Upon reading the chapter, “Propelling Black Americans Into the Promised Land” in Rodger Streitmatter’s book, “Voices of Revolution,” I was impressed at Robert Abbott’s unrelenting determination in how he influenced the Great Migration — the mass exodus of African Americans from the South to the North — through his weekly paper, The Defender.
Abbott was crafty in the ways in which he published and distributed his weekly newspaper — from getting black porters to deliver copies to newsboys as they headed south to his creation of migration fever. But what I found to be most impressive about Abbott as a dissident journalist and radical social advocate is how he essentially continued relentlessly printing The Defender despite it falling under federal investigation.
This particular paragraph in the chapter was small, yet impactful. Because the height of the paper’s circulation coincided with the United States’ involvement in World War I, Streitmatter said, the United States established a special surveillance operation that combined military, the postal service and Justice Department.
“Because their mutual goal was to maintain national security during World War I and the Defender was a self-declared voice of dissent, the paper was declared ‘subversive’ and emerged as a primary target for federal investigation,” Streitmatter said.
It doesn’t surprise me that our American government would act this way toward radicalism and dissidence. Hearing about the ways in which the federal government has reacted toward figures like Abbott, and currently acts toward today’s journalists like James Risen, is unsurprising yet still infuriating, as I would expect in a “free” society that the government would not try to suppress the voices of its citizens, no matter how outspoken or radical they may be.
This, however, is not the case with the United States government. In fact, the Obama administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers more than any other president combined. To worsen the matter, this administration has also doled out longer jail sentences against whistleblowers than previous presidents — 526 months of prison time for national security leakers as of October 2014.
A lot can be said about a government who chooses to suppress and even jail its own reporters, especially a government whose own constitution explicitly outlines the freedoms of the press. Throughout history, the United States government has shown that issues of national security and protecting national interest trumps the liberties and freedoms of its citizens. It is the hallmark of a country who tends to act within in its own self-interest rather than for the betterment of its people. Perhaps what is even more troubling is the ways in which this country’s government officials try to mask their invasive policies under the guise of national security and “protection.”
Where is the line drawn between the protection of a country and the protection of its citizen’s civil liberties?
This is where the duty of the journalist becomes ever more prominent. Like with Roger Abbott, who didn’t stop the circulation of The Defender even when it came under government surveillance, journalists today can and should not be baited by terror into staying silent in their pursuit to uncover injustice and corruption.