Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Joseph V. Baker and the Invisible Man

Joseph V. Baker
Emory University Library
Joseph V. Baker is one of the most fascinating peripheral characters to drift through Forging Rivals. He was not a lawyer, but a public relations executive. In 1958, right-to-work initiatives appeared on the ballots in California and Ohio. Baker was the author of a brilliant (though deeply deceptive) pamphlet that was distributed in African American neighborhoods in both states as the election approached. The pamphlet, entitled “The Negro and His Right to Work,” portrayed right-to-work laws as civil rights legislation that would free black workers from the thrall of racist union bosses.

Baker, as it turns out, is an essentially unknown African American civil rights pioneer, though of a decidedly different stripe than those who are normally featured in Black History Month presentations. Born in South Carolina in 1908, his family moved to Philadelphia in 1920s. He attended the city’s famed Central High and went on to Temple University, where he studied journalism. From there he become the first African American staff member at The Philadelphia Inquirer. In 1934, at the same time that Baker was forging a career in journalism, he started the first African-American-owned public relations firm. By the 1950s, he had left journalism to devote himself entirely to the PR business and Republican Party politics. His clients included some of America’s biggest corporations (NBC, DuPont, U.S. Steel, American Tobacco, the Association of American Railroads, Procter and Gamble, Chrysler) and (as the pamphlet reveals) the California and Ohio Republican parties.

Not a
Baker's Right-to-Work Pamphlet
Author's Collection
lot has been written about Baker. He seems to have pioneered the now obvious (but at the time revolutionary) strategy of marketing products specifically to African Americans.  He convinced businesses to feature black people in advertising that targeted the black community. He also persuaded companies that hiring black workers was a sure-fire way to generate brand loyalty among African Americans. Finally, his work for NBC was instrumental to increasing the number of African Americans appearing on broadcast television in roles that didn’t reinforce odious stereotypes. “Integration without Identification” was Baker’s mantra as he convinced the network to cast black actors in roles that were “in no way identified . . . as being played by a Negro.” His firm also reviewed scripts for NBC in an effort to prevent portrayals of African Americans that might offend. “Avoid jive terms and lines written in consciously bad English,” Baker admonished the writers at NBC.

As his involvement with the right-to-work campaign reveals, Baker was conservative when it came to matters of class. He was a lifelong Republican, who never made the transition to the Democratic Party that so many African Americans of his generation did during the postwar period. It is also a bit difficult to applaud Baker as a civil rights pioneer when one of his major accomplishments seems to have been encouraging American corporations to target the African American community for alcohol and cigarette sales. (Baker’s name pops up repeatedly in the UCSF Tobacco Legacy Project database of tobacco company documents.) Yet, if, as Ralph Ellison suggested, invisibility to white Americans was one of the major obstacles that African Americans had to overcome to achieve full citizenship, Baker certainly had a part in rendering them visible. For Baker’s work at NBC see, Murray Foreman, “Employment and Blue Pencils: Race, Employment, and Representation, 1926-1955,” in Michele Hilmes, ed., NBC: America’s Network, 117-34. (This is where I drew the quotes from.) A small collection of Baker’s papers are housed at Emory University's Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library

1 comment:

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

I may be alone, but there's no small irony in this post appearing on the birthday of Malcolm X.