A Short History of the Free Press in the United States

The need to balance power and participation in a democratic nation is a relentless pursuit, as demonstrated by the history of the free press in the United States of America. Notably, our nation anchored its governmental operations, as has been our habit, in European traditions and their use of Estates of the Realm to balance and advise the execution of power and authority in governmental operations. Historically in Europe, the estates were a triumvirate of hierarchical relationships that included: the nobility, the clergy, and commoners. The Constitution of the United States translated this three-part system in our national context as: the Presidency, Congress, and the Judiciary. This operational relationship is the core mechanism by which we have committed as a nation to separate and keep in balance both power and authority in policy, law, and practice in support of our democratic values.

One innovation for this system, stemming also from European traditions, has come to be known as a fourth estate, a term used as early in Europe as the eighteenth century—the century within which our nation was formed. It refers to the rise of the periodical press and the formation of a vibrant public sphere. During this era, there was an escalating growth of newspapers, magazines, broadsides, and other miscellaneous publications. They were designed (in alignment with the increasing of literacy rates among the general population and the development of new communicative technologies) to: observe political processes; inform the public about various issues, problems, and challenges related to their lives and well-being; share points of view often not authorized by the three official estates of the realm; and, in effect, to serve as a watchdog for and amplifier of the voice of the people in garnering influence in various enactments of governmental power and authority.

The presumption with the fourth estate is that it is independent of governmental systems and free, thereby, to operate in a democratic society on behalf of the people. The presumption is that this free press functions to: report the news; monitor governmental operations; investigate events, problems, issues, and concerns; amplify the voice of the people; and help governmental operations to remain in balance and accountable to the nation’s citizens. In the 21st century, these presumptions are often in question, given the linkages in these times of major news venues to the entertainment industry and their linkages as well to political ideologies rather than to the presumed mission to pursue the concepts of “truth,” transparency, and societal consequence. Moreover, such changes in perception and regard for the free press as an effectively functioning fourth estate have occurred within the context of the ubiquitous rise of digital technologies. Currently, these ever-evolving technologies are expanding exponentially the capacity of ordinary people, rather than just power elites, to participate actively in the public sphere and to counter-balance and influence policy, law, and practice. Thus, we are experiencing the emergence of a fifth estate, informed by individuals (bloggers, pundits, tweeters, “citizen journalists,” etc.) and by the uses of social networking tools and platforms to form, inform, and build communities of various kinds capable of garnering and amplifying voice and authority. This ever-changing system for balancing power and authority in a democratic society underscores the need to understand this history more robustly and to interrogate the ways and means of contemporary democracies, with the United States serving as a particular case in point.



The Rise of the African American Press

John B. Russwurm (left) and Samuel B. Cornish (right), along with Reverend Peter Williams, Jr.

The rise of the free press in African American communities might well be considered a new mechanism within the fourth estate that was innovative and corrective. A critical mission was to hold the fourth estate itself accountable as fair and equitable in its own operations and responsibilities. Consider that a core function of the free press in the United States has been to serve as the eyes and voice of the people in holding the government accountable for being steadfast in living up to enshrined United States values—freedom, justice, and equality for all. In highlighting this critical role, it becomes clearer that the historical record of the free press in the United States actually begs several questions: Who is rightfully included in the people? Is the definition of who constitutes the people diverse, inclusive, broadly-considered across the citizenry of the United States? In whose interests are governmental policies, laws, and practices being systematically observed and investigated? From whose perspectives are analyses conducted, interpreted, and reported? Whose lives and well-being are brought to visibility in investigations, analyses, and interpretations? Whose voices and experiences are amplified? Who is held accountable for what?

In the first editorial of Freedom’s Journal, John B. Russwurm and Samuel B. Cornish stated: …a moment’s reflection upon the noble object we have in view by the publication of this journal, the expediency of its appearance at this time when so many schemes are in action concerning our people—encourage us to come boldly before an enlightened public. . .We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the public been deceived by misinterpretations, in things that concern us dearly. . .It is our earnest wish to make our Journal a medium of intercourse between our brethren in the different states of this confederacy; that through its columns an expression of our sentiments, on many interesting subjects that concern us, may be offered to the public; that plans which apparently are beneficial may be candidly discussed and properly weighed; if worthy receive our cordial approbation; if not, our marked disapprobation. (Volume 1, Number 1: March 16, 1827)

Unfortunately, with the formation of the nation and the deployment of a lively fourth estate around governmental policies, laws, and practices, African American citizens were not vibrantly included in the core of these crucial activities. In fact, stating that African Americans have been required by their experiences, conditions, status, and treatment in the United States to wage a passionate longstanding quest for freedom, justice, and equality is now a commonplace view. This reality underscores, therefore, the necessity since the founding of the nation of expanding the scope of the fourth estate. The imperative for expansion has necessarily been the need to take into account the impacts and consequences of centuries of chattel slavery, legalized discriminatory policies and practices, other enactments of Eurocentric perspectives, white supremacist traditions, and patriarchal practices, etc., all of which have continually affected and constrained the pursuit of human and civil rights, as well as the material realities of democratic values (freedom, justice, and equality for all) as a model for governance. Co-existent with constraints, however, through these same centuries has been a persistent record of social, political, and cultural activism, as demonstrated by a range of social movements. This work has taken advantage of the concepts of the fourth estate, with the rise of the African American press serving as a pioneering, pace-setting, and instructive exemplar.

