Brooke: Record numbers of journalists formed unions over the last few years. During the pandemic, we saw the biggest upsurge in labor organizing in journalism since the 1930s. Just this week, journalists at The Atlantic announced that they were forming a union affiliated with the NewsGuild. That's why it's amazing that I'd never heard of one of the first people to lead a journalism unionization movement. Marvel Cooke was a crusading Black journalist who organized one of the first chapters of the Newspaper Guild. She reported on labor and race until she was pushed out of journalism by red-baiting.
Today, we're welcoming Lewis Raven Wallace onto the podcast to tell that story. He's the creator of The View from Somewhere, a podcast about journalism with a purpose, and author of the book The View from Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity. For years, he's been researching journalists in US history whose stories haven't been thoroughly told because they were marginalized by a structure that didn't see them as real objective reporters. That's what happened to Marvel Cooke.
Lewis: Marvel Cooke was at home in New York when she got the call. The United States Senate Subcommittee on Investigations chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy-- yes, that guy, wanted her to testify.
Marvel Cooke: I remember spending that weekend getting as beautiful as I know how to get, getting a very conservative but beautiful dress out to wear. I felt so sorry for my husband. Here he is, married to this girl who looked like she was going to be a society somebody, and she gets herself in all this mess.
Lewis: She was a society lady, in a way. She was the fair-skinned daughter of radical Black socialists from Mankato, Minnesota. She was a communist and an investigative journalist. She was a close friend of Paul Robeson and had worked for W.E.B. Du Bois. Marvel Cooke was amazing. The McCarthy hearings, as you might remember, eventually became infamous for targeting journalists and entertainers, accusing them of communist ties.
Joseph McCarthy: Unless we make sure that there is no infiltration of our government, then just as certain as you sit there, in the period of our lives, you will see a red world.
Lewis: That fall of 1953, she showed up dressed to the nines to talk before the all-white, all-male Senate Committee. She took the filth, though she deigned to answer a couple of questions.
Marvel Cooke: He said, "Where were you born?" I said, "Oh, I was born in Minnesota, across the St. Croix River from where Senator McCarthy comes, but we're not all the same out that way." [chuckles] It just came out like that, and the place just howled.
Lewis: That's Marvel Cooke, the subject of our episode today. This is The View from Somewhere, a podcast about journalism with a purpose. I'm Lewis Raven Wallace. We recover the stories of marginalized journalists who have pushed back on mainstream objectivity and created their own ways of telling true stories.
On the last episode, we heard about Sandy Nelson, a lesbian socialist who waged a seven-year legal battle for the right of journalists to participate in protest. We learned about the first journalist I could find who lost his job for supposedly lacking objectivity. Like Marvel Cooke, both of them were also labor organizers. I've been learning that objectivity has been weaponized against dissenting voices, labor activists, women, queer people, people of color. It makes me think about all the journalists whose careers were cut short, and whose work never quite made it out to the rest of us in the world not just because of objectivity, but because of oppression in general.
Objectivity has just been a tool of that oppression, but it's a subtle one because it gives this rational, professional line of reasoning for excluding people. Now, I'm trying to find my people, the journalists who've been telling the stories that needed to be told whether or not they could access official channels. Guess what? I'm not the only one on this search.
Jacqueline E. Lawton: I'm particularly interested in what Black journalists are saying, how they're covering what is happening in our country right now.
Lewis: Jacqueline E. Lawton is an assistant professor in dramatic art at University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and a member of the PlayMakers Repertory Company.
Jacqueline: I literally Googled Black woman journalist and a lot of different people came up. Then, I saw Marvel Cooke and I had never heard of her before.
Lewis: She's writing a play called Edges of Time, a one-woman show all about Marvel Cooke. The actor, Kathryn Hunter-Williams, is reading Cooke's lines in this episode. Lawton was scandalized that she hadn't heard of Cooke. Cooke organized the first Black newspaper guild in the country, stood up to Joseph McCarthy, and did some groundbreaking investigative reporting. She lived from 1901 to the year 2000, but most people don't know who she is. After the McCarthy hearings in 1953, she never worked in journalism again.
