By Gwen McKinney
As a former reporter fired from my first and only newspaper job for too much advocacy journalism, I’ve always been inspired by women writers who’ve fomented change with little fear of personal consequences. As a farewell tribute to Women’s History Month, we move into Spring celebrating a fearless truthteller. Projected through the lens of herstory, Charlotta Amanda Spears Bass was a journalist and pathfinder whose lived experience reflects reimagined democracy.
“I believe in a world of good. The battle is not won, nor the struggle past. But I know the future will be even better.”– Charlotta Spears Bass
Spanning more than a century, from the death of slavery to the birth of Jim Crow, she reminds us of the difficult and still unfolding march to power. Sometimes validated, other times vilified, our women warriors must always be valued, giving us the tools to build democracy through struggle.
“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.”
Charlotta Amanda Spears Bass (1874 -1969) issued that call-to-arms in her “On the Sidewalk” column. The first Black woman to own a U.S. newspaper, she ran the Los Angeles-based California Eagle from 1912 until 1951. The next year she made history again, tapped as the first Black woman vice presidential candidate with the California Progressive Party.
Bass took on lynching, Klan violence and gross racial discrimination of the early 20th Century in the pages of her newspaper. She reportedly once faced off against a mob of white hooded intruders who showed up her newspaper, sending them packing when she pulled out her revolver. Championing many of the intractable battles that we still wage today, she led campaigns against police brutality, housing discrimination and voter repression, spurring “respectable” folks to urge that she soften her tone. She never did. It wasn’t in her DNA to retreat from a fight for racial justice.
She was branded as a “dangerous security threat” by the infamous FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who reportedly monitored Charlotta over several decades, well into her nineties.