John Mitchell, Jr. edited and published the Richmond Planet newspaper from one year after its founding in 1883, until his death in 1929. He was known as the “fighting editor” for his writing against racism.
Black Power Was Born in Richmond Virginia at The Richmond Planet News Paper The First Time The Word Was Seen and in That Way of Meaning Black Self Determination Was December 6, 1919 front page from the Richmond Planet, the city’s black newspaper. Recall that 1919 was the year of Red Summer, when a wave of white mob attacks against black people and lynchings swept the country At the end of this bloody year, the Planet, at the time the most outspoken black paper in the South, published a front page drawing by George H. Ben Johnson: BLACK POWER, This was half a century before Stokely Carmichael. Johnson and Planet editor John Mitchell weren’t talking about identity or symbolism— black power—the power of the laborer, the farmer , Voter!
Mitchell himself was threatened with hanging at the hands of a Charlotte County mob angered by his reporting of the lynching, there, of Richard Walker in May 1886. Mitchell was sent a rope with a note attached warning him that he would be lynched himself if he ever set foot in the county! Another early case Mitchell reported was the murder of a black man named Banks by a white officer named Priddy. Mitchell declared the officer guilty of murder and was summoned to the grand jury. He was indited for making such a charge, but the case was dropped. He sought to have the body exhumed and examined, as he had heard a report that Banks was beaten to death. When he went to the mortuary where the body was at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, he was locked in the mortuary and had to escape and hurry back to Richmond to make an appointment in the courts the next morning. The officer was not convicted or punished.
Armed Self Defense a Advocate John Mitchell Jr aka Two Pistol Mitchell aka Two Smith & Wessons For a Lesson
A lynching had taken place at a crossroads in Charlotte County in rural Southside Virginia in May 1886, an event brushed aside in the white press, but taken up in a blistering editorial by Mitchell in the Planet. In response, the journalist received a threatening—and anonymous—letter from Southside with a skull and crossbones on the envelope and the following message: “If you poke that infernal head of yours in this county long enough for us to do it we will hang you higher than he was hung.”
Mitchell printed the letter in his newspaper and added his own response, which he based on a quote from Shakespeare: “There are no terrors, Cassius, in your threats, for I am armed so strong in honesty that they pass me by like the idle winds, which I respect not.” He traveled to the scene of the barbaric crime—walking five miles in plain sight to get there—then strolled around the neighborhood and visited the jail from which the black man had been kidnapped. All the while wearing a pair of Smith & Wesson revolvers. “The cowardly letter writer was nowhere in evidence,” Mitchell later reported.
The young crusader fought against the lynching of both African Americans and whites (though blacks far outnumbered whites as victims of that crime), and he protested against unjust sentences that were being meted out to black prisoners. Mitchell quickly made a name for himself with his daring deeds and became known as the “Fighting Negro Editor” who would gladly “walk into the jaws of death to serve his race.” It was his job, he said, “to howl, yes howl loudly, until the American people hear our cries.”
Mitchell was fearless and had a flair for the dramatic. When he found out that a fifteen-year-old black boy (whom the governor himself would later describe as “very young and weak-minded”) was facing execution in Chesterfield County, Virginia, for allegedly raping a white girl, the editor claimed it would be a “disgrace to the commonwealth” to execute such a young man—regardless of his color. He managed to track down the governor, Fitzhugh Lee (nephew of Robert E. Lee), who was vacationing in the mountains two hundred and fifty miles away, and convince him to issue a stay of execution.
On the eve of the rescheduled hanging, Mitchell once again wrested a reprieve from the governor, then had to make a mad dash in the middle of the night by horse and buggy to deliver the news to the sheriff before dawn. If he got there too late, the boy would be dead. Mitchell arrived just in time. He then interviewed the young prisoner in the jailhouse, describing in the pages of the Planet the pathetic scene he witnessed: the barefooted prisoner, his ankle chained to the stone floor, who was, in Mitchell’s words, “the picture of sadness.” The editor promised the boy, “I’ll go to Richmond and fight for you until the last moment. If I win you will see me again. If I lose you will see me no more.” According to the published account, even the white jailer welled up with tears. A cartoonist as well as writer, Mitchell included sketches in the newspaper that captured the grim details: the gallows that were already in place, the hood the prisoner would have worn, and even the coffin intended for him. Mitchell’s impassioned support riveted the black community throughout the state, and he eventually succeeded in getting the young man’s sentence reduced.
