This week, the History Department hosted the return of the ZooMX series. In this latest installment, author and University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy Professor Ethan Michaeli spoke to Upper School students from the U.S. History, Civil Rights and Talk of the Town classes, as well as interested faculty and staff, about his new book, The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America.
Michaeli began by sharing his history with the newspaper, from when he was a young naïve kid from upstate New York to becoming an investigative reporter working the police beat in Chicago. He was jarred from the ignorant belief that racism “had been solved” by learning about a history that he hadn’t heard anything about: stories like The Defender’s role in helping integrate armed forces, The Great Migration, even how the newspaper developed its political clout and helped sway elections from mayoral to presidential. These were eye-opening experiences, and Michaeli saw how The Defender played an active part in shaping America. Later, as an investigative reporter, Michaeli truly had the “naïveté torn from his eyes.” Witnessing the vast discrepancy between the treatment of African Americans and others by the police and the city of Chicago, both as individuals and as a community, opened his eyes to the current state of race in America.
Michaeli later created the Residence Journal, a magazine written and produced by the tenants of public housing developments in Chicago, and the nonprofit organization We the People, but he never forgot The Defender and the awakening it provided for him. And so, he wrote his book to share that experience with the world—because, for Michaeli, “That’s what The Defender is: it’s the truth.”
Following his talk, Michaeli expertly fielded an array of questions from students and faculty, ranging from what his research uncovered about The Defender’s role in “The Red Summer” of 1919 to whether using journalism/storytelling as a tool to divide or connect America existed in the early ’20s or ”30s or developed more recently. As Parker strives to guide students to become empathic, educated citizens, we are fortunate our faculty go out of their way to create experiences like ZooMX that welcome thought leaders from around the globe to speak, and we are thankful that Professor Ethan Michaeli was willing to generously lend us his time.