From 1827 forward, African American participants in the public sphere have served as watchdogs on behalf of African American citizens and expanded significantly the notion of the fourth estate. They have functioned as the eyes and voices by which critical knowledge is shared within African American communities and beyond, by which actions that matter to these citizens are interpreted, and also by which governmental operations are held accountable. These journalists have included familiar names, such as Frederick Douglas, David Walker, and Mary Shadd Carey before the Civil War; as well as journalists such as Ida B. Wells and a long list of others since the Civil War. These exemplars helped to set the framework and foundation for socio-political critique and strategic actions that have carried forward generation after generation.

The Atlanta Daily World: A Beginning

The Atlanta Independent was founded in 1903 by Benjamin J. Davis and published through 1933.

In the South, as a region of the United States where African Americans have been explicitly and deliberately constrained by discriminatory policies and practices, the rise of the African American press has been particularly noteworthy. Prominent among the journalistic organs that have created this distinctive history is the Atlanta Daily World.

Frank Marshall Davis (1905-1987) was a journalist, poet, and labor activist. After attending Friends University and studying journalism at Kansas State University, Davis began his journalism career working with several African American newspapers in the Chicago area. Simultaneously, he was also publishing stories and poems as a freelance writer and building a reputation as a creative writer who promoted African American life and culture and protested racial inequality and injustice. In 1931, after Scott had transitioned the Atlanta Worldto a semi-weekly publication, he hired Davis to be the first editor of the Atlanta World. Under Davis’s editorial leadership, the Atlanta World was renamed the Atlanta Daily World. With the move to daily distribution on March 14, 1932, ADW began its trajectory as the first successful African American newspaper in the United States to be published daily. After Scott was murdered in 1934, Davis returned to Chicago and later moved to Hawaii, where he became a friend of Barack Obama’s family.

The Atlanta Daily World (ADW) was founded in Atlanta, Georgia, on Auburn Avenue on August 5, 1928, by William Alexander Scott II who was 26 years old at the time. While ADW was not the first African American newspaper in the South or even in the City of Atlanta, over the decades, ADW would go on to become the first successful daily African American newspaper in the nation. An astute businessman, W.A. Scott started ADW as a weekly publication. As confirmed by Frank Marshall Davis, ADW was a family operated business with the active participation of many members of the Scott family, including: three brothers, two sisters, Scott’s mother, Emmeline Southall Scott, and his wife, Lucile McAllister Scott. In 1931, Scott had also begun circulating newspapers in other cities, creating the first African American newspaper chain, with papers in cities, including: Chattanooga, Tennessee, Memphis, Tennessee, Birmingham, Alabama, and Columbus, Georgia, thus establishing the Southern Newspaper Syndicate. By 1933, the syndicate was renamed the Scott Newspaper Syndicate, becoming ultimately a group of over 50 papers and one of the largest African American owned businesses in the country.

As a newspaper in the Jim Crow South with the rampant domination, control, and surveillance of African American lives in this region, ADW walked a fine line in presenting an African American centered viewpoint on the news, community experiences, and cultural challenges, opportunities, and achievements of the day. Generally, ADW exhibited the moderate approach of the Republican Party of that day and time, a viewpoint that was not unusual, as indicated by the prominence of African American leaders such as Booker T. Washington. As a successful business, ADW garnered support from the local business community, African American and white, with advertisers including Sears, the Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Company and Rich’s Department Store (the largest in the city), along with the ongoing support of the African American business community and the academic institutions of the Atlanta University Center.

A second paper to emerge during this era was The Atlanta Voice, founded in 1966 by Ed Clayton and J. Lowell Ware. This periodical was also aligned with the more activist leanings of the 1960s. It continues today under the leadership of Janis Ware, the daughter of J. Lowell Ware, in print and digital formats as a multi-media operation.