Jacqueline: I started the play in 1963 with the Birmingham Bombing, the loss of those four girls. When I read the newspaper articles during that time, it covers facts and details. It talks about how the police are wanting order. They don't want protests in the streets. They don't want a public outcry.
Jacqueline: Yet four young girls are killed in an act of racial violence. What the Black community needs is justice, not order first, and I think about how Marvel would have covered that story. We would have known about those four little girls, we would have known about their family, we would have known about the heartbreak of that community, and we would have understood why the people were taking to the streets. Then, thinking that she stopped writing in the late 1950s, that meant we didn't have her voice to cover what was going on in our country.
Lewis: I learned about Cooke in a conversation with Mariame Kaba, @prisonculture on Twitter, who does a lot of work resurrecting the histories of other important Black women. I want to name Mariame here because so many Black women's labor and ideas have gone into pretty much any good work I'm doing now as a white trans person, and her work uplifting other Black women is really amazing.
Lewis: Back to our heroine. Marvel Cooke in the early 1900s is living in Mankato, Minnesota.
Jacqueline: Father was a Pullman porter, and her mom was a teacher and a housekeeper. They meet on the train and they end up falling in love. They moved to Minnesota. Then, from there, we see a little bit of Marvel's life as a child, being the only Black family in this middle-class white community in Minnesota, Minneapolis.
Lewis: She was the first Black girl to go to her high school, and one of the only Black women at the University of Minnesota. After she finished college in 1925, she went to New York and was basically, like, "See you, Minnesota."
Marvel Cooke: When I saw Harlem, I thought it was the most beautiful place in the world to live. [chuckles] I thought, "This is where I want to be."
Lewis: She started out at W.E.B. Du Bois' paper, The Crisis, the official paper of the NAACP. Du Bois had been a suitor of her mother's long ago, that's a whole other story. Point being, she found herself right at the center of Black America, the Harlem Renaissance, working and hanging out with hugely influential people like Du Bois and Richard Wright. After The Crisis, she ended up getting a job at the mainstream Black paper for Harlem, the Amsterdam News, in the early 1930s. That was where she started both her journalism and her labor organizing.
Marvel Cooke: The women's editor at the Amsterdam News was a college graduate. I think she went to Hunter, but I have never known anyone dumber. Not everybody who graduates from college is bright. Oh, I hated that job but I wanted to stay in New York.
Lewis: She stuck it out, doing menial tasks under the women’s editor whom she said couldn’t write for shit. One day, she was randomly tasked with writing some copy for the paper, and a more senior editor took notice.
Marvel Cooke: I wrote this filler, and he said, "You wrote that?" I said, "Yes." He said, "You shouldn't be here as a secretary. You should be writing."
Lewis: She started to get some writing assignments, but she was also frustrated that the paper didn’t seem to be doing much for the community.
as Marvel Cooke: I grew up feeling that one must do something for our people, join a crusade. I grew up in a crusading family, and here I found that here’s a Black paper just following the dictates of society, not making any impression at all, not addressing the problems that faced people in this area. I wasn't happy about it. It was just a paycheck for me.
Lewis: It was just a paycheck, and the paycheck wasn't even good. Right around this time, she learned about a new union for journalists. People who delivered papers had organized unions before, but not the writers.
Marvel Cooke: I was considered a little rebellious. "Tend to your work," I was told. I did tend to my work. It was during this period that we got organized in the Newspaper Guild.
Lewis: The Newspaper Guild was founded in New York in 1934.
Marvel Cooke: We formed a unit of the Newspaper Guild in my apartment. I had a large apartment then. We realized that we should ask the owners of the paper for recognition of the guild. That's all we were going to ask.
Lewis: Just asking for recognition led to a lockout, followed by a long strike. Suddenly Cooke was out picketing, getting arrested.
Marvel Cooke: It was not lady-like to don picket signs and march up and down. It thrilled me. I never minded getting out there on the picket line, and I enjoyed going to jail even though I knew that The Woman's editor shivered at the thought.
