The Iowa Bystander

Most historians associate The Iowa Bystander newspaper with its legendary publisher James B. Morris, Sr. who led the paper from 1922-1972. Although Morris dominates the history of the black print media in Iowa, several of the Bystander’s other owners stand out.

The Beginning

The Iowa State Bystander was born in Des Moines on June 8, 1894 with the motto of “Fear God, tell the truth and make money.” According to J.B. Morris, “It was the brainchild of several forward thinking Negroes in Des Moines who realized that the existing daily press left the Negro out in the production of the papers and the news about them generally. Derogatory news always made the headlines.”

The ten original owners of the Bystander Publishing Company were led by businessmen William Coalson. The staff consisted of editor, Charles Ruff; associate editor, Thadius Ruff; and manager, John Reeler. The Ruff brothers quickly tasted the bitter economic realities of the newspaper business. They gave up operations to a young law student named John Lay Thompson in 1896.

Thompson, a well-known entrepreneur, earned his law degree in 1898 and initiated state-wide subscription drives and news coverage. Publisher Thompson created the concept of “black economic boycott” in Iowa by railing against white businesses who refused to advertise in the Bystander and against black parents doing poor jobs of raising their children.

War Brings Opportunity

Thompson was a harsh critic of American presence in the war in Europe until news of the first black officers training camp at Fort Des Moines arrived in 1917. Black army officer candidates consisting of 1,000 college graduates and 250 non-commissioned officers from the 9th and 10th Cavalry “Buffalo Soldiers” and the 24th and 25th Infantry arrived in Des Moines. Thompson knew he had a rare opportunity to grow the newspaper. The arrival of the all-black Alabama enlisted regiment across town at Camp Dodge in 1918 inspired Thompson to expand coverage with entire issues devoted to camp coverage.

After the armistice ended the war in Europe in 1918, Thompson greeted returning soldiers with warmth and hope for changes at home. Among those returning in early 1919 was a young attorney named Lt. Charles P. Howard who would become a major force in journalism in Iowa and beyond. Howard wrote a column titled “Observer” that appeared in the Bystander and in newspapers across the nation. Another returning veteran and attorney, Lt. James B. Morris, had survived severe wounds at the final Battle of Metz in France and would play the major force in the Bystander’s survival and growth for half a century.

A Legend Takes Over

Growing weary of the demands of newspaper publication, Thompson sold the Bystander to Morris for $1,700 in 1922. Morris immediately installed Charles Howard as his featured columnist. With the help of his National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) activist wife, Georgine, and brother, Clyde, J.B. Morris launched the Bystander with record growth in advertising, subscriptions and state-wide coverage.

Bystander Takes on the KKK

The 1920s witnessed the rise of the thrilling “Harlem Renaissance” cultural revolution. The '20s also brought about the growth of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Like numerous northern destinations, cities in Iowa where receiving a steady flow of southern blacks. They were fleeing the South for greater opportunities in the North. Many went to work in the coal and meatpacking industries. Returning black war veterans were demanding equality in both the North and South. And some fearful whites were responding by supporting racist police departments and the KKK.

By the mid 1920s, the Klan had reached 4.5 million members nationally. There were over 100,000 in Iowa. A Klansman ran for governor of Iowa in 1926. And Bystander publisher, J.B. Morris, greeted a delegation of Klansmen outside his back porch on a Sunday afternoon. The Klan was angry about the Bystander’s federal anti-lynching legislation campaign. The Bystander also had been critical of the Klan's activities in Iowa. The Klansmen offered to buy the newspaper. Then they threatened J.B.’s family. The Klan retreated under a hail of shotgun pellets fired by J.B. and Clyde Morris. The Klan never visited the Morris house again.

Hard Times

The Great Depression of the 1930s provided the most difficult obstacle for the Bystander’s survival. Faced with advertising and subscription declines, the Bystander was on the brink of collapse. Morris received a call from Des Moines Register publisher Harvey Ingram who donated $100. He provided a list of white businessmen who also wanted the Bystander to survive… and it did.

The excitement of World War II rallied Bystander advertising sales and its subscriptions topped 12,000 statewide. War coverage of black Iowans in the service and on the home front dominated newspaper headlines.

Bystander Covers Military News

The establishment of the first army training center for women at Fort Des Moines in 1942 was another shot in the arm to a thriving community. The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps’ (WAAC) first female officer class boasted 40 black candidates. Nearly 2,000 black enlisted women arrived as well. Although their training was racially integrated, everything else was segregated. But the surrounding black community greeted the black WAACs with warmth and support illustrated regularly on the pages of the Bystander.

Bystander war coverage featured highlights of black servicemen such as publisher Morris’ son, James “Braddie” Morris, Jr., graduating army officer candidate school at the top of his class in Australia in 1942. Also featured was Tuskegee Airmen Luther Smith, who was first listed as missing in action and then confirmed as a Nazi prisoner of war in 1944.

Postwar News

The postwar war GI Bill provided college money for veterans. Black veterans flooded colleges and universities across the nation. These graduates were the foundation for the black middle class. The Bystander covered the fledgling civil rights movement as blacks challenged racial segregation and demanded equal opportunity. In addition to civil rights, the newspaper also covered black service man and women in the Korean War.

The 1960s produced yet another rise in Bystander popularity with coverage of the Vietnam War and resulting protests. Also featured were the Black Power movement with the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party. Assassinations of black leaders Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers appeared alongside local news of civil rights protests and police confrontations in Des Moines, Waterloo and other Iowa cities. At the same time, Morris promoted black community pride with best lawn contests and cooking lessons for teen mothers.

As 1972 approached, the 82-year-old Morris was tired of the hectic newspaper business and sold the Bystander to black radio station owner, Carl Williams. Soon after, a white firm—Triple S Publications—took over publication.

After J.B. Morris, Sr.'s death in 1977 and facing criticism from new local black newspapers, Morris' grandsons took over publication of the Bystander. Although students at the University of Iowa, Robert and William Morris edited the Bystander from 1979-1983 boosting its content with controversial feature stories and outspoken columnists including former Black Panther Kalonji Saadiq and “Iowa’s Rosa Parks” and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) militant Edna Griffin.

Bystander Continues to Publish

During the 1980s and since, the Bystander has had several owners including Marshall Garrison, Rev. Roderick Bradley and Jonathan Narcisse. J.B. Morris's grandson, Robert V. Morris, published a special Iowa State Bystander 100th Anniversary magazine in 1994.

Sources:

  • The Iowa Bystander (available on microfilm at the State Historical Society of Iowa).
  • Outside In: African-American History in Iowa, 1838-2000. Edited by Bill Silag. Des Moines: State Historical Society of Iowa, 2001.
By Robert V. Morris

 

 


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