Today’s profile is the first of two articles about one of my personal heroes of the civil rights movement in Kentucky: Harry McAlpin, a native Louisvillian, who, in 1944, became the first African American White House correspondent, covering Presidents Roosevelt and Truman for a consortium of African American newspapers around the country. He later practiced law in Louisville, and represented a new generation of civil rights leaders in the courtroom.
Harry McAlpin was born in St. Louis in 1906, making him 11 years old when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the segregation ordinance passed in Louisville, his future home, in the 1917 Supreme Court case brought by NAACP attorney Moorfield Storey, the subject of an earlier profile. By that point, the southern states were converting what had always been segregation by custom into segregation by law, and despite Storey’s success in the courtroom, in practice restrictive deed covenants kept white neighborhoods white. The press was segregated, too. We have discussed in past columns the fact that, but for a column known as “Colored Notes” contained in the Lexington Herald and Leader, these newspapers deliberately did not report on any news originating in the African American community. This was true of nearly all white-owned papers at the time.
To satisfy the desire for news that was meaningful to their communities — and not filtered through the lens of a white editor — the first generation of black publishers began their own newspapers. One of the earliest of these publishers was Robert S. Abbott, whose Chicago Defender, launched in 1905, became the most read black newspaper in America. Abbott’s Defender is often credited with popularizing Chicago as a destination for the wave of Southern rural blacks who flocked there during and after the first world war — and the blues music that gave Chicago its flavor.
In 1933, Abbott expanded his empire to Louisville, where his nephew, John Sengstacke, along with local Louisville backers, founded the weekly Louisville Defender, the city’s first African American newspaper. In 1939, the United States Commerce Department identified over 200 black owned newspapers in America, all but one of which were weekly. When the Chicago Defender began daily operations in 1956, it became only the second black owned daily newspaper in America, the first having been the Atlanta Daily World.
One of the Defender’s rising stars was Harry McAlpin. One of Sengstacke’s dreams was to build a national African American press service, which would be able to report on issues of importance to blacks nationwide, the way the white-controlled
Associated Press and United Press syndicates, among others, provided stories to newspapers across the nation. The two came together in 1944, when Sengstacke’s organization, representing by that point 51 African American newspapers, of which the Chicago and Louisville Defenders were two, was assigned as the syndicate’s first White House correspondent.
On that cold February day in 1944, long before anyone would think of February as Black History Month, McAlpin walked through the gates to the White House to attend a press conference to be given by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose wife, Eleanor, was thought by many to be “too sympathetic” to the cause of African Americans, though many black leaders thought FDR himself not nearly sympathetic enough. In those days, press conferences were held in the Oval Office. As he walked toward that office, he was greeted by a white Southern reporter. He was quietly told that while many did not want him at the White House at all, if he would simply wait outside in the outer office and not go in, the other reporters would all share their notes with him so that he could write the same stories they wrote. The plum he was offered was membership in the White House Press Association, the private press group that had traditionally accredited White House correspondents.
Sengstacke, by this point heir to his uncle’s publishing empire, was the most powerful black publisher in America, at a time when the Democratic party needed black support in what many feared would be a close presidential race in 1944. Sengstacke, along with labor leader A. Phillip Randolph, is often given given credit for swaying FDR to sign his famous 1940 executive order desegregating civilian defense plants, though he could never persuade FDR to desegregate the military itself. That move was left to his successor, Harry Truman, whom McAlpin went on to cover and who appointed Sengstacke to the committee formed to supervise the process. One can assume that FDR knew that McAlpin was coming.
Press conferences were much more informal in the ’40s than today, and after the conference, McAlpin — who had declined the other reporters’ offer and walked straight into the Oval Office — joined the line of correspondents filing past Roosevelt’s desk. As McAlpin walked up, FDR, who had been primed by Sengstacke, shook his hand, and said, “Harry, we’re glad you’re here!” In the Roosevelt White House, this was enough: McAlpin was in.
Harry McAlpin wasn’t just satisfied with reporting on the news, though: He wanted to make some. To do that, he returned to Louisville, where he practiced law in the 1950s and ’60s, representing, among others, a young Calvert McCann, when he was arrested for participating in demonstrations in Lexington, at a time when no Lexington lawyers would represent them.
Tomorrow, we abide one more day with Harry McAlpin and ask a question that has puzzled me about so many early leaders of the civil rights movement: How did they remain sane and keep their spirits up during years of fighting for what amounted to incremental progress, if any progress at all? Tomorrow, we explore Harry McAlpin’s answer to that question, as our series on my personal heroes of the civil rights movement in Kentucky continues in honor of Black History Month.
Robert L. Treadway is senior policy analyst at Kentucky First Strategies, LLC, a full-service political consulting, lobbying and governmental relations firm. In his role as a legal consultant, he also provides legal research and writing services to attorneys and law firms throughout Kentucky. Bob has a lifelong interest in Kentucky history, which he pursued as a student at Transylvania University, where he graduated with a major in history and minor in political science, and was an award winning editor of Transy’s student newspaper, The Rambler. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where his media activities included scriptwriting for Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller’s TV series, and for Miller’s role as Legal Editor on ABC TV’s Good Morning, America. He writes, posts and Tweets about Kentucky history. Look him up on Facebook; his Twitter feed is @rltreadway.