During the first year of the State Press‘ inception, advertisers from the white community purchased large amounts of space in the paper. At one point, 40 percent of the paper’s subscribers were white, and with loads of advertisement sales, business was booming.
In March of 1942, this momentum came to an abrupt halt when Sergeant Thomas P. Foster, a black Army sergeant, was shot and killed by a white city policeman on W. Ninth Street. Bates covered the event on the front page of the State Press and in additional articles. His stance was in favor of the soldier, which angered the white merchants who advertised with the paper. Five days after this editorial was published, all downtown stores cancelled their advertising with the State Press.
The future of the State Press looked dim at this point, and the bigwigs of the state realized it, so they seized the opportunity and attempted to get Bates to tone down his rhetoric for advertising funds. E. Hobson Lewis, president of the Chamber of Commerce at the time, called Bates in to his office late one evening and told him he could make him the “biggest Negro in the south.” Lewis said he was authorized to underwrite advertising and the State Press could be paid before the ad was run, when the ad was run, and if the ad didn’t run.
When Bates was informed of the proposition’s catch, he told Lewis that he’d founded the paper for negroes and if the negroes wanted his paper, they would support it. If not, he would close down shop, but he wouldn’t soften the tone of the paper. Since that day, Bates never solicited an advertisement from a white business concern. Advertisements from white businesses continued to appear in the State Press, especially from the big corporations such as Southwestern Bell Telephone Company, Arkansas Power and Light Company and Arkansas Louisiana Gas Company, but they came unsolicited.
Following the white merchants’ boycott of the paper, Bates relied on subscription fees as the paper’s main source of income and advertising. He hired distributors to work on subscriptions and to sell the paper in towns that had sizable black populations. The paper was eventually sold in Pine Bluff, Texarkana, Hot Springs, Helena, Forrest City, Jonesboro and other small towns throughout Arkansas.
The paper was also distributed outside of the state by trains. Black porters, or train workers, would sell their copies of the State Press to buyers in cities or towns the train would pass through. Some copies even made it out of the country.
Early on, the State Press sold for five cents a copy and had a yearly subscription cost of $2. Distributors would later buy copies of the paper for five cents and sell them for ten cents. Within two years of the first issue, the paper’s circulation grew from 1,500 to 8,000.
The ‘morning Jedge
Bates attributed the growth of the paper to a regular feature column he authored titled the “‘morning Jedge.” He would take information from the police blotter and use it to craft his weekly piece. Bates said he was ashamed of the column because although it was news, it was dirty journalism and was of no benefit. It was more detrimental than anything, but people liked to read about bad things happening to other people.
A typical editorial would read:
“Nobody can justly refer to Judge Harb as a tightwad and get by with it, for he gave Lucille Criner of the East End a fine of $101.40 for over-looking the time when she served a little beer, and Brother Frank Fuller was also there to get a little of Judge’s liberality, was fined $100 for drinking a little too much of the beer and 39 days to think over the fine. Mat Anderson, 13th & Spring, will always be reminded when he gets back into civilization, that the best place to put a glass after he has finished drinking is on the counter and not out in the street, for he will come to a full realization that it does not take as much time to set a glass down as it does to do time on the county farm.”
Bates laughingly said this column caused many divorces, but the policemen told him that it did more good than the vice squad because people were ashamed to have their names mentioned in the paper. At some point, people threatened to sue Bates for libel, but for a long time, nothing ever came of it. After the circulation of the paper sufficiently increased, Bates dropped the column from the paper.
Fighting in WWII
A few months after the boycott of his paper began, Bates ran into a different problem. World War II was underway and Bates was informed to report for duty in October of 1942. He was able to obtain a 90-day deferment, and officials from Camp Robinson, where he was to report, were willing to help him continue publishing his paper. He was offered this proposition by the camp commander, Colonel G. C. Graham, and public information officer and future newspaper magnate Walter Hussman Sr.:
“We will assign you at Camp Robinson and give you basic training and commission you and put you in the public relations office under Hussman. You can stay home every night and we’ll pay you subsistence and you can publish your paper. But you’ll have to publish what we want. And if anything inflammatory comes through that paper, I’ll send you to Africa for the duration.”
Bates considered the offer because he’d put everything he had into the paper, but he eventually caught a lucky break. The draft age was lowered to 38 and Bates was 41, so he didn’t have to “sell out.”
Onward and Upward
According to Bates, the first three years in the publishing business was a struggle, but in the months following, the paper reached an economic level that allowed the couple to start living off of the paper.
When Bates saw that the State Press was excelling and the minor road bumps were behind him, his confidence elevated and he decided to scrap the green cover on the paper and intensify his campaign to expose the plight of the black race.
To hear Bates share his personal story of almost being drafted or writing the “‘morning Jedge” column, click here.