Charlotta BassAug 31st, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Activism, Journalism & Law
1880-1969 Charlotta Bass used her influence as the publisher of a newspaper to uncover injustice and fight for civil rights. She campaigned for vice president of the United States and used the resulting media coverage to call attention to such issues.
Climbing the Ladder
Bass was born Charlotta Amanda Spears in October of 1880 in Sumter, South Carolina. She was the sixth of 11 children between Hiram and Kate Spears, but very little is known about her parents or her early life. Bass moved to Rhode Island soon after graduating from high school, and found work selling ads and doing odd jobs at a newspaper. She grasped the nuances of the business over 10 years of employment at the Providence Watchman. After moving to Los Angeles, California, in 1910, she found work selling subscriptions to the African American newspaper the Eagle.
Two years later, the Eagle’s publisher, J.J. Neimore, took ill and asked Bass to take over the operation of the paper upon his death. The surprise bequest made Bass the first African American woman to run a newspaper in the United States. However, the Eagle was in dire financial straits when she finally assumed the role of editor and publisher. Determined to correct the paper’s course, Bass changed the name to the California Eagle, and began hiring staff that were less interested in society reporting and more dedicated to reporting on the issues of the day. In 1912, she hired Joseph Blackburn Bass to be the paper’s editor. He eventually became Bass’ husband.
By 1915, the paper was staking out firm political stances. Bass ran editorials denouncing D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a film that many found offensive for its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan and ideas of white supremacy. Bass’ protest motivated African American newspapers around the country to join her in condemning the film. When she realized the true scope of influence the media possessed, Bass redoubled her efforts to use the Eagle as a tool to fight for the rights of African Americans. The paper tackled issues such as fair access to housing, segregated schools, and illegal hiring practices by corporations.
By the mid-1930s, the Eagle was in solid financial shape, and with a circulation of 60,000, was the largest African American newspaper on the west coast. Her husband’s death in 1934 was an emotional blow to Bass, and a key transitional point in her life. When she recovered from grieving, she began to dedicate herself to political activism beyond the newspaper. Bass worked diligently on the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign that urged African Americans to take a personal stand against discriminatory hiring practices, and only spend their money at businesses that hired, or were run by, African Americans. Soon, she began to consider the possibility of running for public office.
On the National Scene
After rallying a group of black leaders in a battle against Los Angeles mayor Fletcher Bowron, Bass became convinced that politicians were not representing the issues that were important to the people. Although her group was successful in pressuring Bowron’s office to expand its Committee on American Unity, none of its other demands related to racism and discrimination were addressed. In 1945, Bass ran for Los Angeles City Council, and in 1950, became the Progressive Party’s candidate for state senate. She didn’t win either race, but gained a taste for politics and a platform for voicing ideas provided by political debate among candidates.
Because Bass’ political rhetoric was decidedly leftist as the United States entered the McCarthy era, and as suspicions toward communists, intellectuals, and activists reached a fever pitch, she found herself under surveillance by the FBI. In 1950, she was called before the California Legislature’s Joint Fact-Finding Committee on un-American Activities. Though neither Bass nor her paper were found guilty of any wrongdoing, she was subjected to surveillance for the remainder of her life. This did little to slow her political ambitions, however, and in 1951, after nearly 40 years as the managing editor and publisher of the Eagle, Bass sold the paper and began preparations for what would be her greatest challenge. In 1952, she ran for vice president of the United States on the Progressive Party ticket with Vincent Hallinan. She did not aspire to win, but rather to broadcast her views into a more public and national forum with a motto of “Win or lose, we win by raising the issues.” The bid for the vice presidency made Bass the first African American woman to run for a national office.
Despite her splashy appearance on the national stage, Bass continued to be dedicated to political work in and around Los Angeles throughout the remainder of her life. She never saw the city become the place of racial harmony that she envisioned, but during Bass’ life, Los Angeles was one of the most progressive cities in the United States, due in great part to her own efforts. When Bass moved just outside of Los Angeles in 1960, to Lake Elsinore, she opened her own garage as a community center and reading room. She hosted voter registration drives and became a regular participant at local protests against South African apartheid policies and on behalf of prisoners’ rights. In 1966, Bass suffered a stroke that confined her to a convalescent home. On April 12, 1969, she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died in Los Angeles.
Throughout her journalistic and political careers Bass fought for the rights of African Americans across a range of practical issues. In the course of her work, she befriended the famous activists Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois. Although Bass never was elected to public office, she was successful in her attempts to galvanize national energy around discrimination and civil rights. Her personal life and her publishing prowess are detailed in her 1960 autobiography, Forty Years: Memoirs from the Pages of a Newspaper.