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Banner has recorded 50 years of history

Banner scribes, photographers record the first draft of Boston’s black history

Brian Wright O’Connor | 2/4/2015, 2:22 p.m.
The year 2015 marks 50 years of publication for the Bay State Banner — a half century during which the ...
Bay State Banner Publisher and Founder Melvin B. Miller (center) receives an award from community luminaries. Banner Archive Photo

Banner photographers have covered the community’s civic life through the decades.

Banner Archive Photo

Banner photographers have covered the community’s civic life through the decades.

The year 2015 marks 50 years of publication for the Bay State Banner — a half century during which the newspaper’s reporters, photographers and contributors recorded the events and ideas that have made history in Boston and beyond.

It’s been a long and remarkable journey for the Banner, since publisher Melvin Miller first opened the Banner’s doors, stepping into the shoes of William Monroe Trotter and other black publishers who blazed the trail in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The year was 1965, ten years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott started a peaceful revolution against American apartheid.

It was the year of the Freedom March from Selma and the bloody confrontation at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It was the year of Malcolm X’s assassination and the passage of the Voting Rights Act by Congress.

Despite gains on the national front, here in Boston the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream to make America redeem its promissory note of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was still just a dream.

In Roxbury, schoolchildren pondered the lesson of “All men are created equal” from tattered textbooks, in segregated classrooms, in buildings leaking heat and hope.

A renaissance in the New Boston brought massive development to the old precincts around Beacon Hill while slum housing conditions in the black community were exacerbated by policies steering the poor, the black poor, to increasingly concentrated pockets of subsidized tenements.

The black population of Boston pushed to end a system of two Americas, separate and unequal, in their housing and schools and carried a message of change to the leaders of the city and the state. But, for the first time in a century, there was no messenger. The activist tradition of the African American press, personified in Boston by William Monroe Trotter and The Guardian, had died with the last issue of his newspaper. As the state legislature grappled with the Racial Imbalance Law on Beacon Hill, there was no black press to record the struggle, no voice from the community to distill the events from the perspective of the people most affected by the inactions of the “Great and General Court.” On September 25, 1965, the Bay State Banner stepped in to fill that void and provide the African American community with a written focal point.

The paper was the brainchild of Melvin B. Miller, who intended to continue his practice as an assistant United States attorney while publishing the paper as his contribution to the social movement for change. The issues emblazoned across the headlines of the inaugural broadsheet are as immediate and familiar as family memory. “What’s Wrong With Our Schools?” was the aching question printed under the logo. The worn-our Gibson School in Dorchester, serving an all-black student population, appeared in a photograph next to an image of the newly-opened Henry Grew School in predominantly white Hyde Park.

Atop the paper, “Whittier St. project — Interview With Despair” ran across eight columns.

Another headline, “Lilly Co. Accused of Discrimination at Roxbury Urban Renewal Site” reported on worksite bias the same week President Johnson signed Executive Order No. 11246, making affirmative action the cornerstone of the federal government’s hiring and contract policies toward blacks.