Lewis: Eventually, the owner gave in, sold the paper, and the employees got a big raise from the new boss when they were rehired. It was one of the first times in history when Black workers had won their demands in a strike. It might have been the first journalist strike ever.
Now almost nine decades later, we see journalists trying to unionize all over again, standing up to a whole new kind of consolidation and exploitation in digital media. I think about how Cooke's skills as an organizer were so important to journalism back then, and how different journalism would be now if organizers and activists hadn't been pushed out so many times over.
Cooke went on to a number of other firsts. She eventually left the Amsterdam News to become the first woman reporter at another Black paper in New York, The People's Voice. Then later, became the first Black woman to work at a mainstream leftist white paper, The Daily Compass in 1949. That was where she revisited a story she'd worked on in the '30s with activist Ella Baker.
Ella Baker: Marvel Cooke's most well-known feature is about the Bronx slave market, and it covers Black women who worked as housekeepers.
They were called the Paper Bag Brigade. It's because they carried their work clothes in paper bags and stood along street corners in various places in New York and White women would hire them for housekeeping for the day. She went undercover basically and worked as a housekeeper and then told the story in a six-part series.
Lewis: The stories were passionate and intense.
Marvel Cooke: I was a slave.
Lewis: She wrote that slave markets grew during each economic downturn.
Marvel Cooke: Twice I was hired by the hour at less than the wage asked by the women of the market. Both times, I went home mad, mad for all the negro women down through the ages, who have been lashed by the stinging whip of economic oppression. Once I was approached by a predatory male who made unseemly and unmistakable advances, and I was mad all over again.
Lewis: She experienced being cheated, harassed, lied to, alongside other Black women who were going through that every day to survive.
Marvel Cooke: Woolworths on 170th Street was beginning to feel like home to me. It seemed natural to be standing there with my sister slaves, all of us with paper bags containing our work clothes under our arms. I recognized many of the people who passed. I no longer felt new, but I was not at peace. Hundreds of years of history weighed upon me. I was the slave traded for two-track horses on a Memphis street corner in 1849. I was the slave trading my brawn for a pittance on a Bronx street corner in 1949. As I stood there waiting to be bought, I lived through a century of indignity.
Lewis: At the end of the series, she recommended a bunch of reforms, some of which were actually implemented by the City of New York.
Jacqueline: I read that series and I'm thinking, "What else could we have learned about our community?" not just injustices that happened, the hardship that happened, but also real celebrations of our community, real achievements of our community through her voice.
Lewis: What stories didn't we hear because Marvel Cooke didn't stay in journalism?
The Daily Compass run out of money and shut down in 1952. Then in 1953, Cooke and many of the other employees with The Compass were called before a MacCarthy Senate Committee. He was going after really anyone who might be affiliated with communism. It had created an environment of fear and blacklisting, people ratting each other out. Jacqueline Lott and I both took notice because Cooke was being asked to snitch.
Jacqueline: Mostly she put the Fifth and put the Fifth with much attitude and conviction.
Marvel Cooke: By this time, I was pretty calm about McCarthy. I thought he was a little sleazeball. I felt so superior to him.
Lewis: She didn't snitch, but also she wasn't working in journalism anymore. The Compass was the last time she would work in journalism. Anyone affiliated with the paper had a hard time finding work, but especially her as a Black woman in the 1950s already facing legal segregation and discrimination.
Jacqueline: Also that she was writing at a time, she was a journalist at a time when newspapers were the way we were getting our news. Although in the '50s television was slowly making its way in, but as a Black woman, she would not be on television. As the news was transitioning from print to TV, just as politically, her politics had been weaponized against her. There was no room for her in print or in television as a Black woman. That's another reason that calls me to write about her and her story.
Lewis: Marvel Cooke organized one of the first-ever strikes of editorial workers, was the first Black woman in a big white paper in New York City, stood up to Joseph McCarthy, and then was almost erased from history, which I find upsetting.
Carla Murphy: Sorry, listen, deep sigh because I've been a journalist since at least or officially since 2005. This conversation has been consistent.
