicate did not remain in the South. Its membership followed the path of the Great Migration into the Midwest and West. There was in the move a fundamental separation with the communities and mores of the region those migrants left, making the connective tissue of information all the more important, the establishment of a new grapevine a necessity as the population was spread thin, a new diaspora moving into new territory that was more welcoming in some ways and less welcoming in others.
But that grapevine’s roots remained in the South, where a slightly more conservative Depression-era southern press—a press that often wouldn’t even support civil rights activism in the post-Brown South—would ultimately create the mindset for first wave southern black activism after World War II. The idea that the Syndicate would develop around a large urban newspaper wasn’t rare. The Defender and Courier had syndicates at various points in their histories. The Baltimore Afro-American did, as well. But the Afro-American’s syndicate numbered twelve editions at its height. The comparative reach of the SNS and its hundreds of newspapers was simply unparalleled.