In 1934 at the age of 32, Scott was murdered outside of his home, with the crime going unsolved. His brother Cornelius Adolphus Scott took over as the CEO and editor of the paper. Still following the moderate leanings of the paper, C.A. Scott continued ADW‘s commitment to speaking out on political issues, for example: speaking against the whites-only primary system of Georgia, which barred African Americans from voting; leading voter registration drives; supporting integration of the public schools; covering the interests and concerns of the African American community—from business and economics to healthcare, religion, sports, arts, and culture; and speaking against issues, such as police brutality, the mistreatment of African American soldiers during World War II, lynchings, etc. With the rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, however, ADW began losing ground, exacerbated by the founding of the Atlanta Inquirer in 1960 as a rival African American owned newspaper. The Inquirer, edited originally by M. Carl Holman, adopted a more assertive socio-political stance in defiance of reporting what they considered to be “safer” news; in support of reporting the news, as their tag line indicates, “without fear or favor”; and in keeping with the views of activists of this era to engage in more outspoken and public protests.

Despite its challenges, the Atlanta Daily World endured and continued to operate under Scott family leadership until 2014. After six decades of service, C.A. Scott retired as head of the newspaper in 1997 when W.A. Scott’s granddaughter M. Alexis Scott (who had worked for 22 years as a reporter, editor and executive at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and its corporate headquarters Cox Enterprises) took over the family business and was elected president and chair of the board.

Special Photo Courtesy ADW.

Under Alexis Scott’s leadership ADW operations were upgraded, new staff were hired, and the business was expanded, including, for example: the establishing of three newsstands at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport; moving to publish both a weekly print edition and an online edition; re-establishing the use of wire services to report national and international news while retaining coverage of local interests, issues, and concerns. In March 2012, Real Times Media, a Detroit, Michigan-based multi-media company, bought the paper. Alexis Scott continued to hold the position of publisher, however, until she retired in 2014, as an award-winning business person, journalist, and community leader—thus ending 85 years of family-owned leadership and management and marking a significant turn in the history of the African American press. Currently, ADW is published daily on line, entering a 21st century world in which multi-media platforms are necessarily part and parcel, not only of participation in the fourth estate but in the fifth estate as well.

The Atlanta Daily World Building

The iconic Auburn Avenue has the distinction of being the most famous corridor for African American business, entrepreneurship, arts, and culture in the South and beyond. It was coined “Sweet Auburn” by community leader John Wesley Dobbs (grandfather of Maynard H. Jackson who became Mayor of Atlanta in 1974). The building at 145 Auburn Avenue, now known as the Atlanta Daily World Building, was built in 1912. The business operations of the newspaper were moved into the second floor of the building in 1944. The editorial office and the printing press, however, remained at the original offices at 210 Auburn Avenue and continued there until 1972, when ADW closed its presses and moved all of its operations to 145. In addition to ADWoperations, the building was the site of other activities and enterprises as well. In October of 1944, the Poinciana Club was opened on the ground floor of the building, drawing in local, national, and international musicians to entertain the community and to help to establish Atlanta as the music capitol of the South. In 1945, Atlanta’s first African American Girl Scouts troop began to hold their meetings on the second floor of the building.

In March of 2008, the building was severely damaged by a tornado that came through downtown Atlanta, causing the offices for ADW to be moved to the Atlanta Airport Office Park. The building lay in disrepair for many years until entrepreneur Gene Kansas stepped in in 2014 to purchase the building, renovate it, and preserve its historic character. The renovated building re-opened in 2015 with two historically rendered apartments upstairs and two businesses downstairs: Condesa Coffee and Arden’s Garden, a family-owned Atlanta-based juice company. The renovation earned an Atlanta Urban Design Commission Award for Excellence, recognized it as a structure of beauty that honors its past while moving vibrantly into the present and future.

Key Actors

William Alexander Scott II (September 29, 1902 – February 7, 1934)

Photo courtesy of M. Alexis Scott.
  • Born in 1902 in Edwards, Mississippi.
  • A graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta.
  • Began his publishing career in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1927 with the publication of a business directory followed by one in early 1928 in Atlanta. His interests with both publications were always to empower African American residents of the city.
  • Began publishing the Atlanta Daily World on August 5, 1928, as a weekly at the age of 26.
  • Shot and killed outside his home in 1934. His murderer was never identified.
  • Succeeded by his brother Cornelius Adolphus Scott, who continued the work until his retirement six decades later.


