Charlotta Bass was not a woman who’d let fear get in her way. As editor and owner of the now-defunct California Eagle from 1912 to 1951, Bass was dedicated to the advancement of black and brown people, as well as workers of all races. This dedication would lead her into battles with many powerful foes. “Mrs. Bass, one of these days you are going to get me killed,” her husband and co-editor, Joseph Bass, would often say.
“Mr. Bass, it will be in a good cause,” she’d reply.
Originally from South Carolina, Charlotta Bass (née Spears) moved to Los Angeles in the early 1900s. She got a job selling subscriptions at the California Eagle, a black community paper founded by John Neimore in 1879. She quickly became the newspaper’s girl Friday, working as a journalist, salesperson, and champion. When Neimore fell terminally ill, he made her promise to keep the paper alive. She agreed. In 1912, Bass bought the California Eagle, much to the amazement of patriarchal community leaders. In the book Forty Years: Memoirs From the Pages of a Newspaper, Bass recalled their reactions:
Who had ever heard of a woman running a newspaper? It was the talk of the town. Many ministers and so-called leaders among the Negro people found their way to the little Eagle shack, then at 1306 Central Avenue, to offer advice. That advice, by and large, was that Mr. Neimore had killed himself trying to make the paper a go, and how did the young woman figure that she could do what he failed to do?
In 1913, she hired Joseph Bass, an experienced journalist and editor, to help run the paper, and they married a year later. But the tone of the Eagle would always be set by Bass. One of her earliest battles was with the entertainment industry over the production of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 revisionist epic The Birth of a Nation, which cast the murderous Ku Klux Klan in a heroic light. Though her protests of the film fell on deaf ears, she’d soon take on her biggest opponent: the Klan itself.
Sure in her belief that racist organizations like the Klan were the true “disloyal Americans in this country,” Bass doggedly called out the KKK’s activities in Southern California in sharply worded editorials, undeterred by the consequences. “When a person, an organization, even a newspaper gets the courage and fortitude that it is going to require to put this old world in such condition that it will be a fit and happy abode for all the people,” she wrote, “they must first be prepared to have their heads cracked, their hopes frustrated, and their financial strength weakened.”
In 1925, Bass published a letter signed by G.W. Price, the leader of the California Klan. In the letter, Price outlined “a plot to rid Los Angeles of its three most effective black leaders by involving them in a traffic accident and having them unfairly convicted of driving while intoxicated.” The letter read in part:
We could plant a bottle of booze in an enemy’s car and…get a conviction before Judge, or some other of our fellow Klansmen…The best way to get rid of our antagonists is to make them leave Watts in disgrace. They will never come back…the white people of Watts are tired of being run by people who are not 100% Americans.
Price was furious, and sued Bass and the Eagle for libel, claiming he had not authored the letter. Bass refused to retract the letter, although she faced steady Klan harassment and intimidation, not to mention a year in prison and a fine of $5,000 if convicted. “If to jail we must go for publishing without malice such propaganda as we in common with all fair-minded citizens believe prejudicial to good government,” she wrote, “we go with a smile…we go forward unafraid as we continue our steady march for law and order, fighting every inch of the way all things which retard our progress.”
The case went to trial in the all-white court of Judge J.S. Chambers. Packed with spectators, the Klan was humiliated when the court sided with Bass and the California Eagle.
Furious, the California Klan ramped up its harassment of Bass, calling her at all hours of the day and night. “’Is this that n***** newspaper?’ ‘Is this that n***** woman who owns that dirty rag called the Eagle?’ Other calls even more asinine were the daily bread of this editor,” Bass wrote in her unique third-person style. “She learned through this episode of Klan terror that those gentlemen who cover their heads and faces with sheets and hoods are cowards of an indiscriminate and blasphemous type.”
Their cowardliness was on full display late one night when eight Klansmen appeared at the Central Avenue headquarters of the California Eagle. Bass recalled:
One night when that “n***** woman,” as the KKK described her, was standing alone in a shop, about 50 x 150 feet in size, exposed to the public gaze through a full-size plate glass window, eight of the hooded boys shed their disguise, pulled at the doorknob, and demanded that they be admitted.
Bewildered at first, but in a flash remembering the gun in the desk, she walked over to the desk, picked up the gun and then looked towards the window. This was really a joke. She had never handled a gun before and wasn’t quite sure which end to point at the intruders.
But the so-called “night-raiders” evidently thought she might know how to shoot and when she looked a second time, she observed all eight of them beating a hasty retreat.
This would not be Bass’s last tussle with the “un-American and cowardly” Klan. She owned the Eagle until 1951 and became a figure of national renown—the first black woman to serve on an L.A. grand jury and the first black woman to run for Vice President, as a candidate for the Progressive party in 1952. During the course of her long life (she died in 1969 at the age of 95), she was a leader of the local NAACP, helped integrate the workforce of many Los Angeles institutions, and led the fight to stop housing discrimination—always defiantly entering the next battle in the long march toward equality, death threats and intimidation be damned.
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