Lewis: This is Carla Murphy, the editorial consultant for this episode. She's a freelance journalist based in New York.
Carla Murphy: I'm not surprised. I think she's me in earlier time. I'm bothered that I've never heard of her, that I don't know her story, that I don't know her contributions, which are massive. It makes it difficult to do this work knowing that-- It's like walking into a room and knowing that there are literally, I don't know, 500 silent people who are also walking into that room with you but they're completely erased and gone, and that will probably happen to you too.
That will probably happen to tons of other journalists of color, to other marginalized journalists that are out there. We get into this work to make a difference. Then when you get into the work, you realize your power position very keenly. That calls into question, "Well, can I help this particular community make decisions around criminal justice reform, for example, if I don't have any power if I'm not going to be listened to?"
Brooke: What do you do, Carla, to cope with or just be with that reality of like every time you walk into a room, in the journalism world, you're carrying with you all these erased histories? How do you honor that or hold that?
Carla Murphy: I drink a lot. No, I'm kidding. [laughs]
Lewis: Therapy, good. You got a good therapist. [chuckles]
Carla Murphy: I know. You know what, you have to laugh to-- and laughter is a way to deal with it because is weighty.
, and It's not on you to solve as the individual, quite frankly, right? You can only solve these things together collectively. I'll say this. How do I cope? I think that's a long answer that definitely includes therapy. I learned to cope by stepping away from journalism for a bit quite frankly. I learned self-care by being around writers, but not necessarily journalists.
Especially if you're a writer who does any kind of social justice coverage, and if you come from a marginalized community, the support of the public of say the activated community is super, super important. You need the community to be a counterweight, quite frankly, to newsroom politics.
Brooke: Yes, so tap into the community that you do have outside of the newsroom?
Carla: Yes, definitely, and get them to show their power because I think newsrooms react. They do. Newsrooms are quite reactive, and they do react to people power.
Brooke: People power. Thanks for that, Carla. That's what Marvel Cooke was trying to build for herself and other journalists, for herself and other Black women. She worked with civil rights legend Ella Baker in the '30s. In the '70s, she organized with the support committee for Angela Davis. There's no full-length biography of her. Just an oral history recorded in 1989 by a journalist named Kathleen Currie for the Washington Press Club Foundation. Reading the transcripts, I was intrigued but also irritated to come across this part where Currie asks Cooke whether or not she could be objective because she was a communist.
Marvel: I think it made me a better reporter because I was interested in the conditions under which people had to work and live. That would come through in the things I would write.
Brooke: The interviewer pushback almost condescending. "There's a kind of vaunted rule of journalism that journalists are objective," she says in the transcript. "That's right," Cooke replies, "That's right." "Did you ever have problems being objective on any of these stories?" the interviewer asked.
Marvel: No, I think some editors had problems with me reporting things as I saw them.
Brooke: Jacqueline Lawton's play about Marvel Cooke, Edges of Time, ran last month at PlayMakers Repertory Company and Chapel Hill. That's at playmakersrep.org. A very special thanks to Kathryn Hunter Williams who played Marvel Cooke in that show and appeared as her on this episode.
The View from Somewhere is produced and scored by the incredible Ramona Martinez. The theme music is composed by Dogbotic with additional music by Podington Bear. Critical Frequency is our distributor. This is a serialized podcast about the history of journalism. You can go back and hear all the episodes at The View from Somewhere by subscribing wherever you get your podcasts or going to www.viewfromsomewhere.com. You can also find images of Marvel Cooke there created by our logo artist Billy Dee. A big, big thanks as well to Carla Murphy, our editorial consultant, who loves air quotes almost as much as I do.
Carla: I think that a lot of mainstream journalists assume that if you're a Black woman, and you're covering "Black topics", then that means you're "too close" to be "objective". I'm so sorry for all the air quotes, but there's just tons of problems with all that.
Brooke: Thanks for listening to this week's podcast. Lewis will be co-hosting this week's show with me. It's already shaping up to be a great one. We'll be posting it on Friday, just around dinner.
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