Friday, March 16, 2012

Women's History Month - Charlotta Bass

"In public, in private, wherever I have heard the challenge, the call for a greater effort, the need for further struggle....I have continued to this day to work and fight and struggle toward the light of a better day."
Charlotta Bass, editor of the California Eagle, receives a declaration. Source: KCET

Charlotta Amanda Spears Bass was born in Sumter, South Carolina (the year is unclear, some sources say 1874, some day 1879, or even 1880). She was the sixth child out of eleven children. Very little is known about her early life. When she was twenty, she moved to Providence, Rhode Island, to live with her brother. There, she took a position working for the Providence Watchman, a small local newspaper. In 1910, she moved to Los Angeles, California, for health reasons, and it was then that she started working for the Owl newspaper, later renamed the Eagle, run by John Neimore.

The Eagle was instrumental for the black immigrants moving to southern California to escape poverty and racism in the south. It primarily provided information about jobs and housing in the Los Angeles area.

John Neimore soon become ill, and he turned the operations of the Eagle over to Charlotta. When he died, the paper’s new owner put her in charge, and she promptly renamed the newspaper company to the California Eagle to address social and political issues.

In 1912, Joseph Bass, one of the founders of the Topeka Plaindealer, joined the California Eagle as editor. He and Charlotta shared the same concerns about injustice and racial discrimination, and the two eventually got married and ran the newspaper together.

She expanded the scope of the California Eagle to include inspiration for the black community and address the wrongs of society. At the time, news coverage of blacks, women, and other minorities was either non-existent or very negative. In 1926-27, she spent three months taking journalism courses at Columbia University, to improve her journalism skills.

Her activism didn't stop with her work on the paper. During the 1920s, she was elected as co-president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Universal Negro Improvement Association of Marcus Garvey, formed the Home Protective Association to combat housing discrimination, and helped found the Industrial Business Council fighting employment discrimination and encouraging black people to go into business.

By 1925, the California Eagle had a staff of twelve and a circulation of 60,000, making it the largest African-American newspaper on the West Coast at the time.

When she returned to the paper, she created the "On the Sidewalk" column, which she wrote weekly from 1927 to 1951, and in which she addressed the social issues affecting her community, not just bringing attention to the problems, but giving her readers inspiration and direction on how to bring about reform.
Her newspaper career spanned forty years, through World War I and World War II, the Great Depression, the Central Avenue Renaissance in Los Angeles, the California Legislature's investigations on "un-American" activities, and the early civil rights movement. Throughout all these eras and changing times, the California Eagle was Bass' voice in her social activism. She used the newspaper, and her weekly editorial column, "On the Sidewalk," as instruments to fight for change.

Bass practiced "advocacy" journalism, which challenges today's notion that news reporting should be "unbiased." In advocacy journalism, the newspaper openly takes a stand and presents the news from that position. Moreover, in advocacy journalism, the newspaper is not merely reporting information but is involved in the process of making the news. Although journalists of the black press often practiced a community journalism in which the newspapers published platforms and the publishers were community leaders, Bass's level of activism was extraordinary. See the platform of the California Eagle, published December 19, 1930.

Like most black newspapers of that period, the California Eagle served as a source of both information and inspiration for the black community, which was largely ignored or negatively portrayed by the white press. With national and international coverage, the California Eagle brought black Angelenos in touch with struggles for civil rights taking place in other parts of the country and across the globe. The paper also helped to bring Los Angeles-based civil rights struggles to the national stage.
(Source: Southern California Library)

During the Great Depression, the California Eagle's offices were located in the heart of Los Angeles' black community, and they took their mission to their readership seriously. They promoted black businesses and the hiring of African Americans in the area, and even went to far as to start a "Don't Shop Where You Can't Work" campaign. Charlotta's own politics spanned the divide between integrationist and separatist black politics, and she was a leader of both the NAACP and the United Negro Improvement Association.

Sadly, in 1934, her husband Joseph died. She continued to run the newspaper without him.

In 1938, the California Eagle began producing a nightly 15-minute radio segment on local station KGFJ. In 1940, station KFVD began presenting "The California Eagle Hour" every Sunday, providing information about news, sports, social events, and other activities in Los Angeles' black community.
"There is a strange truth about suppression. It seldom works."
In 1940, she was selected by the the Republican Party to be the western regional director for Wendell Willkie’s presidential campaign. In 1943, she became the first African American grand jury member for the Los Angeles County Court, where she took as stand against her fellow jurors and their racial stereotyping of Mexican-Americans as being predisposed to criminal activity. In fact, she believed the struggle of all minorities was a worthy fight, and in 1943, during the Zoot Suit Riots, she served on the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, a multiracial group that fought for the release of several Mexican-Americans they believed to have been wrongly convicted of murder by an all-white jury.

This was not her only problem with the legal system, she also took on the fight against housing discrimination.
Homeowners were allowed to use racial "restrictive covenants" in property deeds to ban certain groups from purchasing property and moving into predominantly white neighborhoods. Bass helped to influence the U.S. Supreme Court's decision against racial restrictive covenants and to open home ownership and housing to all. The California Eagle and the Los Angeles Sentinel led the campaign to fight the covenants and support black homeowners. In addition, the Negro Victory Committee, which Bass was a member of, successfully negotiated housing for war workers without racial restrictions.