From 1884 until his death in 1929, Mitchell used his newspaper as a vehicle to awaken the conscience of both blacks and whites to the reality of racial injustice. He was a tireless gadfly during an era of lynching and the subsequent disenfranchisement of black voters at the turn of the century. Lynching reached its peak in the South in the early 1890s, when, on average, a black man was hanged every other day for alleged crimes that ranged from rape and murder to hitting a white man or even just writing an insulting letter. The act of lynching had become a grotesque public spectacle with wide swaths of the white community turning out to watch as the victims—many of them innocent of any crime—were tortured, mutilated, and even set afire. Mitchell reported on these atrocities, regularly listing the names of the victims beneath a drawing or photograph of a lynching. Early on he advertised the paper as follows:
John Mitchell Jr biography
In 1863, John Mitchell, Sr. and his wife Rebecca were living on the Lyons family estate in Henrico County, Virginia, near Richmond. The Mitchells were slaves; John was a coachman and Rebecca was a seamstress. On July 11, 1863, they had John, Jr., the first of two sons. After the Civil War, the Mitchell family moved to Richmond, where Rebecca and John, Jr. continued to work for the Lyons family.
Mitchell graduated high school at the top of his class in 1881. He taught in Virginia Public Schools until state politics led to the firing of many black teachers, including him.
In 1883 the black lawyer Edwin Archer Randolph founded the Richmond Planet. After just a year, the newspaper was in the red and on the verge of collapse. Mitchell led a group of former teachers who resurrected it.
The Planet reached its zenith of popularity during a trial that Mitchell covered aggressively. In 1895, three black women were charged with the murder of a white woman based solely on the testimony of a witness who changed his story several times. The prosecution eventually dropped the charges, and even the white press acknowledged the Planet’s role in the outcome. Mitchell investigated lynchings, advised blacks to arm themselves in self-defense, and editorialized against the Spanish-American war, saying it would make Cubans and Filipinos subject to the racism that dominated the South.
Mitchell served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1888, and served from that year until 1896 on the Richmond City Council. He opposed the disfranchisement of black Virginians in 1902 to no avail; his political career then ended. His writings implied that his 1921 run for Virginia Governor was conceived mainly as an irritant to whites. He came in a distant third on Election Day.
In 1902 Mitchell opened the Mechanics’ Savings Bank in Richmond. Its deposits hit an all-time high of over half a million dollars in 1919. Three years after that, the bank failed. A jury found Mitchell guilty of fraud and theft in the bank’s collapse. The convictions were overturned, but Mitchell’s political and editorial influence was greatly diminished.
Mitchell died of kidney disease and in debt on December 3, 1929. Carl Murphy bought the Planet and renamed it the Afro-American and Planet in 1938. The paper continued publication until February 10, 1996. In June 1996 the Richmond chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists honored Mitchell with the George Mason Award. The award acknowledges Mitchell’s contribution to freedom of the press.
The Richmond Planet Started By For Afrikan Slaves in Richmond Virginia
First published in 1882, and founded by 13 former Richmond slaves, the Planet was initially edited by Edmund A. Randolph. Two years later, 21-year-old John Mitchell, Jr., succeeded Randolph and continued as editor for the next 45 years, until 1929. Mitchell wasted little time: he replaced much of the press equipment, contributed his own artwork to the paper’s always impressive design, and increased circulation to the point that the Planet eventually turned a modest profit. The Planet by 1904 had reached a weekly circulation of 4,200. The paper also quickly gained a reputation as a staunch defender of the African-American community and a voice against racial injustice—“daring to hurl thunderbolts of truth into the ranks of the wicked. . . . No stronger race man is known among us.”
The Planet covered local, national, and international news, especially focusing on segregation, the depredations of the Ku Klux Klan, voting rights, and the scourge of lynching. Mitchell—“courageous almost to a fault”—never wavered in his loud protests, even in the face of frequent death threats. He once armed himself and personally went to investigate a lynching.
Hoping to influence change from within, Mitchell rose to considerable prominence within banking circles as well as the Republican Party and served on the Richmond city council from 1888 to 1896. But he gradually lost faith in any chance of blacks and whites uniting politically or in the cause of labor solidarity. After the segregation of Richmond’s streetcar system in 1904, Mitchell’s frustration and anguish erupted—“Let us walk.” “A people,” he added, “who will willingly accept discrimination . . . are not sufficiently advanced to be entitled to the liberties of a free people.” It is not surprising then that in editorial after editorial Mitchell increasingly shunned the more moderate strategies of leaders such as Booker T. Washington. He thereafter repeatedly positioned the Planet as one the South’s most forceful black voices, even once advising blacks to arm themselves in self-defense. The Planet thus reached far beyond Richmond, achieving prominence—and a degree of notoriety—throughout the South.
After numerous legal battles over his ownership of the paper and his several business failures, Mitchell died in poverty in 1929. The Planet, however, continued until 1938, when it merged with the Afro-American.
Haki Kweli Shakur 3-14-52ADM August Third Collective NAIM/New Afrikan Independence Movement / NAPLA