By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. and Digital Editor
Carl Murphy may have only stood 5 feet and 3 inches, but he was a giant in the community.
The longtime famed AFRO publisher who took his father and the publication’s founder John H. Murphy’s journal that was circulated to about 14,000 to a major newspaper that employed hundreds and reached more than 200,000, once he took over for in 1922.
While he was known as a great, award winning publisher, Murphy was an influential community, national and international activist who served as an advisor to African American leaders and history makers such as Thurgood Marshall, providing funding, coverage and sound advice outside of the public eye.
“He was definitely a community activist, but I think he was definitely more behind the scenes than in front of the camera,” said Murphy’s great granddaughter and AFRO Archives and AFRO Charities Director Savannah Wood. “What I’ve seen of his work and legacy, he was an activator, motivator and fundraiser, behind many different causes on both local and national scales. He wouldn’t necessarily be front of the line at a protest, but he would have all of his writers there, he would have all of his contacts sending money in to support causes, to push cases through to the next level for appeals and that sort of thing, and he was a strategist.”
As a publisher of a highly circulated Black newspaper, Murphy had the ability to use the power of the press for activism.
“Through our archives and past issues of the paper, you can see how campaigns were mounted over time, and how the press played into that, and he was really spearheading that charge,” Wood said.
However, Murphy was not just a strong publisher, he was also brilliant- with a bachelor’s from Howard, master’s from Harvard and a doctorate from Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany in 1913, before both World Wars. He even Chaired Howard’s German department. He had a lot of knowledge and people, such as eventual Supreme Court Justice Marshall, respected his opinion in a major way.
“He was really instrumental in making sure that Thurgood Marshall was successful in his studies, so they remained close for a long time and they really worked together to push the Brown v. Board case forward and there were several other more local cases,” Wood explained.
Landmark and community activism cases were all equal to Murphy, who sought overall justice. As a publisher and justice seeker he had a major pulse on the community’s needs to gain true equality.
“For instance, I remember coming across in the archives a letter about the Enoch Pratt Library system and apparently they had some sort of training program that by default, somehow was not open to Black people; and so while they claimed that anybody could apply for this position, only White people were able to go to the training program for it, so there was a big uproar about that and pushback on that,” Wood recounted. “And so there’s a lot of smaller cases that people might forget, where was really spearheading and applying pressure to make things equal for Black people on both a local and national scale.”
The day Murphy died, February 27, 1965, Maryland passed a landmark law ending the illegality of interracial marriage, a cause he fought for until the end of his life.
Even with his wise counsel and effective voice in historic strides towards Black rights, it was Murphy’s influence through the AFRO that made his activism heard and respected. According to Wood and such films as the The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords the Black papers have historically been a source of activism and a road toward a more equal and just world.
“The Black Press has always been an activist press, because Black people have always been oppressed in this country and so, it has always had to be that. So even the founding of the paper was an act of activism, and then everything that’s been written since is pushing agenda. It doesn’t try to be objective, it’s advocating for Black people to be equal and for respect in this country,” Wood explained.
Studying Murphy’s forms of community activism through the press and behind the scenes teaches a lesson that Wood said is important for all people to note when considering how they can contribute to current justice fights.
“Consider all of these other roles that exist in Civil Rights Movements, within activist movements, that aren’t necessarily frontline protestors. There’s a role for everybody to play based on what their skill sets are,” said Wood. “Carl Murphy’s story shows that he had this tool at his disposal, this news organization and the news and the press can hold people accountable in a very particular way and he used that tool to do that and so it’s a call for all of us to figure out what tools we have and how we can contribute.”
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