Cornelius Adolphus Scott (February 8, 1908 – May 7, 2000)

Photo by Griff Davis.
  • Born 1908 in Edwards, Mississippi, a younger brother to William Alexander Scott, II.
  • Educated at Morehouse and Morris Brown Colleges in Atlanta and the University of Kansas.
  • Took over leadership of the Atlanta Daily World in 1934 after his brother, the founder and publisher of the paper, was murdered.
  • As chief executive officer, began to steer the paper towards a more conservative political outlook, commenting directly on issues and advocating change while still reflecting moderate views of the Republican Party of the day.
  • Viewed discrimination as better opposed through more traditional means (for example, through the courts) than through public protests (for example, efforts to change public policies or focusing on the economic development of the African American community).
  • Faced much criticism during the height of the modern Civil Rights Movement for his moderate views, for example his opposition to sit-ins and other more direct protests.
  • Retired in 1997 after 63 years of service. His great niece, Alexis Scott (his brother’s granddaughter) stepped into the leadership role for the family business.
  • Died in May of 2000 at the age of 92.
M(arian) Alexis Scott
Photo by Byron Small.
  • Born in Atlanta.
  • Graduated from Booker T. Washington High School (For additional information about the history of this high school, see: https://leading-edge.iac.gatech.edu/building-memories/booker-t-washington-high-school-education-flagship-for-the-people/.)
  • Attended Barnard College in New York, Spelman College in Atlanta, and Columbia University School of Journalism Michelle Clark Fellowship Program.
  • Before taking over ADW, worked previously with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as reporter, editor, and vice president of community affairs, and director of diversity at Cox Enterprises.
  • Took over as publisher of Atlanta Daily World in 1997 after a family shareholders meeting, naming CA Scott Publisher Emeritus and her and four other family members to a new board of directors.
  • Brought ADW into the modern age through upgrades in technology, hiring new staff, and adding an online edition.
  • Arranged for the sale of the business to Real Time Media in 2012, but remained as publisher.
  • Retired in 2014 after nearly 17 years of service, ending a distinctive 85-year record of family owned leadership and operations.
Gene Kansas
Photo credit: Artem Nazarov.
  • Born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana.
  • Graduated from University of Arizona in 1995 and moved to Atlanta shortly afterwards to work as a content developer for Turner Broadcasting.
  • Graduated from Georgia Institute of Technology with a master’s degree in digital media in 2016.
  • Founded Gene Kansas Commercial Real Estate; developer who preserved and renovated the Atlanta Daily World Building; creator and host of Sidewalk Radio, a show highlighting art, architecture, design, and city planning and preservation.
  • Received the Alonso Herndon Business Award, presented by the Historic South-View Preservation Foundation for his entrepreneurial leadership (For more information about South-View Cemetery and the Historic South-View Preservation Foundation, see: https://leading-edge.iac.gatech.edu/building-memories/southview-cemetery/).



Selected References

“Atlanta Daily World.” Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/item/sn82015425/. 5 November 2018.

“Atlanta Daily World.” https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/atlanta-daily-world. 5 November 2018.

“Atlanta Daily World, W.A. Scott and C.A. Scott (1928-).” Black Past.Org. https://blackpast.org/aah/w-scott-c-scott-and-atlanta-daily-world-1928. 5 November 2018.

“Atlanta Inquirer: Our History.” http://www.atlinq.com/test/history.htm. 5 November 2018.

Blackwell, Gloria. “Black Controlled Media in Atlanta: The Burden of the Message and the Struggle for Survival.” Dissertation. Atlanta: Emory University, 1973.

Botein, Stephen, Censer, Jack R., and Ritvo, Harriet. “The Periodical Press in Eighteenth-Century English and French Society: A Cross-Cultural Approach.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Volume 23, Number 3 ( July 1981): 464-490. http://www.jstor.org/stable/178485. 5 November 2018.

Broady, Arlinda Smith. “Photo Vault: Oldest Black Daily Nespaper Founded in Atlanta.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. https://www.ajc.com/news/local/photo-vault-oldest-black-daily-newspaper-founded-atlanta/4Bt83n2biR7HUlQgn0JcVI/. 5 November 2018.

Davis, Frank Marshall. Living the Blues. Ed. John Edgar Tidwell. Madison, Wisconsin: U of Wisconsin P, 2003.

“Frank Marshall Davis.” Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/frank-marshall-davis. 22 November 2018.

Hornsby, Alton Jr. “Georgia.” The Black Press, 1865 – 1979. Ed. Henry Louis Suggs. Westport, CT: Greenwood P, 1983.

Royster, Jacqueline Jones. Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change among African American Women. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2000.

Scott, M. Alexis. “The Obama Connection.” Unpublished Memoir.

Simmons, Charles A. The African American Press: A History of News Coverage during National Crises, with Special Reference to Four Black Newspapers, 1827 – 1965. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland and Co., 1998.


With this episode of Building Memories, we owe a debt of gratitude to M. Alexis Scott for her contributions, advice, and counsel in the preparation of the narrative. We also acknowledges the following:

Author: Jacqueline Jones Royster

Contributing Authors: M. Alexis Scott; Prachi Mehta

Interviewers: Stephen Key and Gene Kansas

Podcast Producer and Editor: Stephen Key with the Building Memories Interns (Charles A. Cardot, Maura Currie, and Prachi Mehta)

Technical Director: Steven Hodges

Community Partner

We are grateful for the partnership on this episode of Constellations, Inc.