One well-publicized case that Bass was very involved in was the struggle of the Henry and Anna Laws family to remain in their own home. In 1942, the family was told that African Americans were barred from living in the neighborhood and were ordered to move. But the Laws refused to leave and waited as the issue was argued in various courts. Eventually, they were sent to jail for disobeying a court order requiring them to vacate their home. But they were able to remain in their home after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1948 that racial restrictive covenants were unenforceable. The "Home Protective Association," under the leadership of the Eagle, assisted the Laws family throughout this struggle.

Another early case that shows Bass's effectiveness in mobilizing people involved Mrs. Mary Johnson who purchased a small home on East 18th Street in 1914. The outraged white neighbors moved her furniture to the lawn and boarded up her windows and doors while she was out. Mrs. Johnson appealed to Bass who rounded up 100 church women to go to the home in protest until finally the police came and opened up the home. Mrs. Johnson was able to stay in her home.
(Source: Southern California Library)
Also in 1943, Bass led a group of black community leaders to the mayor's office to demand an expansion of the Mayor's Committee on American Unity, more public mass meetings to promote interracial unity, and an end to the discriminatory hiring practices of the privately owned Los Angeles Railway Company. The mayor listened, but agreed to do no more than to expand his committee.

In the late 1940s, she left the Republican party and formed the Progressive Party when she became convinced neither of the major parties was committed to civil rights.

Charlotta fought for the rights of women as well as for minorities. She understood the intersection of racial and gender equality concerns, and fought for both simultaneously.
Bass regularly used her columns and speeches to recognize the historical contributions of black women throughout the world and to call on other black women to follow this example and join her in leading the Los Angeles community in battles to end inequality and injustice.

This quote comes from her August 27, 1942, "On the Sidewalk" column:

"WOMEN! WOMEN! WOMEN! Particularly Negro Women, this call comes to you! It is up to us to DO something about our position in the body politic of this nation. Let us be aware that we have a glorious history in our land...Many are the stories of heart rending courage that the Negro women of the slave period have handed down to us...They were the mothers of a hundred rebellions, all of which our standard history texts have conveniently forgotten. Yet black women have a tradition which they must not forget and which they must not fail."
(Source: Southern California Library)
Charlotta Bass, VP Candidate, Progressive Party Ticket, 1952, next to Vincent Hallinan, the Party's Presidential Candidate
She fought for black women workers who were excluded from jobs in the war industry solely because of their race and their gender. She gave strong support to black women's organizations like the Sojourner Truth Club, a Los Angeles group dedicated to improving working conditions for black women workers. And on the national level, she joined with prominent African American women, to form the Sojourners for Truth and Justice, an organization which demanded that the government protect the civil rights and civil liberties of its black citizens and live up to the ideals it espoused abroad.
She used the newspaper, along with direct-action campaigns and the political process, to challenge inequality for Blacks, workers, women, and other minorities in Los Angeles. Her mission was nothing short of achieving the equality and justice promised by the United States Constitution. She believed her own role in society, and the role of the Black community, was defined by Americanism, democracy, and citizenship.

Acting on this belief, Bass was one of the pioneers who helped to lay the groundwork for the later Civil Rights Movement and the women's liberation movement. She fought important battles against job and housing discrimination, police brutality, and media stereotyping, and for immigrant and women's rights and civil liberties.

Over time, her role as an activist evolved from championing local business concerns, to strengthening the labor movement, fighting fascism at home and abroad during World War II, and showing a global concern for world peace. Her leadership, courage, truth-telling, and tenacity were an effective force in Los Angeles, and the world, that yielded greater equality for Blacks, workers, and other people facing oppression.
(Source: Southern California Library)
Her fight for equality made a lot of people unhappy with her. She received numerous death threats, and the FBI placed her under surveillance, claiming that her newspaper was seditious. In fact, hey continued to monitor her until her death.

Actor, singer, and civil rights activist Paul Robeson speaks with fellow activist and California Eagle editor and publisher Charlotta Bass.
Both Paul Robeson and Charlotta Bass were accused of disloyalty by the Committee of Un-American Activities
and were subject to federal investigations.
In 1950, she was called before the California Legislature's Joint Fact-Finding Committee on un-American Activities, and was accused of being a Communist. At the time, these types of accusations were usually devastating to the careers of those faced with them, and Charlotta was no exception. Being a black-owned and run newspaper, the California Eagle's finances has never been strong, and this negative attention began to take a toll on the business, and she was forced to sell it in 1951.
"I will not retire nor will I retreat, not one inch, so long as God gives me vision to see what is happening and strength to fight for the things I know are right."
Despite the political pressure on her, she did not stop fighting for the causes she believed in. In 1952, she was the first African American woman nominated for vice president of the United States, running on the Progressive Party presidential ticket. Her platform included support for civil rights, women’s rights, an end to the Korean War, and peace with the Soviet Union. Her slogan during the campaign was, "Win or lose, we win by raising the issues."
"We who fight on the side of the people believe the great enemies of mankind are poverty and disease, inequality and war. We fight for a better life for all people, free from fear, free from war, from intolerance and discrimination."

Although she retired from public life around around 1960 and moved to Lake Elsinore, California, she continued her civil rights activism. Her garage was used as a community library and reading room and a voter registration site for young African Americans in her neighborhood. She joined various protests for civil rights, against South African apartheid, and on behalf of prisoners' rights. In 1966, she suffered a stroke and died three years later from cerebral hemorrhage. She is buried along side her husband in Evergreen Cemetery, East Los Angeles, California.
"It has been a good life that I have had, through a very hard one, but I know the future will be even better, And as I think back I know that is the only kind of life: In serving one's fellow man one serves himself best. I would not have it any other way."
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